As you already know by now, 7 foot freshman Udoka Azubuike is out for the season with a wrist injury that requires surgery. This leaves a pretty obvious hole in the Kansas roster, as Azubuike had been playing valuable minutes and even found himself starting in recent games.
If you’re looking for silver linings, even though he’d earned some starts, Azubuike was averaging just 13 minutes per game before the injury. He’d only eclipsed 20 minutes twice this year in blowouts over UNC-Asheville and Long Beach State, tallying just 7 minutes against Davidson, 11 against Stanford, and 5 against Georgia. So the good news, if you squint, is that Kansas doesn’t find themselves replacing a ton of minutes.
The bad news, obviously, is that Azubuike has been pretty darned good in certain aspects of his game. Offensively, he was a liability, similar to Landen Lucas early in his career. His shooting percentage was very respectable, but largely thanks to dunks being his only consistent form of scoring. He was downright terrible from the free throw line (38%) and, also like early-Lucas, he turned it over a ton. As I touched on in my stat corner piece this week, his net offensive contributions are among the worst on the team.
However, there’s a lot more to basketball than offense. Azubuike has been a monster on the boards and a very solid rim protector this year. If you don’t count Dwight Coleby, who’s only played 53 minutes, Azubuike leads the team in defensive rebounding percentage, is third in offensive rebounding, and is the team’s best shot blocker.
So how will Kansas replace his presence in the lineup? Here are the options:
- Landen Lucas: Lucas has been hampered by some nagging injuries early this year, but recently he’s started looking a lot more like the Lucas we came to know last year. Lucas will never stand out offensively, but he’s developed a couple of post moves and knows how to pick his spots and limit his shots to good scoring opportunities. With the guards and wings Kansas can put on the court with him, he doesn’t need to be a scoring machine anyway. He’s also much better free throw shooter (65% in his career). Defensively, he may not block as many shots as Azubuike did, but he’s a better overall post defender and though his numbers are a bit down this year, has typically been one of the team’s strongest defensive rebounders. As he seems to be healthy now, I’d expect to keep seeing more minutes and, more importantly, more productive minutes from Lucas going forward.
- Carlton Bragg: Bragg’s minutes have been surprisingly limited this year. Initially thought to be the heir-apparent to Perry Ellis’ spot at the 4, Bill Self has opted to go with smaller lineups, using Josh Jackson as kind of a stretch 4. This puts Bragg in an awkward position, as he really isn’t suited to play center with four smaller guys. He’s more of a face-up 4 himself, and his defense has been slow to develop. Putting him on the opponent’s biggest and best post player is asking for trouble. However, Bragg is a productive player, as the team’s second best defensive rebounder and top offensive rebounder so far. He’s also done very well avoiding turnovers, and can extend the defense out to the perimeter with his jump shooting. Expect him to be in any time Self goes to a standard lineup, but don’t necessarily expect him to see a big surge in minutes with Azubuike on the sideline, as he just doesn’t fill that role well.
- Dwight Coleby: I’ve been high on Coleby from day one, even through the ACL injury, and I’ve been disappointed to see how few minutes he’s played so far. It seems clear that his recovery from that injury is limiting his minutes somewhat, but it’s tough to say if that’s the only thing holding him back, as even Mitch Lightfoot has looked like Self’s preferred option at times. Still, Coleby, though he lacks Azubuike’s size, is probably his best statistical comparison. In limited minutes, his defensive rebounding has been slightly better, he’s been respectable on the offensive boards, and his shot blocking is very similar to Azubuike’s. We know from his time at Ole Miss that these numbers aren’t a fluke. He’s another player who isn’t an offensive threat, but he also doesn’t turn it over much. I personally think Coleby getting healthy and playing the way he did at Ole Miss is the ideal scenario for filling Azubuike’s spot, but for one reason or another, he hasn’t been given much of a chance to play yet this year. Hopefully that will change.
- Mitch Lightfoot: Lightfoot has seen very few important minutes this year. Just a freshman, he’s been prone to mistakes and has only hit one of eight free throws, but his rebounding rate numbers have been right up there with Coleby and Azubuike. Of course, he’s only played 43 minutes and much of that has been garbage time. He’s not looked ready for meaningful minutes against Big 12 competition this year, so he’ll probably only play out of necessity when the bigs find themselves in foul trouble.
- Super Small Lineup: I can’t picture Self doing this, but he’s shown surprising flexibility the last couple of years, so maybe we’ll see it for a few possessions here and there. Theoretically, Self could go to a lineup of Mason/Graham/Vick/Svi/Jackson. Svi is far from a post player, but at 6’8 he wouldn’t be giving up any height to most power forwards, and Jackson is also 6’8 and doesn’t shy away from physical play. Again, it’s far from ideal, but it puts a jaw-dropping amount of athleticism and skill on the floor, and might work for short bursts against smaller teams.
What we’ll likely see is a combination of these options, and probably in the order I have them listed. Again, I’m a Coleby fan, but I think him getting back into his Ole Miss form is the best way to try and fill Azubuike’s absence. Lucas staying healthy will be vital, and all the aforementioned players staying out of foul trouble (something they have struggled with at times this year) will obviously be important. I don’t think this lowers the ceiling for Kansas, but it probably diminishes their likelihood of reaching it a bit.