How a small change from Udoka Azubuike could help KU to a higher offensive ceiling

By Jesse Newell

Udoka Azubuike faked a pass back to teammate Devon Dotson, then decided it was time to go to work.

This was in the second half of Kansas’ 87-81 overtime victory over Tennessee last week, and some 10 feet from the basket, Azubuike took a dribble, spun baseline, lost the ball for a second, then put up a left-handed hook shot.

A whistle came before that. Traveling.

Doke travel

KU coach Bill Self dropped his head on the sideline, then offered a few strong words in Azubuike’s direction.

Self reaction

It was perhaps the best example of an obstacle Self faces right now while trying to improve his team offensively.

Azubuike can be a dominant player in the post, as evidenced by his 77 percent field-goal shooting last year. He also can be nearly impossible to guard at the rim, where his size presents a mismatch for even the largest of opponents he faces.

Yet there have been too many instances when he’s attempted to do too much.

“Sometimes when he doesn’t feel he gets enough touches or whatever,” Self said, “he tries to do something that’s a hard play for him.”

One can understand if Azubuike might be a little confused about his role. Remember, after the Michigan State game in the opener, Self labeled the big man as KU’s “go-to guy,” and he came through numerous times with difficult shots in the Jayhawks’ 92-87 victory.

That performance might have hurt Azubuike some in the long run. Since then, he’s been more apt to force up difficult jumpers, and that aggressiveness also has led to additional offensive fouls and turnovers.

But there’s a bigger point here: Is Azubuike taking on this type of role best for KU as a team?

The answer would appear to be no, based on KU’s roster construction and also the underlying numbers.

Let’s dip our toe into one advanced stat for a second. “Usage rate” defines what percentage of a team’s plays are ended by a player on the floor, through made or missed shots, free throws and turnovers. In other words, how much of a go-to guy is that person for a team?

College Basketball Reference’s data goes back to 2009-10. Here are Self’s top five players in terms of usage rate, among those who have averaged at least 10 minutes per game.

Year, playerUsage rate
18-19 Udoka Azubuike30.6%
11-12 Thomas Robinson30.0%
18-19 Dedric Lawson29.2%
11-12 Tyshawn Taylor27.5%
16-17 Josh Jackson27.2%

Translation: In the last decade, no Jayhawk has attempted to take on a bigger role offensively than Azubuike this season.

There are times when this sort of role can be warranted. For example, Kansas State forward Michael Beasley took on a huge load offensively in the 2007-08 season (35 percent) while helping to take pressure off teammates who weren’t the same type of offensive force he was.

For this KU roster, though ... it doesn’t make as much sense. The Jayhawks have other players who should be capable offensively, meaning Azubuike shouldn’t feel as if he has to do everything himself.

A quick way of showing this: Here’s the offensive rating — or individual efficiency — of every KU starter this season.

Devon Dotson118.415.7
Quentin Grimes106.917.2
Lagerald Vick129.919.6
Dedric Lawson113.329.2
Udoka Azubuike103.730.6

Let’s simplify again: Azubuike has been KU’s least-efficient starter, yet he’s taken on the greatest offensive load for the Jayhawks. It’s also worth noting that Azubuike was a much more efficient player last year (124.2 offensive rating) while deferring more to others (23 percent usage).

This is all a balancing act for Self. The ultimate goal is to move his team closer to its offensive ceiling — that magical place the Jayhawks don’t appear to be approaching yet.

To get there, Self talked to Azubuike this week about being more selfless.

“I’d like to see him do a great job working on position, scoring every time he gets the ball in position to score,” Self said of Azubuike, “but if it’s not there, I’d like to see him become a passer, a fanner, those sorts of things.”

Self labeled this as the sort of situation that is typically “easy to fix.” It’s only five games into the season, so naturally, players are still going to be adjusting to what’s expected of them.

For Azubuike, less should be more. His massive presence draws lots of defensive attention, which only should help out other players around him.

If, that is, he’s willing to find them.

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