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Could Udoka Azubuike be the Next Big Thing in basketball?
- Updated: April 19, 2014
NEW YORK – It was just one jaw-dropping moment in a career that will likely have thousands more.
But it was a moment that just maybe augured the future.
Meet Udoka Azubuike. He’s 14 years old. He’s 6-foot-11 and 260 pounds. He was born in Lagos, Nigeria, but grew up in Delta State, Nigeria.
He has been playing basketball for two years, and only took up the sport because “everybody said ‘you’re the biggest and should play,’ ” he told a handful of reporters.
He now lives in Jacksonville, Fla., after being discovered two years ago at a Basketball Without Borders clinic by a coach with ties to Steven McLaughlin, the head coach at tiny Potters Christian Academy in Florida.
Friday afternoon at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, Azubuike played in the International Game of the Jordan Brand Classic, the annual showcase featuring the top high school basketball players in the country.
Even among some of the best under-16 players in the world, Azubuike stood out brightly.
Back to that moment: Midway through the second quarter, Azubuike went up for a dunk, but it bounced off the rim and high in the air. He then snatched it with his enormous paws and thundered home a slam, making the backboard sway back and forth and eliciting “ooo’s” from the crowd.
“That’s a grown man’s body that a little boy is walking in,” Herman Harried, who coached Azebuike all week and in the Jordan Brand Classic International game, told Thrive Sports. “I mean, he was a man among boys.”
On the opposite spectrum, here's Udoka Azubuike from Nigeria. 6'11", 258 lbs and…wait for it…14 years old. pic.twitter.com/KCooAI28nk
— Wade Foley (@FoleyLoaded_NBA) April 17, 2014
Azubuike finished the game with 10 points, nine rebounds and three blocked shots, and the high school sophomore showed that in just two years, he’s become a major player on the amateur scene.
Colleges like Florida, Florida State and Kansas have already expressed intense interest, and McLaughlin said “everybody but Duke, North Carolina and Kentucky” have called him or visited the school.
“He’s so competitive, and so hungry to get better, that he’s a wonderful kid to coach,” McLaughlin told Thrive Sports. “He’s come so far in just two years.”
Azubuike’s path began in Nigeria, where he said as a kid he only wanted to play soccer. Encouraged to try hoops, he found it confusing at first.
“It was complicated and hard for me because I didn’t understand any of the rules,” Azubuike said. “But I watched a few Michael Jordan DVD’s, and started to play a little, and I started to like the sport.”
After seeing Azubuike in a few clinics, a friend of McLaughlin’s who the coach had visited in Africa a few times gave his American buddy a call.
“He said ‘I’ve got a 12-year-old who’s 6-6 and can’t play a lick of basketball,’ ” McLaughlin said, laughing. “So I said, ‘Send him over here, and I’ll take a look.’ ”
On Azubuike’s first day in the U.S., he and McLaughlin entered a Jacksonville gym, and the precocious kid grabbed the first basketball he saw.
And dunked it.
“Yeah, that was fun,” Azubuike said. “I wanted to show him I could play.”
McLaughlin was soon convinced, and arranged through his church to have Azubuike move to Florida and live with a local couple, Harry and Donna Coxsone.
Azubuike started learning the game at Potters Christian, developing a few offensive moves and dominating at the defensive end. He’s also now a member of Nike Team Florida’s powerhouse AAU team and is projected to be a major recruit in the Class of 2016.
“I try to watch as much basketball as I can now,” Azubuike said. “I watch Dwight Howard a lot; he plays like me, so I try to watch him and learn. I know this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me, to go to college and play (in the NBA).”
He said he misses his mother and family back in Nigeria, and hopes they can come visit him this summer. Azubuike smiled when talking about his homeland and said he would love to be a success here to be a “role model” for kids back home.
Azubuike’s teammates and coaches at the Jordan Brand game were impressed.
“Wow, is he athletic,” said Kevin Cham, a native of France now playing for Montverde (Fla.) Academy. “He’s big and strong and can jump. He’s going to be great.”
Udoka Azubuike tries to dunk everything. Powerful, gets off feet quickly. Nigeria native, plays high school ball in Florida. Class of 2016.
— Jeff Borzello (@jeffborzello) April 18, 2014
Azubuike knows he still has a long way to go; his offense is raw and needs variety, and a few times Friday, he got caught out of position on defense.
But the raw materials have coaches drooling.
“Once his brain reaches his body, I would not want to be out there playing against him,” Harried said. “I wish anybody well that’s going to try.”
Check out this video below of him: