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From macabre injury to summer league star

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After a phenomenal performance on February 10 in a mission game with the Salt Lake City Stars, Udoka Azubuike awkwardly landed on his ankle.

The injury was so severe that the players on the pitch immediately turned their heads away, wincing. Azubuike was taken on a stretcher and was later diagnosed with a severe sprained right ankle and missed the next three months of action.

After a rigorous rehab process where he fought and grinded every day, Azubuike returned to action in August with a strong performance in the NBA Summer League, averaging nearly 14 points per game and 10 rebounds per game in seven games in Las Vegas and Salt Lake City.

“The best thing I could do was focus on my rehabilitation and not let myself be overwhelmed by these negative thoughts,” he said. “There were times when it was sad and negative, but they didn’t last long. I had been through this before, so I knew what to expect.”

Azubuike now enters the coming season not only a different person physically, but a much stronger person mentally. In addition to his physical rehabilitation, Azubuike took the time to watch his teammates to better understand the mental side of the game.

“One of the bright spots, or one way of looking at it, is that I was able to get smarter just by looking,” Azubuike said. “I got to understand and see things that I wouldn’t have had before, and especially because it had been a long time since I had really played. I feel like I’m better than before.”

Azubuike is no stranger to adversity as his teenage years prepared him to face tribulations and setbacks.

Tragically, Azubuike lost his father at the age of 10, then moved away from his family and home in Nigeria to play high school basketball in America at Potter’s House Christian Academy in Jacksonville, Florida.

When he arrived he spoke very little English and did so with a strong accent – while trying to learn basketball, juggle homework and adjust to a new country – Azubuike had to learn and adapt to life on the fly.

He was named a Five Star Prospect after graduating from high school thanks to his hard work, determination and incredible physical skills. He committed to the University of Kansas over other blue-blooded programs like Duke, Texas, Kentucky, and North Carolina, embarking on a four-year journey full of ups and downs.

In college, he suffered a myriad of injuries that could easily have derailed his promising career on the court. From tearing ligaments in his wrist and hand to MCL sprained knee.

“There were definitely times when I wondered why I was always the one hurting myself,” Azubuike said. “It’s hard never to feel like you can be at your best because you’re hurt or facing something. It was sometimes difficult.”

Used to difficulties, Azubuike kept bouncing back. He finished his four-year college career averaging 12.3 points, 7.8 rebounds and 2.0 blocks per game. Among his many accolades, he won Consensus American Second Team All-Star honors, NABC Defensive Player of the Year honors and was selected as the Big 12 Player of the Year after his senior season.

Now he faces a different challenge heading into his second NBA season. With three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert and former NBA shot-blocker leader Hassan Whiteside on the depth board in front of him, he’s still working hard and continuing to learn.

But like everything Azubuike has been through in life and overcome, he has proven that a positive mindset and hard work are precisely the reasons why you shouldn’t bet against him.

“I’m just excited to be here to play and improve.… It’s going to be a fun year,” he said with a smile on his face.


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