LAWRENCE — Udoka Azubuike waited until the 11th hour — and then some — but the Kansas basketball center has announced his long-awaited decision.
The “Big Fella” is returning for a senior season.
Azubuike on Monday afternoon announced he will delay his professional future for one more year in order to return for a final campaign with the Jayhawks, KU coach Bill Self said in a news release. Azubuike has averaged 11.5 points and 6.4 rebounds across 21 minutes per game in 56 career appearances throughout his first three seasons, hitting 74.4 percent of his field goal attempts.
Azubuike had until 10:59 p.m. Sunday to declare himself for this summer's NBA Draft.
"Udoka knows that he still has some unfinished work left in college and at the University of Kansas and he has let us know that he is very excited about the potential for next year's team and the role in which he would have," Self said in a news release. "I am sad he got hurt but happy for our program because if things fall the way that we think they could potentially fall, this is a big piece to anchor what could be a real fun year next season."
Azubuike’s collegiate career has been plagued by ailments, and as Self indicated, last year was no different.
The Delta, Nigeria, native has had a pair of seasons — his freshman campaign of 2016-17 and his recently completed junior year of 2018-19 — cut short by season-ending injuries. Azubuike first averaged five points and 4.4 rebounds across 11 games before suffering a broken left wrist, and after a breakout sophomore showing in which he posted 13 points and seven rebounds per game on an NCAA-best 77-percent shooting percentage, the 7-footer as a junior broke his right wrist, the early-January injury ending a season where Azubuike averaged 13.4 points and 6.8 rebounds.
Last year’s Jayhawks were undefeated in the nine games Azubuike saw action.
"We're all very excited about Udoka making the decision not to enter the (NBA) draft," Self said. "Unfortunately for him, injury is the reason as he still cannot participate (in) what would be the NBA combine or workouts for the NBA teams. We really anticipated that this would be the year he would enter the draft but that was also based on him having an injury-free year."
Other setbacks during Azubuike's KU tenure include a knee injury that kept him out of the Big 12 Tournament as a sophomore and an ankle sprain suffered last December that shelved the frontcourt force for four contests.
Speaking at the team’s season-ending banquet last Tuesday, Self said no matter which path Azubuike chose, he believed the center would “get the last laugh on everybody.”
“I’m so proud, first of all, with how he handled being hurt the second time his sophomore year and then how he handled it this year, because everybody would say he was still a positive, he was not a negative guy,” Self said. “To know his window of opportunity was definitely shrinking on him and to know there was nothing he could do to change it, I thought his attitude was unbelievable.”
For as dominant as Azubuike has been at the rim, the free-throw line has been another story — he’s connected on just 39.4 percent of his tries from the stripe at KU, a number that fell to a career-worst 34.4 percent in 2018-19. Improving that glaring weakness — as well as his modest career averages of 4.3 defensive rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots — were likely the main areas of focus emphasized by scouts at the NBA Draft Combine when Azubuike last tested the waters following the conclusion of his sophomore season.
Azubuike’s decision is the latest newsworthy moment in an eventful offseason for the Jayhawks.
Off to the NBA Draft are junior forward Dedric Lawson and freshman guards Quentin Grimes and Devon Dotson, though all indications point to Dotson returning to the college ranks. Sophomore forward Silvio De Sousa has also declared and will move on from KU if his eligibility appeal is unsuccessful. Sophomore guards Charlie Moore and K.J. Lawson have expressed their intentions to transfer out of the program. Senior guard Lagerald Vick, far and away the team’s best 3-point shooter, must also be replaced after departing the program at midseason.
The Jayhawks at the moment have two incoming recruits for the Class of 2019 in 6-1, 170-pound guard Issac McBride and 6-5, 175-pound forward Christian Braun, both pegged as four-star prospects at recruiting outlet 247Sports.