It’s hard to fathom two centers as dominant at such a young age as DeAndre Ayton and Udoka Azubuike.
Ayton, a 6-11 sophomore from Balboa City (San Diego), is considered the No. 1 player in the 2017 class in 247Sports.com’s composite rankings. Azubike, a 6-11 junior from Potter’s House Christian Academy (Jacksonville) is listed as the No. 11 player and No. 1 center in the 2016 class.
Sunday, the two went head-to-head in a Signature Series semifinal at the City of Palms Classic in Fort Myers, Fla., and while Ayton had the better stats with 23 points and 20 rebounds, Azubuike’s team took a 54-51 victory, thanks in no small part to his play down the stretch. Balboa will face No. 7 La Lumiere (La Porte, Ind.) and 7-footer Issac Humphries in the final on Tuesday.
Azubuike, who has been only playing organized basketball for three years, had 20 points and 10 rebounds. The center had a dunk in overtime to put the Lions up 50-46. Ayton responded with a sweet reverse layup. A moment after Azubuike was called for his only foul of the night on a reach-in, he hit another power slam to put Potter’s House up 52-49. Atyon came back with a slam off an alley-oop with 40 seconds left, but Udonka’s final slam with 20 seconds left put the Lions up 54-51 for good.
Azubuike grew up playing soccer and though he can put the ball on the floor, as strong as he is, there’s little reason for him to leave the post. And at 15, he’s only going to get stronger.
“Udoka is very agile, he dribbles the ball crossover and he’s even shooting from the three-point line,” said his adoptive father, Harry Coxsone, who is one of the pastors at Potter’s House.
Before the game, Azubuike gave a Popeye-like muscle pose, showing off. During the game, he did a good job of using that strength to wear down the talented Ayton, who had 14 points in the first half and nine in the second half and overtime period. Azubuike scored 14 of his points after intermission.
“I took it personal,” Azubuike said of the challenge. “My coach said it was going to be a big game today, playing against DeAndre. I took it as an opportunity to improve myself. I think I did pretty good. We won the game, so I’m happy. I feel like I did my best at the end of the game. My team depends on me, so I feel like I had to step up. It was great competition.”
Last winter in the International Game at the Jordan Brand Classic in Brooklyn, Azubuike was a force, but mostly on the defensive end. Sunday, he wanted the ball in key situations, putting Ayton on his hip and sometimes on his back.
“I think he adjusted but I also think the other guy got tired,” Coxsone said. “Can you imagine playing a guy almost 278 pounds for four quarters?”
Unlike many big high school basketball players, who want to be seen as forwards, Azubuike sees himself as a pure center like Hakeem Olajuwon, another Nigerian native.
“My coaches back home and when I came over here know I have always wanted to be a center,” Azubuike said. “I just feel that I am a center.”