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'A real opportunity': After condensed rookie season, Hughes, Azubuike look to shine at Summer League

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) makes a shot against Phoenix Suns forward Johnathan Motley (12) during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020.

Utah Jazz center Udoka Azubuike (20) makes a shot against Phoenix Suns forward Johnathan Motley (12) during an NBA preseason game at Vivint Smart Home Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 12, 2020. (Yukai Peng, Deseret News)

SALT LAKE CITY — Elijah Hughes played 18 games last season; Udoka Azubuike played 15. Those stats say the two Utah Jazz picks from the 2020 draft aren't rookies anymore. That's about the only thing is says, though.

Hughes and Azubuike didn't play a single meaningful minute in an NBA game. Their time came at the end of blowouts as everyone was just waiting for the clock to run dry.

There was no G League (outside of a small number of games in the Orlando bubble, where Azubuike sustained a severe ankle injury) to get live reps, and limited practice times with the condensed season.

So the Jazz don't really know what they have in their youngsters.

They like Hughes' ability to score at all three levels, but can he defend? Azubuike's Hulk-like size intrigued the Jazz enough to use a first-round pick on him, but can he be a rolling big man in the NBA? For all intents and purposes, they are entering their true rookie season — one that could be filled with actual chances to play.

"I had a redshirt year at Syracuse and that's kind of how I looked at this past year," Hughes said.

A much more normal year begins this week for the two second-year players suiting up for Jazz at the Salt Lake City Summer League that begins Tuesday at Vivint Arena. Both Hughes and Azubuike will play on the Jazz White team — one of two Jazz squads in the SLC Summer League. Teams from Memphis and San Antonio will fill out the four-team field.

Utah's lone 2021 draft pick Jared Butler will not play in Salt Lake City. The trade that sent him to Utah won't be officially completed until Aug. 6.

After a season filled with rehabbing injuries and sitting on the end of a bench, Hughes and Azubuike should be in line for some major minutes in the next few weeks.

"This is a real opportunity for them to play," Jazz general manager Justin Zanik said. "(We) literally drafted guys, and then they showed up for camp, I think it was like four days later."

Now, they are in line to get "40 to 50 touches," Zanik said, over the course of the summer league experience in Salt Lake City and Las Vegas. After such an odd first season, there's some understandable excitement to simply get to play.

"I'm really looking forward to it," Hughes said. "I love basketball. I love to hoop. To have an opportunity to play high-level minutes at summer league is what I'm looking forward to, and I just can't wait."

Despite not getting much live action and both going down with injuries, the pair say they improved significantly over the course of the season. Hughes said he spent hours in the gym before and after practices or shootaround in order to get better. He said his footwork has improved significantly, as has his communication.

As for Azubuike, he said he paid close attention to what Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors did out on the court and tried to understand what it was that made them successful bigs in the league.

"Eli's gotten better. Eli's focused on defense," said Jazz forward Jarrell Brantley who will be their teammate on the Jazz White team. "He has always had poise, but now he has professional poise and it'll keep getting better. Doke's learning so much. Doke's one of the most athletic dudes I've ever seen. So you'll see he's putting that stuff into place."

But while they tried to make the most of what was in some ways a lost year, it was no doubt a trying experience.

"It was tough; it was really tough for me," Azubuike said. "Just not being out on the court like practicing or like learning, doing what the regular rookie like me will do. For me, I just had that mindset of just trying to rehab, trying to get back right. I'm just glad I'm here today."

A strong showing at Summer League from either player could help push them into rotation talks.

The Jazz need some backup minutes after trading Favors to the Thunder last week. Could Azubuike fill those? Utah also needs wing depth in the worst way. Can Hughes defend well enough to get him on the court?

"I'm ready to showcase what I can do on defense," Hughes said. "I'm a Syracuse guy — I know there's a stigma on Syracuse guys coming up that they are not good defenders, so I'm just ready to break that stigma."

And just ready to play.

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