"He's a very explosive player. He's a guy that plays a lot bigger than his height and size. He's got a big heart. ... I like his game."
— Ben Wallace, Cleveland Cavaliers, on Kelenna Azubuike
CLEVELAND — After completing his third season as a Kentucky Wildcat, Kelenna Azubuike put his name in for the 2005 NBA Draft.
Not only because he wanted to play pro ball. About two months before his announcement Kelenna's father, Kenneth, had been found guilty on multiple federal indictments, most for fraud. He was sentenced to four years in prison and ordered to pay $340,000 in restitution. So the family needed NBA-type money.
Come draft day, Kelenna's name was not called.
But he has persevered.
Paying his dues
The son of Nigerian parents was born in England, and raised in Tulsa, Okla.
He led Victory Christian to two Oklahoma high school state 4A titles. He topped the state in scoring three years in a row, going from 28.5 points, to 38.7 and, as a senior, 39.1 points and 13.3 rebounds.
At UK, he averaged 10 points and 3.7 rebounds over 97 games. He helped the Cats win two Southeastern Conference and SEC Tournament titles and earn a pair of trips to the NCAA Elite Eight.
Last weekend, Azubuike and the Golden State Warriors visited Quicken Loans Arena for a Friday game against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"He's just a pretty good- looking player," Coach Don Nelson said from the Warriors bench as he watched Azubuike warm up. "He was undrafted and played for Sidney Moncrief in the 'D' League, and then we found him early. He's developed nicely for us."
The Cavaliers gave Azubuike a look, but cut him in their 2005 training camp. Ditto for Houston in 2006.
Moncrief, now on Nelson's staff, had Azubuike both seasons with Fort Worth of the NBA Development League.
Kicking around the minors "was tough," Azubuike said. "I had good people around me, and we kept the faith and made sure we tried to realize my dream, keep working hard."
He opened his second season at Forth Worth by averaging a league-best 26 points over 12 games.
The Warriors signed him Jan. 2, 2007.
Looking back, Azubuike says his biggest improvement under Tubby Smith at UK was the ability to create offense through intense defense.
Under Moncrief, Azubuike's focus was to "bring it" every day. "I wanted to get out of there as soon as possible."
What piqued Nelson's interest?
"Talent is the main thing," the NBA's second-winningest coach said. "If the player has talent and he's willing to work hard and learn the game, there's always a chance for those guys."
A wanted Warrior
Once a Warrior, Azubuike did so well that the Los Angeles Clippers signed a three-year, $9 million offer sheet last summer. Golden State matched the offer.
"I wasn't sure at first if the Warriors were going to match," Azubuike said. "But I'm glad they did, so I'm here now and happy to be here. ... It feels good to be wanted. I'm just going to try to give it my all the rest of the season."
Azubuike, 6-foot-5 and 220 pounds, is averaging 14.3 points, 4.3 rebounds, 1.6 assists and a steal per outing though 16 games this season, including eight starts. He will turn 25 on Dec. 16.
"He brings good size. He plays more than one position," Nelson said. "Can shoot. He's been driving the ball extremely well. He's got a big body. And I hope that someday he'll be a really good defender."
Azubuike understands his defensive scheme and has the tools, Nelson said, but simply needs more experience.
'An X-factor type'
Friday, the Cavs presented plenty of challenges.
Less than three minutes into the game, Azubuike entered, matched against fourth-year pro 6-3 Delonte West.
"He's like an X-factor type of player," West said. "He's one of those guys who can come in off the bench and he can really change the game for you. As he gets more comfortable in this league and more time, he's gonna become a big-time player."
Azubuike later guarded 6-7 Wally Szczerbiak, 6-9 Wallace and the player whom he calls his toughest matchup thus far, 6-8 LeBron James.
"It's tough, man. He's a good player," Azubuike said of James. "You've just got to try to make it harder on him. But he's so quick and strong, so it's tough."
James would finish with 23 points, seven rebounds and eight assists in a 112-97 Cleveland win. Most of the damage came when Azubuike was guarding another player or was on the bench.
"He's a very, very good young guy," James said of Azubuike. "He's very explosive. I think in Don Nelson's system he excels because he can get out and run, he can get out and defend. And he's becoming a really good shooter in Don Nelson's system. Nellie gives you that freedom, and I think he's going to be really good in this league."
Azubuike finished with seven points, three rebounds, two steals, an assist, a block and only one turnover.
"He's really developed a great outside game," Szczerbiak said. "He's strong, he's versatile and I think he's on the perfect team."
A fun-loving guy
Azubuike's father is free now, but Kelenna doesn't discuss family matters.
"I don't really want to talk about that stuff. ... I'd just rather focus on basketball questions," he said.
Kelenna shares homes in Denver and the Bay area with his brother Nonzo. Kelenna creates hip-hop music and enjoys playing pool.
"I'm a fun-loving guy and just like to hang out with friends and family," he said.
He also helps the Warriors in community events, including a basketball camp and Read to Achieve sessions.
Mostly, though, Azubuike loves life in the NBA.
"I feel good. Just trying to get better and improve every game," he said. "We haven't won as many as we wanted to, but we're definitely getting better as a team."