UConn’s Mystery Man in the Middle | OZY

WHY YOU SHOULD CARE

Because this beanpole has NBA potential.

Akok Akok had carefully plotted a path to the status of an elite prospect: He was featured on a top AAU club (Mass Rivals) and put in two years at Connecticut’s Putnam Science Academy. He was being chased by top college programs ahead of a postgraduate year.

Then he disappeared.

Akok withdrew from school with no explanation. Rumors of a move to the NBA’s G League swirled, but Akok ultimately enrolled at UConn in December 2018, joining the team as a walk-on before making his debut under the lights this season. So far, the tantalizing big man prospect has shown flashes, posting 12 points and 9 rebounds against Saint Joseph’s and swatting five blocks against Indiana. And yet Akok regularly falls absent from the flow of the offense, going scoreless against Florida and adding just 2 points versus Maine. If he’s going to power UConn back into the national spotlight and fulfill his own NBA potential, Akok can’t afford to disappear again.

He’s a crucial cog in a program dripping with uncertainty as second-year head coach Dan Hurley attempts a rebuild under the shadow of four national championship banners in Storrs, all earned in the past 21 years (the most of any program in that span). Folks close to the program believe Akok will soon take the reins. Don’t be surprised if he emerges as a new-school Charlie Villanueva.

My job is to rebound and protect the rim.

Akok Akok

Born six years before the conclusion of the Second Sudanese Civil War, Akok moved to New Hampshire with his family at age 1. He started playing basketball in middle school, drawn to the outdoor courts and YMCA in basketball-obsessed Manchester — an underappreciated breeding ground for New England college talent. Now, Akok’s hoping to follow the path laid by fellow Sudanese native and Manchester baller Wenyen Gabriel (Sacramento Kings) to reach the NBA. To get there, though, Akok needed to blossom into a major prospect. So, after completing two years at Manchester West High School, Akok transferred to Putnam Science in search of increased competition and a better education. He was a work in progress. “His grades were bad,” Putnam Science coach Tom Espinosa told GameTime CT in 2018. “I don’t want to say we took a chance on him, but we did a favor for Mass Rivals and his AAU program.”

At Putnam Science, Akok flourished alongside top talent, including current Oklahoma City Thunder guard Hamidou Diallo. Then came the abrupt departure. Espinosa declined comment for this story but told the New Haven Register at the time that Akok had “never been the most bubbly, happy kid, but the past two months he hasn’t been very happy.”

AKOK_BLOCK

Akok Akok.

The demure Akok is certainly not bubbly, but a spurned prep school coach is hardly the best judge of joy. By the start of what would have been his fifth high school season, the lanky stretch-forward had just completed a monster summer that rocketed him up the recruiting rankings, with 247Sports ranking him No. 21 overall. For Akok, another year of high school competition would bring only stagnation. “I needed a step up,” he says. 

In Storrs, Hurley calls the 6-foot-9 redshirt freshman “coachable,” noting that his work ethic speaks volumes more than his mouth could. In a recent game against Maine, Akok is active on both ends of the floor. While on the bench, he’s engaged, seated next to assistant coach Tom Moore and cheering on his teammates. “He’s growing more and more comfortable,” says Hurley of the highest-ranked recruit he’s bagged so far. “As that happens, he’ll develop into a great player for us.” 

For his NBA aspirations to become a reality, the 193-pound Akok needed as much time in a college weight room as possible. “My job is to rebound and protect the rim,” says Akok. “You can’t be getting pushed around.”

To say that Akok is thin would be an understatement. He is floor-lamp thin. But with wide shoulders, long arms and calves that appear ready to burst every time he leaps above the rim for a rebound, he glides down the court with incredibly long strides. So far this season, though, Akok’s skill set can get lost in the shuffle. Struggling with its outside shooting, UConn relies heavily on forced turnovers to create fast-break opportunities that border on chaotic. At times, Akok struggles to change directions in short bursts — as if his long legs need an extra split second to catch up. In the half-court offense, he floats around the low block while UConn’s ball-dominant guards create. Problem is, the veteran guards (Alterique Gilbert and Christian Vital) are not great half-court playmakers, forcing Akok to rely on offensive rebounds and other hustle plays to score.

As the season progresses, Hurley would be wise to consider running more offensive sequences through Akok. A strong ball-handler who can create off the dribble or shoot from deep, Akok projects as a natural high-post forward surrounded by guards who can slash to the rim or space the floor for open shots. Hurley says that those days are coming. Just not yet. “He’s not quite ready to play [in the high post] all of the time, but this kid lives in the gym,” says Hurley. “Right now, we need him to be that energy player that we know he can be.”

For now, that means protecting the rim. Akok has started all 13 games, averaging just 6.7 points and 6.3 rebounds, but he ranks 10th in the nation with 3.2 blocks per game. It’s the rare combination of shot-blocking prowess and perimeter shooting (33 percent from 3-pointers) that has NBA scouts keeping an eye on him . 

“He definitely needed time to develop in college,” says one NBA scout, speaking on condition of anonymity to offer an honest assessment. “If he can get stronger while developing on offense, he’s a 2021 prospect for sure.”

But before that, Akok and the Huskies have their eyes on returning to March Madness for only the second time since their last national title in 2014. Husky fans shouldn’t expect many 20-point nights this season, but the rim-running shot-blocker has enough bounce to change his team’s fate at a moment’s notice. He’s done it before.