UConn's Akok wants the spotlight again

Published on Friday, 23 July 2021 15:15
Written by NEIL OSTROUT

JOURNAL INQUIRER

STORRS - Akok Akok can’t wait to show you what he can do.

Some UConn fans may remember what the long-limbed, shot-blocking sensation from Sudan via Manchester, New Hampshire, is capable of on a basketball court. Others, like Akok himself, may have had trouble getting the image of the 6-foot-9 forward writhing on the floor of the XL Center some 18 months ago after tearing the Achilles tendon in his left leg.

Today, as he and his teammates go through summer workouts, Akok says he’s completely healthy.

“I feel 100 percent. I’m doing it on both ends again. And I can’t wait to showcase that this season,” Akok said Wednesday outside the Werth Center on the UConn campus.

The seven games he played in the 2020-21 season didn’t show the true player Akok is, he insists. This year, he believes, it will be like old times.

“I feel amazing compared to back in March,” Akok said. “My body feels incredible now.”

That’s in stark contrast to the way he felt late in the Huskies’ win over Memphis Feb. 16, 2020, when Akok suffered his horrific injury.

At the time of his injury, Akok was averaging 5.8 points and 5.5 rebounds and ranked 13th in the nation in blocked shots. And a man UConn coach Dan Hurley called, along with James Bouknight, one of the foundational recruits he had brought to the program, was starting to blossom at both ends of the floor.

His rehab efforts resulted in a rather early return from the injury - he came back Jan. 9 against Butler - but it was eventually clear that Akok needed more time.

He ended up appearing in seven games in the Huskies’ most recent campaign, accumulating a total of nine points, three rebounds, and one blocked shot. Seven of those points came in a Feb. 13 game against Xavier when it appeared Akok may have turned the proverbial corner. But he did not play in UConn’s final five games of the season.

“There were some days I felt ready, some days where my body felt great,” Akok said. “And there were some days when my body didn’t feel great. It was just a grind. I just knew my time was going to come.

“Xavier game, I felt pretty good the Xavier game. That was just a moment I had been waiting for,” Akok continued. “I knew I was going to get a lot of production, but I wanted to contribute as much as I can.”

His specialty, protecting the Huskies’ rim, was notably absent from his repertoire upon return.

“Coming back, I wanted to be one of the best defensive players (in the nation). But it’s hard. When you’re away from the game for a long time, the timing was off,” Akok said. “I never thought it would come to that point. When I got back, blocking shots, I didn’t know it was as difficult as that. But now, coming back in June and getting my timing back, and all these months to work on my game, it’s all coming back now.”

Akok said Hurley kept preaching to him over the last year-and-a-half that “your time will come.” And most of the Huskies seem to believe that time is now.

“I promise you right now, he’s ready now. It’s good to have him back,” Akok’s fellow UConn big man, Adama Sanogo, said.

Teammate Jalen Gaffney agrees.

“I think it’s just time and building that confidence in yourself,” Gaffney said. “But that comes with the workouts every day, practices, working out on your own time. And he’s been living in the gym.”

The Huskies are, under NCAA regulations, allowed eight hours of supervised workouts, including weight training, each week this summer.

Last season after such practices and training sessions, Akok said his surgically repaired left leg would be in serious pain.

“Before there was pain and I’d have to deal with it after workouts,” Akok said. “But now I don’t have to deal with pain any more.”

The only pain for Akok now is the loaded frontcourt the Huskies boast in which at least four players have designs on starting positions. Akok, naturally, wants his spot back.

“It’s very competitive. It’s a battle every single day,” Akok said. “Everybody in the frontcourt is trying to prove themselves. Between me, Zay (Isaiah Whaley), Adama, Samson (Johnson). It’s a battle. We’re trying to kill each other every single day. That’s how it is.”

He said he’s some 15 pounds heavier than his playing weight of 18 months ago, crediting UConn’s strength and conditioning coaches with helping him bulk up his frame properly.

The biggest battle for Akok since his injury, however, may have been on the mental side of the game. It helped Akok that a well-known basketball player who had suffered the same injury is thriving in his sport once again.

Kevin Durant, after missing all of the 2019-20 season while recovering, averaged 26.9 points per game for the NBA’s Brooklyn Nets this season. He shot a career-high 53.7 percent from the field, including a career-high 45.0 percent from 3-point range.

“Seeing what KD did, he was just killing it all year,” Akok said. “That was really a confidence boost. That helps me a lot mentally.”

Now Akok is anxious to show UConn fans, and the larger basketball world, just how physically and mentally strong he’s become.



Posted in The Bristol Press, UConn on Friday, 23 July 2021 15:15. Updated: Friday, 23 July 2021 15:17.