As we all know, Akok Akok is inching closer and closer to his return. It’s been just about 11 months since Akok went down with a horrific injury, rupturing his left Achilles tendon in a home game against Memphis.
It seems that pretty much every time Dan Hurley speaks to the media, the answer stays the same: Akok was ahead of schedule and expected back around the new year, but the pandemic and the pauses have thrown a wrench (no, not Isaiah Whaley) into his recovery plans.
There is no definitive timeline, but we should see the return of Akok within the next few games, so what should we expect from him this season?
What will Akok bring to the Huskies?
Energy, enthusiasm, and blocked shots, lots of blocked shots. Last year, Christian Vital was the unquestioned vocal and emotional leader on the team, always bringing toughness and energy. While this year’s team is more talented than previous years, we knew it would be near impossible to replace someone like CV in terms of intangibles.
I think Akok might bring that with his attitude and defensive prowess. Akok is quiet and reserved, but when it comes to basketball, he transforms into a different version of himself. Even while not playing this season, each time the camera pans to the UConn bench you can see Akok standing up, emotionally engaged, encouraging his teammates. How does this translate when he is on the court?
Look no further than UConn’s early season game against Indiana at MSG last year. In just his ninth college game Akok showed everyone how dominant a player he can be, tallying nine points and five blocks. This had UConn believing that they belonged and could compete with anyone in the country, even when others might have been doubting them.
This season, UConn has been prone to scoring droughts and, in the past, has struggled to close out games when they have the lead. Akok can help provide the kind of energy and enthusiasm a team needs to finish out close games; this will be particularly important in the gauntlet that is Big East play.
Imagine thinking you could shoot over Akok Akok pic.twitter.com/Xx5vcm3r2R— The UConn Blog (@TheUConnBlog) December 11, 2019
Akok still has a way to go on offense, and I think we should temper our expectations on that end of the floor. Although Josh Carlton may tell you differently (see clip below). Prior to his season-ending injury, Akok had played in 25 games, starting 24, and was averaging 5.8 PPG and 5.5 RPG in 28 minutes per contest. While these numbers are not necessarily eye-popping, Akok can help the offense indirectly.
The team is best equipped to run in transition, yet KenPom has UConn ranked 309th in the nation (out of 357 teams) in adjusted tempo. Akok’s defense can help push the offensive pace by altering and blocking shots so the team can get out and run in transition.
Dan Hurley is known for having teams that play hard, particularly on the defensive end. UConn already has the top-rated adjusted defense in the Big East (per Kenpom). Akok was a defensive anchor for UConn last year. He averaged 2.6 BPG (66 total blocks) in 25 games of action before his injury. Currently, Seton Hall’s center, Ike Obiagu, is leading the Big East in blocked shots, with 3.3 per game. I think it is unrealistic to expect Akok to come in and lead the league in anything coming off an Achilles tear, although it is not clear he will be on a minute’s restriction. However, I would not be surprised if he ranks highly when the data are normalized per 40 minutes, this will be something to keep track of as the season progresses.
So how might Hurley work Akok back into the lineup? The frontcourt is deep so I would expect to see him play no more than 15 minutes per game early on. His minutes may be increased as UConn gets further into Big East play, including the Big East tournament. I would love to see a small-ball line up consisting of Cole, Bouknight, Martin, Akok, and Whaley, particularly to close out games – that is a fearsome closing lineup with athletic scorers and defenders.
Whaley and Akok anchoring the defense would allow the guards/wings to take chances and be more aggressive on defense, leading to more fast break opportunities. It is a lot easier to go for a risky steal when you know you have two shot blockers patrolling the paint behind you. Hurley is still figuring out rotations, but I would not be surprised to see this as one of the more frequently used lineups by the end of the season.
The return of Akok should be a scary thought for opposing teams, UConn will be adding their best shot blocker to an already impressive defense. Akok will push UConn’s defense from impressive to elite which exactly what UConn expected to see when Dan Hurley was hired. It’s all starting to come together for the Huskies.