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Let Akok cook!

Before their COVID break, it really seemed like UConn could have benefitted from seeing Akok Akok on the court more. Why has that not been the case?

NCAA Basketball: Grambling State at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Whenever the UConn men’s basketball team takes the court again, we will have some intriguing storylines to watch. Foremost among them is what kind of progress Akok Akok can have as a difference-maker for the Huskies. He’s shown flashes, but also has disappeared at times and hasn’t been on the court much either.

Grinding out a road win at Marquette was a nice palette cleanser, but the questions raised from the Providence loss remind us that this team still has a long way to go. We’ve discussed the freshmen conundrum and the impact of Adama Sanogo’s injury, and it's abundantly clear how important Tyrese Martin is.

But for these Huskies to be truly elite, Akok Akok needs to be unleashed. The junior big man has the potential unlock this team’s full potential.

Akok embodies the highs and lows of the team this year; when he’s altering shots and hitting threes, there aren’t many teams that can beat UConn. When he’s lost on defense and inactive on offense, get used to slugfest tilts like the VCU or Providence games.

Any discussion about Akok has to start with his Achilles injury. While he’s declared himself 100% healthy, it could still be impacting his consistency and stamina. Injuries like that tend to linger in the back of your mind and create some hesitancy when jumping and cutting (think the missed box out against West Virginia to end the game). That could be a reason for his inconsistent minutes to start the season.

Without any sort of statistical backdrop, Akok’s impact on the court passes the eye test and is a fan favorite for a reason. If you’ve never watched basketball before and turn on a UConn game, you can immediately tell he’s just happy to be out there, competing and contributing, with his friends, doing something he loves. There’s something pure and innocent to that energy, and it reminds us that this is a game and it's supposed to be fun.

The joy is evident on his face and in his movements when he makes a play, it's infectious. It gets crowds going, galvanizes teammates, and can sap an opponent’s momentum. Basketball is a game of runs, and UConn has a player in Akok that can trigger one in so many different ways, on both ends of the court.

I was curious to see if the analytics and stats backed up the ‘vibes’ based on UConn’s Bart Torvik metrics:

Akok has the second-highest BPM (box plus/minus) despite placing 6th in minute percentage. He has the highest offensive rating with the lowest usage percentage.

Hoop-Explorer offers a similar snapshot.

Look at that offensive/defensive rating juxtaposed with the usage percentage.

The modern game is defined by efficient threes and layups, which is where Akok gets all his production. He’s not perfect of course. You can look at either of those analytic sites and point out problematic parts. But the broader efficiency ratings point to Akok’s impact similar to that of UConn’s five best players: Sanogo, Cole, Martin, Jackson, and Whaley. The only difference is Akok’s averaging 17.8 minutes per game while the top five there all average at least 25.

If you hate spreadsheet data, we can look at the box scores to find more evidence. A third of Akok’s shots are from three, where he’s 10/18 on the season. He’s 11th in the Big East in blocks (1.4). RealGM stats show roughly 40 players in the country average at least one three and one block a game. Akok is just on the edge of that list, at 0.8 per game. That’s elite company for under 20 minutes per game.

How can Hurley and company get Akok involved more? What about some pick-and-pop action with Cole and Akok? He’s not the human boulder that Sanogo is, but Cole is crafty enough at using his hips to pin his defenders coming around screens. Add in Akok’s quick action to step out, it could force defenders to make some tough decisions. And it wouldn’t be asking Akok to put the ball on the floor, one of his weaker areas. Something like that is better than sticking him in the corner and throwing up an occasional three or scrounging for putbacks.

It’s an unenviable task for Hurley to find more minutes for Akok given Sanogo and Whaley’s impact. But both the analytics and our sense of his on-court presence seem to suggest UConn is a better team when Akok Akok is playing more.