Akenten emerges as spark plug off Husker hoops bench
It’s likely to go down as one of the signature plays of Nebraska’s season, no matter what may happen in the next few months.
Nana Akenten, laying out parallel to the floor and snatching a loose ball away from Creighton’s Mitch Ballock.
The play led to points in Nebraska’s win three Saturdays ago and has become emblematic of Akenten’s increased role in his sophomore season.
“Honestly, I didn’t even know that I was diving for that. It just kind of happened,” Akenten said this week. “That’s something that even my old coaches have preached: stuff like that stands out. So I just try to keep hustling.”
The hustle has paid off for the wing, who has started the last two games after spending the previous 10 as the top reserve off the Huskers’ bench.
After a freshman season Akenten himself called humbling — he played in just seven games after a stellar prep career at Bolingbrook High School near Chicago — the 6-foot-6, 218-pounder has established himself as a reliable option for a bench that stood as the Huskers’ biggest question mark coming into the season.
“You really notice him making an impact on the glass, and we need that. Because James (Palmer) is not a rebounding guard. Tom (Allen) is not a rebounding guard, Glynn’s (Watson) small,” Nebraska coach Tim Miles said after NU’s win over Cal State Fullerton on Saturday. “So when Nana gets in, and especially if he plays the 4 when you don’t have (Isaac) Copeland or (Isaiah) Roby in the game, somebody’s got to go in there. And when he’s at the wing it helps even more, obviously.”
Akenten is averaging six points and 2.8 rebounds per game while shooting 43 percent from three-point range.
That three-point percentage hasn’t come in limited attempts, either. Akenten has the third-most attempts (42) and second-most makes (18) from long range on the team behind Watson and Palmer, who have each made 26.
Of Akenten’s 58 shot attempts this season, 42 have come from beyond the arc.
“He’s a guy that’s shot the three well for us, and that’s critical for this team,” Miles said. “We need some bench scoring.”
Akenten is the only Husker reserve averaging more than four points per game.
“I really pride myself on hustling, defense. I’m not necessarily worried about offense or shots. I think that’s going to come along,” Akenten said. “But Coach (Miles) really expects me to go out there and rebound, make hustle plays and just help my team the best way that I can.”
It’s no doubt been an interesting transition for Akenten, who was the star of a Bolingbrook team that reached the state championship game his senior season. He went up against and often out-dueled some of Illinois’ top high school talent on a weekly basis while finishing seventh in the state’s Mr. Basketball voting.
Now, he’s the spark plug off the bench for a team with big expectations.
“Everybody just stays on everybody. We talk to each other and make sure everybody’s always ready, so you don’t have to get ready, you know?” Akenten said. “So as we’re on the bench, regardless of whether we play 10 minutes or 5 minutes, we just know, as soon as we get in the game everybody expects us to perform.”
Akenten has come in sooner than expected against Oklahoma State and Cal State Fullerton, entering the starting lineup against the Cowboys as Allen battled illness, and did so again against the Titans after Allen was late for a film session.
While he’ll likely return to his normal role after Christmas, Akenten was able to reset his own expectations.
“It was life-changing, for real, for me, because I haven’t experienced that,” Akenten said. “For me it’s just a starting point. I got a taste of it and it’s just something that, God-willing, I want to make a permanent thing. So I’m just going to keep working toward that.”