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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


Can James Akinjo’s skills translate to the NBA?


Arizona point guard James Akinjo dribbles past Arizona State’s Marcus Bagley on Monday, Jan. 25, 2021, in McKale Center in Tucson, Ariz. The Wildcats went on to win 80-67. (Courtesy of Mike Christy/Arizona Athletics)

The Arizona men’s basketball team have high expectations heading into the 2021-22 season after this past year of mediocrity that ended with the self-imposed postseason ban. 

A tiny wrench may have been thrown in their plan as breakout point guard James Akinjo declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility. It is a smart move for Akinjo to at least test the waters and get unbiased advice from the league he is striving to get to and decide whether his opportunity is now or if he needs another year at Arizona.

Akinjo has had a bumpy start to his collegiate career, but he seems to have gotten comfortable at Arizona since then. Akinjo originally committed to Georgetown out of high school and played a season under Patrick Ewing as things never really clicked. Akinjo was even labeled a “ball-hog” by legendary coach Jim Boeheim. 

Akinjo was awarded first-team Pac-12 honors this year while posting a stat line of 15.6 points, 5.4 assists, 2.3 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 2.3 turnovers per game. It is a good-looking stat line but the efficiency and usage were a bigger issue as he shot 37.9% from the field. Being listed at an extremely generous 6’1” and 185 pounds, Akinjo will have to be extremely efficient from the floor and hold back the turnovers to be an NBA point guard. 

Talent has never been an issue for Akinjo as he was a highly-touted four-star recruit coming out of high school and displays his pure basketball skill on a nightly basis. In this clip here, you see a portion of that skill he brings to the table every game. Akinjo’s handle is extremely tight as his low-to-the-ground stature is something he utilizes to his benefit. 

Here, Akinjo recognizes the trap is coming early and pulls out a nifty twitch hesitation to the corner to fool the defenders as they think he is falling right into their plan, but Akinjo has such quick feet he is able to pull this around the back dribble to get around the trapping defender. After he is by these two defenders, his lane is open and he uses his off hand cleanly for the layup. 

Here, you can see Akinjo’s pure speed and skill displayed. When he gets going downhill, it is really hard for a college defender to stay in front of him as his first step is so quick, and his attacking mindset is always to get to the rim. In this clip, Akinjo is already attacking downhill and uses the screen from Azuolas Tubelis perfectly to get past his defender. Tubelis’ defender is waiting in the help position but gets toasted by Akinjo’s insanely clean in-and-out dribble. The speed he is able to get off the screen and right into this dribble move is very impressive. After getting by the second help, the rim protector is waiting, and Christian Koloko doesn’t do Akinjo any favors by getting in a good position. 

Instead of Akinjo forcing a contested layup over the big or a tight pass to Koloko, he goes up so smoothly off the opposite leg before the big can even get his contest up. Akinjo is a self-made spark as a scorer that can probably contribute like this consistently with NBA spacing. 

Akinjo shot 40% from three-point range this season and 83% from the free-throw line. He is a pure shooter and also has a smooth shot form, so none of these shooting numbers from this past year are fluky. In this clip, you will see the smooth shot and how he utilizes it. He gets switched onto a big defender and notices quickly, which results in him wanting an isolation. The defender here is either respecting Akinjo’s quickness or is unintelligently disrespecting his jump shot. Either way, Akinjo notices the space that is just being given to him and hits the defender with a quick hesitation and then a tiny step back to create the extra needed space to get this shot off. Akinjo will need to get these kinds of shots to go down in order to have a chance at the next level. 

These are the possessions that drive me nuts and there were plenty of them this season. As a point guard, it is your job to attack and initiate offense for the whole team and get the offense in a steady flow. Dribbling the air out of the ball does the opposite. Guys get lazy and complacent, and there is no rhythm to anything the team runs as a whole. Oregon pressed Arizona on this possession and the Wildcats got it across at the 22-second mark of the shot clock. From here on out, the ball is in Akinjo’s hands for 18 of those 22 seconds. That is fine if it’s the end of the first half scenario or the last couple minutes of a one-score game where you’re just letting your best scorer go to work. In the middle of the first half, that is unacceptable.

Akinjo has to realize that if the lane or the shot isn’t there within the first two or three dribbles, you move the ball, cut and create movement. A lot of coaches have a “five-second rule” in the NBA. If you don’t see your attack or shot in five seconds, you move it. The ball staying still or in one person’s hands is the easiest thing in the world to defend and it has a real effect on your teammates. Possessions like these are where he got that “ball-hog” label from Boeheim. 

My analysis: 

Akinjo should come back for another season at Arizona, as I think the draft night would be extremely quiet for him. Akinjo isn’t my cup of tea when it comes to a point guard, but coming back for another season in the system could really help him see the floor better as a point guard. His 5.4 assists per game is a good number but feels a tad fluky from the game film because of his extremely high usage this past season. 

His skill as a scorer is very high level; he just needs to cut out the deep contested mid-range jumpers and forced layups at the rim. Him being a very small guard makes it difficult for his shot selection and ability to get to the rim uncontested, but he needs to specify his shots to open threes, runners in the lane and anything in transition. Doing that will improve that unacceptable 38% from the field to something closer to 45%. 

I think if Akinjo comes back, Arizona will be ranked in the top-15 pre-season rankings and Akinjo has a chance to accomplish some very important feats, like a Pac-12 championship or even a Final Four, which only improve his draft stock. 

Predicted draft selection: Late second-round pick or undrafted 

NBA comparison: Aaron Brooks

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