PUTNAM — Everybody has a recruiting story, and this one from Putnam Science Academy coach Tom Espinosa about Akok Akok is a pretty good one.
On Feb. 17, the Mustangs went to Wolfboro, N.H., and knocked off Brewster Academy, the No. 2-ranked prep school and 2017 national champions. Akok had one of those monster triple-double games — 13 points, 10 rebounds, 10 blocks — that has helped propel him into New England’s best college prospect.
“Well, Gerry McNamara, Syracuse assistant coach, came here when the season ended and goes, ‘My boss comes to me and says, hey, we GOT to recruit this kid Akok Akok,’ ” Espinosa said. “Gerry goes, ‘Coach, I’ve been on him all year.’ Which he has been.
“It turns out Jim Boeheim had talked to his son (Buddy) who played at Brewster Academy this year and asked him who’s the best kid he saw in prep school. He said Akok Akok.”
Last summer, even during a highly touted AAU campaign, such a declaration would have been a great stretch. As late as Christmas, it might have been a bigger stretch. Yet as the calendar flipped, as Putnam Science went on to capture the 2018 National Prep Basketball Championship, it became clear the beanpole from Manchester, N.H., has become a basketball beast. The human pogo stick not only is filling out, he is jumping higher and higher on the list of 2019 national recruits.
Long local story short: UConn, which has deployed its coaching staff around AAU country for the summer recruiting period, has made Akok a huge priority.
After he pushed Mass Rivals to the final of the Adidas Summer Championships last weekend on the West Coast, 247Sports dramatically pushed Akok up 78 spots to No. 25 ahead of the official release of its next national rankings. He was awarded five-star status. Rivals, another of three major recruiting sites, called the 6-foot-9 Akok the best player at the Adidas event. In its last rankings, ESPN had Akok 59th and he figures to rise.
“AAU is different than prep school basketball,” Espinosa said. “But after what he did the second half of the season with us, we knew this summer he was going to freaking blow up. He’s (ranked) 25. It’s crazy, but it’s not a surprise at all. He’s going to be a monster this year for us.”
Reached Wednesday night in Orlando, Fla., at the Prime Event National Showcase, where Dan Hurley and Tom Moore had watched him make a game-sealing block in a one-point win, Akok did not sound like a young man in a hurry.
“My recruitment is wide open right now,” Akok said. “I’m going to pick a school maybe late school year. It could be 2019.”
Did you say 2019?
Schools, of course, are looking at the fall signing period, and Akok’s words could be a matter of some naivete regarding the pressures of college athletics.
“To be honest, he might commit in the fall, I wouldn’t be surprised,” Espinosa said. “We haven’t had that conversation yet. I know Syracuse, Providence, Virginia Tech have really been on him. UConn started to really get on him. Maryland has come in.”
There is some wisdom that Syracuse has the inside track. McNamara drove UConn nuts as a player and would love to continue as a recruiter. Buddy Boeheim, in his dad’s ear about Akok, is headed to Syracuse this fall. Providence’s Ed Cooley has a strong relationship with Mass Rivals, something Kevin Ollie appeared to have lost the last few years. With a number of Akok’s AAU teammates with the Friars, hey, maybe it’s Providence. No, others think it will come down to Syracuse vs. UConn.
Fans can drive themselves nuts trying to figure out what’s going on in a teenager’s head. This much is sure: The 2019 class is vital to Hurley’s rebuild. He’s looking for top-talent bigs and guards as he looks to sign four players in the fall. Precious Achiuwa, Tre Mitchell, James Bouknight, Kofi Cockburn, Isaiah Wong, Jalen Gaffney, Al-Amir Dawes and Rocket Watts — the Husky net is ambitiously wide. Landing Akok Akok would send a bold message that UConn is a-cookin’, a-cookin’ again.
“I really like Coach Hurley and Coach Moore,” Akok said. “They’re great coaches. They have a plan for me at UConn. They have a plan for the entire (2019) class. It would be great.
“I’m attacking the rim a lot better this summer, shooting the ball great and playing defense really well. I can always take another step. I plan on getting better even over the next month.”
Akok, who has had an unofficial visit to Storrs, has said nice things about other schools, too. And if he keeps playing like he did last weekend, who knows about other big-name programs?
This much we do know: Akok Akok has come a long way.
He said he was a 1-year-old when he arrived in the U.S. from Sudan. He transferred to Putnam Science after two years at Manchester (N.H.) West High.
“His grades were bad,” Espinosa said. “I don’t want to say we took a chance on him, but we did a favor for Mass Rivals and his AAU program. We took him in, helped him out academically. We were on top of him.
“His first year (2016-17), we were 34-7 and had like 12 Division I players. We ended up with four bigs going to high majors. Akok didn’t play much. He wasn’t ready. I always have said this about Akok: He has the best attitude ever. He wasn’t playing, but he was battling. He came to practice every day and got better.”
Three-pointers. Blocked shots. An eye-popping show of raw talent, the narrative of AAU plays to Akok’s strengths.
“He really got on the scene last summer and became a Top 100 player,” Espinosa said. “We had high hopes for him preseason. He was killing it. The season started and he started off rocky. We watched film, we lost a game and we’re like, ‘Akok is killing us.’ He’s not getting rebounds. He’s struggling defending. He can’t put the ball on the floor. He’s just a catch-and-shoot guy. He was struggling. He wasn’t happy about it.
“But he stuck with it. We showed him on film. The bottom line is he had to take care of the ball more. And if he was going to play, he had to rebound. Give him credit. He picked it up big-time in the second half, kept getting better and better.”
Akok did not have a particularly good AAU April. He steadied himself. He continued to work on scoring off the dribble. He continued to block shots at a high rate. His percentages on 3s can be low — not because he doesn’t have a soft touch. He does. He needs better perimeter shot selection.
And then summer 2018 hit. To use Tom Espinosa’s words, he freaking blew up. Now everybody wants a piece of Akok Akok. He’s No. 25 in the country, 25 miles from Putnam to Storrs.