One of the more curious mysteries that surfaced during the Arizona Wildcats’ woeful trip to the Bahamas last month was the case of Emmanuel Akot.
UA coach Sean Miller all but anointed him during the preseason as a defensive stopper in the mold of Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, and Akot is also projected as a mid-first-round NBA draft pick in 2019 by ESPN. Yet Akot slipped out of the rotation in the Bahamas month and hasn’t recovered.
It’s unclear how much of his problem has been knee tendinitis. Miller mentioned the issue after playing Akot just 10 minutes against Purdue in the Battle 4 Atlantis finale, saying Akot had a knee bothering him and that “some of that’s youthfulness for him.”
Then, on Dec. 9, Miller didn’t play Akot at all against Alabama and indicated the tendinitis itself wasn’t the only issue.
“His knees have been bothering him,” Miller said after that game. “He wasn’t able to play tonight and that doesn’t mean he won’t play in the next game. I think it’s up to him to make it happen.”
Miller didn’t play Akot at New Mexico last Saturday, either, but on Monday suddenly appeared more sympathetic. Miller noted that Akot has had tendinitis for “the last couple of years,” and, when asked if it was partly psychological, Miller said:
“It affects him a lot. You can see when he runs full speed and then stops he almost like cushions the stop, because he feels pain. He’s really had that the last couple of years and it’s something that young people who’ve grown like he has experience.”
Miller said the UA has had Akot work in the weight room, with doctors and even sit out some practices at the request of athletic trainer Justin Kokoskie.
“It’s all about strength and flexibility,” Miller said. “If he works hard at it, there will come a time when he doesn’t have tendinitis. That’s what I’m being told. And Emmanuel knows that as well. He’s worked hard and tonight he made some really positive plays.”
Positive enough that, even at this late date, Miller said Akot can definitely still make the UA playing rotation. Akot played 10 minutes Monday in UA’s 83-53 win over North Dakota State, with two points, one assist and a rebound.
For a team that already lost Rawle Alkins for nine games because of a broken foot, had to go without backup point guard Alex Barcello at New Mexico because of a sprained ankle, and received a scare Monday when Allonzo Trier bruised his knee against the Bison, Miller is welcoming depth.
“You saw what happened tonight,” Miller said Monday, referring to Trier’s collision with NDSU’s Paul Miller. “Foul trouble, injury, even if it’s an injury that takes somebody out for one game. … Over the long course of a season, you need everybody.
“Emmanuel is somebody we really believe in. His tenditinis has hurt him, hasn’t allowed him to be in practice and available. … His legs will keep getting stronger.
“He’s working hard and I think over the next two months as he gets more strength, and we’re smart with him, if the tendinitis goes away he could be a guy who really impacts what we do down the stretch.”
Miller isn’t just looking for backup help from Akot, either.
He gave nine other players 11 minutes or more against the Bison at a time when he’s normally whittling the rotation down to eight or maybe nine guys heading into Pac-12 play.
While the UA had a necessarily tight rotation in December last season because of injuries and Trier’s PED-related suspension, the Wildcats used just seven players more than 10 minutes during their final two games of the 2015-16 nonconference season (possibly eight if Kaleb Tarczewski wasn’t out with a foot injury).
“We would have loved to have it settled now,” Miller said. “It’s not like we predetermine, ‘Hey we’ll have it settled when Christmas comes.’
“Sometimes with the teams that we’ve had it, almost seems like in the first week of the season, unless somebody gets injured, you basically have your rotation.
“Because there was so much change last season to this season, it’s been hard to, especially with Rawle being out, but we’re learning. Our players are learning, and I think we’re close to having it where we’re at.”
Miller said reserves such as Dylan Smith (17 minutes) and Brandon Randolph (21) and Ira Lee (17) all made “positive plays” against the Bison and noted that he didn’t need to rely on them for 25 minutes but just to come in and play hard.
Miller’s upbeat comments after Monday’s game were almost the polar opposite of when he ripped into his players during a win over Long Beach State by a comparable margin on Nov. 29.
“Those guys, they’re going to get more comfortable when they’re out there,” Miller said of his first-year reserves. “And we’ve played six games away from home in the nonconference. Lost games, won close games. You go through those experiences as a player and you start to figure it out. My hope is that all of our guys are figuring it out as we enter Christmas and the Pac-12.”