This article was published 1/6/2018 (1279 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.
The best NBA prospect Manitoba has ever produced can walk into a Tim Hortons near his Elmwood home and hardly draw a second glance.
Oh sure, a six-foot-eight, 200-pounder with massive hands and a six-foot-10 wingspan like Emmanuel Akot naturally stands out in a crowd.
But when it comes to name recognition, Akot is almost as anonymous in Winnipeg now as he was back in the summer of 2015 when he first decided to up the ante in the high-stakes game that his budding basketball career has become.
The 19-year-old guard/forward, currently prepping for his second year at the University of Arizona, has been on a steady rise in the basketball world since he left home three years ago to attend Wasatch Academy, a prep school located in Mount Pleasant, Utah.
"Arizona has a lot of loyal fans, especially when you’re a basketball player," says Akot. "You get a lot of love. We’re treated like celebrities out there. You go everywhere — the mall or walk through campus — someone’s gonna say your name or ask for an autographed picture."
The fame he enjoys in Tucson could soon extend to his hometown.
Prior to his freshman season at Arizona, Akot was ranked 15th by ESPN among prospects for the 2018 NBA Draft. Earlier this season, he opted to return to the Wildcats for his sophomore campaign and has taken aim at becoming a lottery pick in 2019.
He would be the second Manitoban to reach the NBA in the modern era, following former Shaftesbury High School centre Todd MacCulloch who was drafted in the second round in 1999 and played 223 games before a serious illness ended his career in 2004.
Akot played at the high school level at Kildonan East Collegiate during grades 9 and 10 but also developed his game while playing for the Winnipeg Wolves club team, guided by long-time coach Chiranjit Goswami.
Goswami mentored Akot in the gym but also became of one of the then 14-year-old’s biggest off-court advocates.
"As soon as I’d coached Emmanuel for more than a week I knew he was an athlete for a bigger stage," says Goswami. "Our attempts were to get him as much exposure as possible… he really needed a bigger stage with more competition at a higher level to develop properly."
What set Akot apart? Well, he's very serious about his craft. The kid who first immersed himself in competitive chess as an elementary school student became consumed with improving his basketball skill set in junior high.
"He was special. He was much more skilled," says Goswami. "Usually kids that are 6-5 at that age are usually unco-ordinated, trying to find out how to use their bodies. He was way ahead of that. He had great feel and great vision for the game."
The decision to head south for high school wasn't taken lightly. Akot's family (his parents Abuk Deng and Matthew Thot emigrated from Sudan in the late 1990s) also includes younger sisters Lizzie, Alexa and Destiny, all budding basketball stars in their own right.
After careful consideration, he accepted an offer to go to Wasatch, an elite prep school. The setting in mostly rural Utah was a long way from the Canadian Prairies.
"I knew I wanted to go to a prep school, just for more competition," says Akot. "I didn’t know where at the time, but I played for a (summer) program called Canada Elite, which is located in Toronto. I had a teammate (Toronto's Josip Vrankic) who actually already went to Wasatch."
At Wasatch, Akot became a star while helping the school reach a top national ranking in each of his two seasons. Then, high-profile NCAA programs came calling, including Arizona, Utah, Louisville and Oregon.
Basketball Manitoba technical director Dan Becker believes Akot’s potential is off the charts.
"He’s got the body and the skill set, you know. He’s really filled out since he’s been down (in the U.S.), so he looks the part and he’s athletic," says Becker, who was the first Manitoba male to earn a NCAA Division 1 basketball scholarship when he went to St. Joseph’s University in 1984 before transferring to the University of Colorado for his sophomore season.
"To me, his strongest suit is his passing ability. The vision and the understanding of knowing when to pass and how to pass. He’s really a point guard, point forward or point wing, whatever you want to call it. As soon as he straightens his jumper a little bit or gets more consistent, he’s really going to be dangerous."
Wyatt Tait, currently a member of the University of Manitoba Bisons, has played with or against Akot numerous times over the last eight years.
"He was taller than everyone but he had the skills of a guard," says Tait, remembering Akot’s breakout performance while they both played for Manitoba at the national under-18 championship in Winnipeg. "He completely dominated and carried our team. You could tell he was just so much stronger and more skilled."
Originally, Akot was scheduled to be joining the Wildcats in the fall of 2018.
His steady progress, both academically and on the court, prompted Arizona to reconsider and the start of his college career was bumped ahead by 12 months. But the Wildcats were a deep and experienced team. That, combined with a nagging knee injury, limited the Winnipegger to four starts in 31 games.
And his numbers were modest: he averaged 1.8 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists in 10.4 minutes of playing time.
"When I reclassified I definitely saw myself as a 'one-and-done,'" Akot says of the ambitious plan to fast-track his pro career. "That’s just the confidence that I have in myself.... I think being ahead of my own class, going to college a year early, helped me understand the college game more."
Arizona's 2017-18 season was rocked by a recruiting scandal when a mid-season ESPN report alleging head coach Sean Miller had been caught on an FBI wiretap discussing the payment of US$100,000 to an agent to ensure power forward DeAndre Ayton would sign with the Wildcats.
Miller emphatically denied the allegations, but the fallout of the ongoing FBI probe had an impact: the head coach saved his job but several high-profile recruits pulled their commitments from the program.
Akot admits the possibility of transferring to another school came up.
"I couldn’t imagine playing anywhere else," he says. "I’m a big fan of Sean Miller. He’ll push you every day in practice. He’ll try to motivate you to improve your game. He’d stay after practice and he’d help me improve."
The scandal had a damaging effect on the team, which entered the NCAA tournament as a No. 4 regional seed before being eliminated in its opening round by the Buffalo Bulls, 89-68.
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"All that scandal stuff was none of our business," says Akot. "We didn’t know anything about it. It definitely hurt us because there was so much talk everywhere. It hurt coach Miller because it was hard for him to focus on basketball."
Ayton, likely to be chosen with one of the two picks in the upcoming draft, and four other starters have departed. There is a huge opportunity for Akot and the others who remain.
"I’m hoping get a lot better and physically stronger, be a leader for my team and win as many games as possible, try to win a national championship and hopefully, by this time next year, I’ll be preparing for the NBA Draft," he says.
"I think a lot of people are sleeping on our team because our five starters are gone but we have a talented group, and I don’t think a lot of people know that," he says.
Mike Sawatzky Reporter
Mike has been working on the Free Press sports desk since 2003.