There was a time when Emmanuel Akot was projected to become the best basketball player to ever come out of Manitoba.
Growing up playing club basketball for the Winnipeg Wolves, Akot spent some time at Kildonan East Collegiate before moving down to Utah. He played a pair of seasons at Wasatch Academy, one of the top high school basketball programs in the United States, to take his game to the next level and get noticed by an NCAA powerhouse.
A 6-8 guard/forward with the athleticism to be a dynamic scorer and defender, scouts were drooling over Akot's potential, especially after seeing him average 16.5 points per game as a senior at Wasatch. He was rated as a five-star recruit and the No. 24 overall high school prospect down south. He wasn't going unnoticed back home either as North Pole Hoops had Akot as the third-ranked Canadian basketball prospect. You'll even find some websites that projected the Winnipegger to be a first-round pick in the 2018 NBA Draft. At the time, it appeared Akot was taking the right steps in order to make that happen.
He committed to the University of Arizona prior to the 2017-18 NCAA season and was planning on playing one season before entering his name for the NBA draft.
But things didn't go according to plan. Not even close.
Akot battled a knee injury and only made four starts in 31 games where he averaged 1.8 points, 1.1 rebounds, 0.8 assists in just 10.4 minutes of playing time. To make matters worse, Arizona's season was derailed by a recruiting scandal mid-season. The FBI placed a wiretap on head coach Sean Miller's phone and discovered he had offered Deandre Ayton (who now plays in the NBA for the Phoenix Suns) US$100,000 to play ball at Arizona. Miller denied it and was able to keep his job, but some big-name recruits, such as Shaquille O'neal's son Shareef, de-committed from the program. Arizona still ended up qualifying for the NCAA tournament that season as a No. 4-seed, but they were crushed 89-68 in the first round by a No. 13-seed, the Buffalo Bulls.
"I just think it wasn't a good fit. I don't know how else to put it. It just wasn't my time." – Emmanuel Akot
Despite starting 11 out of 17 games, Akot's sophomore season wasn't much better. He averaged 3.8 points and 2.8 rebounds per game and his role was slowly being diminished. Once considered a can't miss prospect, Akot was now struggling to stay in the starting lineup.
It was time for a change.
Midway through the 2018-19 season, Akot announced he had transferred to the Boise State Broncos.
"I just think it wasn't a good fit. I don't know how else to put it. It just wasn't my time," Akot told the Free Press in an interview on Tuesday.
"But things are going perfectly sound over here (at Boise State). So, I'm happy. I think this is my journey. I'm happy it went the way it did at Arizona because it really made me grow."
With all the hype surrounding Akot, there was a lot of pressure on him to perform at a high-level right away. Even though his time at Arizona didn't pan out, Akot isn't hanging his head.
"At first, just being younger, it was kind of tough to deal with. But as you grow, you realize that the opinions of others really don't matter," he said.
"It was pretty tough. I love basketball so missing games, obviously, is always tough. But I got a lot better. I worked really hard. The coaches worked on my shot, I got to know the system, I got to know my teammates better, so I think redshirting was really beneficial." – Emmanuel Akot
"The thing that matters is that you're getting better every day and growing every day. That's really benefited me just learning that. It made my attitude a lot better and my positivity a lot better so I'm happy I went through that."
As a transfer, Akot had to redshirt last season.
"It was pretty tough. I love basketball so missing games, obviously, is always tough. But I got a lot better. I worked really hard. The coaches worked on my shot, I got to know the system, I got to know my teammates better, so I think redshirting was really beneficial."
Akot's Boise State debut this season was highly anticipated as he's the highest-ranked prospect to ever join the Broncos. A non- COVID-19 related illness kept him out of the lineup at the beginning of the year and then he missed three games with a sore Achilles, but Akot is finally feeling like himself again and his numbers are living proof. In six contests, Akot is averaging 10.2 points, 5.3 rebounds and 3.3 assists in 28.2 minutes per game. He also hit a game-winning three-pointer over BYU on Dec. 9 and scored a career-high 19 points on Feb. 5 against Nevada.
More importantly, he's a big reason why the Broncos are having their best season in years. With a 12-3 conference record and only four games left, Boise State has a chance to win the Mountain West Conference regular-season title for the first time since 2015. They play first-place Utah State (11-2) Wednesday and Thursday night before closing out the regular season with two games against San Diego State (9-3). The conference playoff tournament kicks off on March 10 in Las Vegas with a spot in the NCAA tournament on the line. Boise State hasn't won its conference tourney since 2008.
"This time of year is great. The wins really matter," said Akot.
"We're in a place where we're fighting for an NCAA tournament bid. These next couple of games are big and we're excited, for sure. We know we have a special group and we don't have that much time together. We're just trying to make the most of this time and do something special for this program. I think we have the group to do it."
"I'm having the most fun ever. It's been great." – Emmanuel Akot
Owing to COVID-19, NCAA student-athletes can compete in all or a portion of the 2020-21 season without it being counted against their years of eligibility, meaning Akot, a redshirt junior, can play two more seasons.
Akot, 21, still aspires to play at the NBA level. He'd be the first Manitoban to do so since seven-footer Todd MacCulloch played four seasons after being selected by the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round of the 1999 NBA Draft. For now, he's focused on college ball and currently plans on taking advantage of the additional time he's been given. He's following the advice that he wishes he could give the freshman version of himself.
"I would say to trust the process and not be so hard on yourself," Akot said.
"To play the game with joy and a love for the game instead of looking at the game as a job. Just have fun with it."
After everything he's been through at the NCAA level, is it safe to safe Akot is finally having some fun?
"I'm having the most fun ever," he said. "It's been great."
Eighteen years old and still in high school, Taylor got his start with the Free Press on June 1, 2011. Well, sort of.