Nebraska’s starting lineup was a known commodity coming into the season, but its bench was far from that.
The returning Huskers outside of the starting five entered the season with a combined 158 minutes of playing time. That reserve unit is comprised of a senior who started as a walk-on tryout success story, two sophomores who weren’t in the rotation last year and two freshmen.
Each of these bench players have brought something to the table at different points, but consistent offensive production has been hard to come by. The best source of that has been sophomore wing Nana Akenten.
Akenten is averaging 6.0 points in 14.5 minutes per game while shooting 42.9 percent from 3, tops on the team. He’s connected on 18 3s in 12 games.
“I try to come off there bench and just provide a spark for the team,” Akenten said. “I get in and they encourage me to shoot, so I just try to help my team the best way possible.”
At 6-foot-6 and 218 pounds, Akenten has filled a couple of different roles off Nebraska’s bench. He’s played on the wing behind Thomas Allen Jr. and James Palmer Jr. and he’s filled in at power forward behind Isaac Copeland Jr. as well. His role has only expanded over the last few games as Nebraska lost freshman guard Amir Harris, another versatile piece off the bench, indefinitely to an illness.
“I really pride myself on hustling and defense,” Akenten said. “I’m not necessarily worried about offense or shots because I feel like that’s going to come along. But Coach really expects me to go out there and rebound and make hustle plays, just help my team the best way that I can.”
Akenten got his first career start on Dec. 16 against Oklahoma State in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, when a stomach bug during the week put Allen’s availability in doubt. Oddly enough, that was also his first and only game of the season where he failed to score a point, thought he experience meant a great deal to the sophomore from Bolingbrook, Illinois.
“It was great,” Akenten said. “It was life-changing for real for me because I hadn’t experienced that. The crowd out there was amazing. For me, it’s just a starting point. I’ve got to take steps and it’s just something that I want to, God willing, make a permanent thing. I’m going to just keep working toward that.”
Akenten started again last Saturday against Cal State Fullerton after Allen was late to a film session. He played a career-high 21 minutes and finished with nine points on 3-of-4 shooting from deep and four rebounds.
“I thought Nana did well tonight,” Miles said. “He missed a couple defensive assignments but offensively we ran a couple actions for him, he hit both 3s. He’s a guy that’s shot the 3 well for us and that’s really critical to this team. We need some bench scoring, although he started tonight. That’s important to us.”
Akenten is still learning the mental side of the game, but his effort can often make up for his mistakes. His activity on the boards on both sides of the court has been a big boost for the Huskers. He’s fourth on the team in defensive rebound rate and fifth in total rebounding rate. Akenten has grabbed at least four boards in six of his 12 games with a career-high five in the Oklahoma State game.
“You really notice him making an impact on the glass, and we need that,” Miles said. “James is not a rebounding guard, Tom’s not a rebounding guard, Glynn [Watson Jr.] is small. So when Nana gets in and especially when he plays the four when you don’t have Copeland or [Isaiah] Roby in the game, somebody’s got to go in there and when he’s at the wing, it helps us even more, obviously.”
Allen, who has been playing well lately, will likely return to the starting lineup when Nebraska closes out the nonconference slate against Southwest Minnesota State on Saturday. But Akenten will continue to play a big role for the Huskers the rest of the season.
Jacob is in his third year with Hail Varsity covering Husker athletics. He has also written extensively for SB Nation’s Bright Side of the Sun and The Creightonian. His love of basketball can best be described as an obsession and if you need to find him, he’s probably in a gym somewhere watching, coaching or playing hoops.