The newest wave of Nebrasketball players arrived in Lincoln earlier this month and last week, they took the practice court in the Hendricks Center to begin offseason workouts. Among the newcomers was Nana Akenten, a 6-foot-6, 210-pound swingman from Bolingbrook, Illinois.
Akenten caught the eye of several mid-to-low major teams with 10 offers on the table last summer, but in June of 2016, Nebraska became the first and only high major to offer him a scholarship. Three months later, he pulled the trigger and committed to the Huskers.
“He’s really come a long way with his development,” said Robert Brost, Akenten’s high school coach at Bolingbrook. “As a freshman we knew he was solid and as a sophomore he was up on varsity when we made the state run, so we knew he was good. But if you would have told me when he was a freshman or even when he was a sophomore that he would end up being a Big Ten player … he had a ways to go as a player. So it speaks to his development and the way that he got in the gym and worked at it.
“Obviously he’s not a perfect player, but he has developed himself into being a Big Ten player. It speaks volumes to our younger kids the way that he has carried himself. He’s always humble; no matter what type of attention he got, he always deferred it to either teammates or coaches. He really, the last two years especially, set the tone for our program.”
Nebraska saw something in Akenten, and as he played out the rest of his final summer of AAU ball and led the Raiders on a deep run in the state tournament, the scouting services started to see it too. Akenten finished as a 4-star prospect inside the top 130 for Scout and he also cracked the final edition of the Rivals150 at No. 148.
“The improvement’s been steady,” Brost said. “But in St. Louis we played [Missouri commit Javon Pickett of Belleville (Ill.) East] and Nana put 31 on him. I think he had 31 and 15. I think that night he just wanted to show that he was the best player on the floor, and he clearly was. Doing things like that, taking over games when we needed it, those things, you kind of grow into that role at times.
“When he was a sophomore, we had Prentiss Nixon who is the starting point guard at Colorado State who had 31 points against Kansas State this past season, and he was an all-state player for us. He kind of learned from Prentiss how to carry yourself, how to take over games if necessary. What’s great about Nana is sometimes he didn’t need to take over games; sometimes he allowed teams to key on him and then our other guys kind of took the scoring load, and it just shows what type of person and player he is, how unselfish he plays.”
Bolingbrook has made two state tournaments in school history — finishing in third place both times — and Akenten was on both of those teams. This past season, Akenten averaged about 15 points and seven rebounds while shooting close to 50 percent from 3-point range.
“He played in the final four as a sophomore as more of a role player,” Brost said. “Obviously last year we were in the final four again, so we’ve been in two out of three final fours. We were 30-2 last year and I think ranked as high as 16th in the country in the USA Today rankings. That all starts with your best player, which he was. He does whatever the team needs him to do to win. He averaged less points his senior year than he did his junior year. That’s because our younger players developed and could take on more of a role and he didn’t need to do as much. He just makes the right plays. That is ultimately why we won big his senior year. Most of the defenses that we played against were keyed in on him.”
The Huskers prioritized shooting with their 2017 recruiting class and Akenten fits that to a tee according to Brost’s evaluation.
“His biggest strength is that he can shoot the ball from deep,” Brost said. “Obviously with his frame being 6-6 and his ability to shoot legitimate jumpers from 25 feet, he can rise up and get shots — obviously I’m talking about high school games — but he can rise up and shoot it any time he wants. He’s freakishly athletic; he’s won four or five different dunk contests. He can do things that other kids just can’t do.”
Brost said Akenten will likely struggle with the leap in competition and the increased speed of the game, like most freshmen do. He needs to improve his ball-handling and defense to round out his game. But early reports out of the Husker camp have been glowing for the freshman.
“I talked to him a couple days ago,” Brost said. “Obviously it’s an adjustment, as it is for anybody. The workload physically is always an adjustment, but when I talked to the coaches the other day they all commented that he’s doing well and really contributing just like they thought he would.”
The Huskers landed a talented prospect in Akenten, but Brost said Coach Tim Miles also has a special person on his hands as well.
“He’s a really caring kid, which is kind of a rare trait I guess,” Brost said. “He is really thoughtful about his teammates and the staff, also a rare trait to find, especially in a high school kid … He’s obviously a hard worker and all those things that come along with being as talented as he is, but he genuinely cares about his teammates and the coaches and supports staff and things like that.”
“I think the best thing about him is the type of person he is, Brost continued. “He genuinely cares about Nebraska fans. He already cares about how they perceive him.”
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.