When Michigan State Head Coach Tom Izzo watches freshman guard Jaden Akins play, he is reminded of the past. From the moment the freshman guard stepped on campus by way of Sunrise Christian Academy, Izzo knew he had a special player.
Akins’ nonstop effort, ability to adapt to any defensive matchup, immediate understanding of his role on offense, strong basketball knowledge and a vertical that seems to increase by the game reminds Izzo of Charlie Bell, the vocal and defensive leader of Michigan State’s 2005 Final Four team.
The signs were there for Izzo from day one as he continuously preached that Akins makes winning plays on both ends and was forcing himself into the rotation.
“Jaden is making some progress,” Izzo said after MSU’s win against Western Michigan. “I think he's realizing he can guard on those lanes offensively. I keep using Charlie Bell as an example because he has similar skills and qualities. He's got a great mid-range game and can shoot the three. But he's effective in some of the other things he does and those are the things he's got to do to keep himself on the court.”
From that moment, Akins steadily saw an increase in playing time over the next eight games as he continued to be one of the keys to Michigan State’s strong bench unit. The reasoning is exactly what Izzo said after Western; Akins is making play after play for MSU outside of just scoring.
Whether it is attacking the glass for rebounds with his mind-bending vertical or stepping up to guard the team’s best player, Akins has answered every time his name has been called 10 games into his young Spartan career.
“As far as my role, I feel like just continuing to make plays on both sides of the ball — defense and rebounding,” Akins said after MSU’s win against Toledo. “I feel like that can earn me some more minutes. And then on the offensive side, just making sure I'm taking good shots.”
Defensively, Akins has been the focal point of Michigan State’s second unit. Fellow freshman guard Max Christie has been MSU’s go-to lockdown defender in the starting five and Akins has seamlessly filled his shoes for 15 to 20 minutes a game.
They are often tasked with guarding the best scorer for the opponent, and the freshmen duo have been a massive reason why MSU is ranked seventh nationally in Adjusted Defensive Efficiency. In Izzo’s eyes, they are 1A and 1B in terms of shutdown defenders for MSU.
“I think we've been way better defensively, especially when I look at young guys,” Izzo said. “I mean Max has been unbelievable defensively and Jaden is not far behind.”
Despite being seen as the two lockdown perimeter options, Christie and Akins produce defensively in different ways. Christie is a traditional strong on-ball defender and uses his length, strength and lateral quickness to keep everything in front of him.
Akins, on the other hand, is more of a by any means necessary type of defender. Standing at only 6'4", he uses his leaping ability to be a rim protector, and an unmatched motor and strong basketball IQ to be in the right spot to make constant plays defensively.
Then there are the plays that only Akins can make, like the chase-down blocks against Minnesota and Loyola that leave his fellow teammates in awe of Akins’ athleticism.
“Oh my gosh, I ain't know he could get up that high for a block,” senior forward Gabe Brown said laughing. “I know he can get up high for a dunk but for a block? Yo, that was crazy.”
Teammates have marveled all season about Akins’ ability to defy gravity and play at a different level above the rim. For many MSU players, Akins is the most athletic player they’ve ever seen.
“He definitely is,” junior guard Tyson Walker said when asked if Akins is the most athletic teammate he’s had. “He's very athletic and he hasn't even really showed it either.”
On Saturday against Penn State, Akins showed the fans what his teammates boasted about throughout the first month of the season. After stealing a pass at the top of the key, Akins glided to the basket before rising up for an emphatic one-handed slam.
The hustle plays extend past just defense and energetic displays of athleticism. Akins has made it a point of emphasis to be a strong rebounder and has used his motor and athleticism to be a strong rebounder. Akins averages 2.8 rebounds in just 15 minutes per game from the guard position, including a team-high seven rebounds against Toledo.
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Akins said that rebounding is one of the main ways he can increase his minutes and has made that a point of emphasis on his approach to the game through the first third of the season.
“Coach (Izzo) and all of our coaches really just stressed attacking the glass because that can give us extra opportunities for points,” Akins said after MSU’s loss to Baylor in the Battle 4 Atlantis championship. “So, in my mind, every time I see a shot go up, I just know to crash the glass and good things can happen.”
Akins’ motor on the boards has led to him being MSU’s second-leading rebounder of all bench players over guys like backup junior center Julius Marble II (2.1 per game). The energy that Akins brings to every facet of the game, especially rebounding, has been the defining factor of the freshman’s strong start.
“He's really hyper — he's ready to play all the time,” senior center Marcus Bingham Jr. said. “He's bringing it everyday on defense and in practice. He's improving a lot with his jump shot and his reads and just him being active on the floor. ... I'm happy for Jaden, man. Every game he gets better. He's gonna keep going up from here.”
The non-stop commitment that Akins has brought to East Lansing for every aspect of his life from the classroom to the court has been more impressive to Izzo than anything he has done on the court.
"He is just a fun kid to coach because he can take it, he understands it," Izzo said. "He's a 3.9 student, he's smart. He works his tail off. He's in every day. He's got an incredible demeanor about him. I said some guys — usually you sign guys who are never as good as what you sign. And every once in a while you sign some guys and say, 'Wow, this guy is better than I thought he was' and Jaden is in that category. He's still a little bit like Rock (Rocket Watts) was, a little bit like Gabe — the game is still quick for him and he's even quicker for the game. And as he slows down and sees things, he can really make plays. He can shoot, he can pass, he can defend with anybody, and he can rebound better than any guard we've had since Charlie."
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