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Arizona still believes in Emmanuel Akot despite slow start

Akot has been hindered by knee tendinitis, but can help the Wildcats if/when he gets healthy

NCAA Basketball: Long Beach State at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Sean Miller was frank when explaining why the Arizona Wildcats have underperformed in the first half of the 2017-18 season.

“We’ve depended on some guys and they haven’t necessarily come through. That’s a fact,” the UA head coach said. “You lose three games in three days in the Bahamas, somebody is not playing well.”

One of those somebodies is Emmanuel Akot.

The freshman forward has played in 10 of 12 games this season, averaging a paltry 2.1 points and 1.5 rebounds in 12.5 minutes while shooting 31 percent from the field.

The former five-star recruit simply has not been productive, but he has not been healthy either.

Akot has been battling knee tendinitis all season which limits his mobility and explosiveness — and sometimes keeps him off the floor altogether.

“You can see when he runs full speed and slows down to stop, he almost cushions the stop because he feels pain,” Miller said.

It is not a new problem. Miller said Akot has had tendinitis “the last couple years.”

“Some young people that grow like he’s grown experience that, but we have everything now. From doctors to weight room, to [trainer] Justin [Kokoskie]. Sometimes we hold him from practice,” Miller said.

“But it’s all about strengthening his flexibility, getting more flexibility and strengthening the right areas of his body. We’re hard at it. There will come a time when he doesn’t have tendinitis is what I’m told. And Emmanuel knows that as well.”

Maybe that time is near.

After sitting out two straight games, Akot returned to the court Monday against North Dakota State and turned in his best outing in recent memory even if his stat line — two points, one rebound, and one assist — didn’t necessarily reflect it.

Akot posted a +12 plus/minus in 10 minutes and played alongside Rawle Alkins, Allonzo Trier, Deandre Ayton, and Parker Jackson-Cartwright at times, giving the starting unit more bite defensively.

“He’s worked hard and you saw tonight that he made some big plays,” Miller said after the game.

Arizona’s defense has been its biggest problem this season, ranking 58th in the country in efficiency, per KenPom.

Alkins’ return should help the Wildcats in that area, but so could a healthy Akot whose physical tools and versatility are unmatched on Arizona’s roster.

Before the season, Miller beamed about Akot’s defensive potential, comparing him to former UA standouts like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Nick Johnson, and Aaron Gordon.

Akot has not lived up to that hype, but Miller has not lost faith in the freshman, who is fighting for a spot in UA’s ever-changing rotation.

“Over the long course of the season you need everybody and Emmanuel is somebody we really believe in,” Miller said.

“His tendinitis has hurt him and hasn’t allowed him to be practicing and available. In the Bahamas, he wasn’t able to play against Purdue. If we wanted to put him in, he couldn’t go. So there are times when that has plagued him. His legs will keep getting stronger. He’s working really hard and I think over the next month, two months, as he gets more strength and we’re smart with him, and if that tendinitis goes away, he can be a guy that really impacts what we do down the stretch.”

Follow Ryan Kelapire on Twitter at @RKelapire