James Akinjo has elevated his game to a new level ever since Jemarl Baker Jr. was lost for the season to a broken wrist.
Take a look at his numbers in Arizona’s first 11 games compared to the last four games:
- Minutes: 34.4 MPG → 36.0 MPG
- Points: 12.9 PPG → 18.3 PPG
- Assists: 5.2 APG → 6.5 APG
- Turnovers: 2.5 TPG → 1.5 TPG
- Steals: 1.6 SPG → 2.0 SPG
- Field goal percentage: 33.9% → 40.7%
- 3-point percentage: 32.8% → 47.6%
- Free throw percentage: 74.0% → 90.5%
As you can see, the UA point guard has improved in every facet of the game despite playing heavier minutes.
Some of it can be attributed to the teams Arizona has faced. Not just because they aren’t that great defensively, but because three of those games came against one of the best guards in the Pac-12.
And facing the best brings out the best in Akinjo.
The junior had 25 points and eight assists on 8-of-16 shooting against UCLA and Tyger Campbell. He then averaged 18 points and 4.5 assists against ASU and Remy Martin, shooting 6 for 11 from 3 in a pair of wins over the Sun Devils.
“I feel like I’m one of the best guards in the conference also, so I knew when I got to step it up, take it to another level and I gotta go out there show and prove every time,” Akinjo said after the first win over ASU. “Give credit to my teammates, though. They’re always giving me the confidence to take on these matchups, and Coach is pushing me every day in practice. So I feel like I step up my level of play when I play against these guards.”
Akinjo had a similar approach earlier in the season when he thoroughly outplayed Colorado senior McKinley Wright IV, one of the most established guards in the country.
Akinjo had 22 points, eight assists, two steals and just two turnovers in an 88-74 win over the Buffs. Much better than the 10 points, five assists and four rebounds Wright posted. Not to mention Wright was just 4 for 12 from the field.
“I mean, he’s a good guard but we feel like we got guards too,” Akinjo said that night. “You guys respect him a lot, but we believe in our guards.”
When Bennedict Mathurin sprained his ankle against ASU on Monday and had to miss the second half, Akinjo again stepped up to the occasion.
He played every second of the second half, scoring 14 points on just five shots over the final 20 minutes. That gave him a final line of 16 points, six assists and just one turnover. That included a 9-for-11 mark from the charity stripe, all of which came in the second half.
Aside from an outlier game at Stanford in which Akinjo went 2 for 9 at the stripe, he has been darn near automatic at the free throw line—the steady leader you love to have on your team in crunch time.
“He’s so good with the ball in his hands,” head coach Sean Miller said Monday. “He had two people on him trapping him, picking him up full court, and for him to play that 37 minutes with only one turnover and use the energy that he did (was great). I thought he was really good on defense as well, both him and Terrell (Brown). I think James is learning that as a point guard and as a guard, there’s just so many different ways you can help win the game. The other night he had a big night scoring. Tonight, he had a big night playmaking. He’s our heart and soul, believes in himself. His teammates feel that confidence from him when he’s out there.”
And they feed off it.
“We believe in James a lot,” senior guard Terrell Brown said. “He’s the engine to our team. He’s the head of the snake.”
Brown also rising to the occasion
The Seattle U transfer has been something of a Swiss Army knife for the Wildcats this season, able to take on whatever role the team needs him to on a particular night.
Sometimes that has meant running the point when Akinjo needs a breather. Brown has a sparkling 53 to 11 assist-to-turnover ratio. Sometimes that has meant defending the other team’s best perimeter player.
But without Baker—and then Mathurin—the Wildcats have needed Brown’s scoring and he has delivered, particularly in the last two games. Now a starter, the senior dropped 14 points in the first win over ASU, then 18 in the second. Over that stretch, he shot 46% from the field, 2 for 3 from 3 and 16 for 18 from the free throw line.
Brown sunk the game-tying free throws in Tempe with 1:02 left after drawing a foul on a hard drive, a clutch play from the steely senior.
“Terrell averaged 21 points a game last year at Seattle. I think the Pac-12 and playing at Arizona represents different challenges for him, but he’s capable of scoring and doing more, especially as he’s been given more of an opportunity,” Miller said. “We’ve talked to him when Jemarl suffered his season-ending injury, that he could continue to be the distributor, he could continue to be a guy who really is unselfish, but we need some scoring from him, and he’s really risen to the challenge.”