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James Akinjo, Arizona’s ‘heart and soul’, cementing himself as an all-Pac-12 player

Mike Mattina/Arizona Athletics

When James Akinjo transferred from Georgetown, a particular Hall of Fame coach—ahem, Jim Boeheim—said the Hoyas improved because they “got rid of a guy that wouldn’t pass the ball to anybody and just shot it every time.”

Akinjo’s new coach has a much different assessment of the junior point guard.

“If we didn’t have him—we’re 17-8—I think we’d be 8-17. We might be 5-20,” Arizona’s Sean Miller said. “That’s how much he means to our team.”

Miller is adamant that Akinjo should earn All-Pac-12 honors but doesn’t think he needs to campaign for his star point guard.

The numbers do the talking.

After posting 26 points and seven assists in a 75-74 win over Washington, Akinjo ranks 10th in the Pac-12 in scoring (15.0 PPG), third in assists (5.3 APG), sixth in steals (1.5 SPG), eighth in free throw percentage (80.1), ninth in assist-to-turnover ratio (2.3), and 13th in 3-point percentage (39.4).

Akinjo also rarely comes off the court, starting every game and ranking second in the conference in minutes per game (34.5). His durability has come in handy considering the Wildcats lost starting two-guard Jemarl Baker Jr. to injury midway through the season and didn’t have Kerr Kriisa until early February, which decimated their backcourt depth for the most of the year.

“I tip my hat to him too because he didn’t have a spring or summer,” Miller said of Akinjo after the Washington game. “And although he was with us for a few months last season, he didn’t have the traditional year, nine-month build up that can really help a young player like him. A lot of what you see he did really starting from scratch here in September. Today’s game, in some really pivotal moments, when maybe his teammates didn’t have the confidence, he showed up and showed up really, really big.”

Akinjo is the unquestioned leader of an Arizona team that has the No. 22 offense in the country despite having to incorporate 10 new players, including Akinjo himself. For some players it would be difficult to immediately assume a leadership role like that. Not for him.

“It’s not hard for me to lead at all,” said Akinjo, who strongly disagreed with the notion that he’s a soft-spoken person. “I’m a natural-born leader.”

Akinjo has almost always had the ball in his hands in late-game situations this season, including Saturday vs. Washington when he drove the lane and kicked the ball out to Azuolas Tubelis in the corner for the game-winning jumper. Not long before that, Akinjo buried a 3 with 1:15 left that gave the Wildcats a one-point lead.

“He’s learning how to be a true floor general, but his big heart, just perseverance, his ability both score and distribute, the toughness that he displays,” Miller said. “You’ve got to remember he played a 9 p.m. game on Thursday, our guys walked out of McKale at a quarter after midnight and they got COVID tested at 6:30 a.m., so they got a good 5 1/2 hours of sleep, no practice. James pretty much played the entire game on Thursday, plays the entire game here today (against Washington). And at the 38-minute mark, he makes a 3-pointer. He is definitely an all-conference player. Because my peers, the coaches in this league, when they start with Arizona, they start with him and he’s our heart and soul. He’s had a fantastic season. He really has.”