Tracking the evolution of James Akinjo’s freshman season is easy: look at what he did against Marquette. The first time Georgetown squared off against the Golden Eagles, on Jan. 15, Akinjo forced difficult shots throughout, including an ill-advised layup in heavy traffic that he missed down the stretch. The result was an ugly 1-for-10 performance. In the second Georgetown-Marquette game, on March 9, Akinjo was a totally different player, draining clutch threes while going toe-to-toe with the Big East’s Player of the Year, Markus Howard. This game was Akinjo’s coming-out party, and his 25-point performance earned him a shoutout from NBA All-Star Damian Lillard.
“I feel like when we played Marquette it was early in the Big East, and I feel like, as I started playing more Big East games, I started to get better as the season went on,” Akinjo said of his improvement. “That’s all it was, it was just time.”
Over the course of the season, veteran players and coaches alike noticed the growing maturity from Akinjo and the other freshmen. “They’re not as out of control as they were last year. They’re mature, they’re making better decisions for our team,” senior guard Jagan Mosely said.
Akinjo came to Georgetown as a four-star recruit from Salesian College Preparatory School, where he averaged 20.7 points and 5.2 assists per game in his senior year. These marks earned him a place on ESPN’s top-100 recruits list, and he was also named the MVP of the 2017 Peach Jam. Scouts viewed him as an aggressive point guard with an all-around game: a very good passer who can create for others, a scoring threat especially on floaters and 3-pointers, and a relentless defender who can compete with anybody for 40 minutes.
“I’m never gonna stop,” Akinjo said. “I’m always gonna be myself. I’m always gonna play hard, be assertive.”
Akinjo’s skill set and confidence earned him a spot in the starting lineup for Georgetown’s season opener against Maryland-Eastern Shore, and he never looked back. Akinjo appeared in all 33 games, making 32 starts, and he registered double-digit points 24 times over the course of the year. At the end of the season, he had compiled 13.4 points and 5.2 assists per game, shooting 39.1 percent from 3-point range. Akinjo’s excellent season earned him a spot on the Big East All-Freshman Team by unanimous vote, as well as the accolade of Big East Freshman of the Year.
However, Akinjo had his fair share of setbacks and mistakes at the beginning of the season. Early on, he struggled with turnovers as a result of reckless play. Following the first Marquette game, head coach Patrick Ewing benched him, forcing him to reflect on his decision-making and improve in clutch situations.
“Last year we struggled to close out games but I think this year, we’re older, more grown-up, so I think we will pull out a lot more games late in the stretch,” Akinjo said.
Throughout it all, Akinjo has continued to put his head down and learn from his mistakes. “He is definitely one of the hardest working players on this team,” Ewing said. “He’s always in the gym—I have to kick him out. And I expect for all of the work he put in this summer to pay off.”
Akinjo’s fearless mentality certainly paid off as the season progressed. A signature moment came on Senior Day against Seton Hall, when Seton Hall guard Quincy McKnight slapped the floor as Akinjo brought the ball up the court, daring the freshman to challenge him. Akinjo responded by exploding past McKnight and finishing the layup through contact to pull the Hoyas within two points. Retrieving the ball from under his basket, McKnight heard Capital One Arena roar as Akinjo returned the favor, slamming his palms into the hardwood. It was just another reminder that Akinjo is up for any challenge from any defender with the unenviable task of guarding him.
Of course, Akinjo is not the only guard from his class who made a significant impact on the team. His backcourt partner Mac McClung came to the program from Gate City, Virginia with a reputation as a small-town legend and a fierce competitor, and their partnership helped the Hoyas to their most wins since the 2014-15 season.
“Our chemistry started over the summer last year, and our games are the perfect contrast. He’s more of an explosive athlete, I’m more of a finesse, skill type player,” Akinjo said of McClung.
“When we’re on, I feel like it’s hard to stop that duo,” McClung added.
As they enter their sophomore years, Ewing said he wants Akinjo and McClung to continue to improve their defense and decision-making in key moments. Akinjo himself will also look to cut down on turnovers while maintaining his dynamic style of play. He hounds opponents defensively and attacks the rim with a wide variety of dribble moves. Though he shot 39.1 percent from three, he will try to improve his shot selection, as he shot 36.5 percent from the field overall.
This season, expect to see the same level of forcefulness and confidence that characterized Akinjo’s promising freshman season, but with fewer turnovers and mental mistakes. Maturity was a constant theme of last season, and Akinjo’s growth as a player will forever be a function of his fearless, take-no-prisoners attitude.
“It comes from Oakland,” Akinjo said. “I can take on any guard in the country.”
Image Credits: John Picker / The Georgetown Voice