Former Casa star now on NBA D-league team


Back from another highly successful stint in the Chinese Basketball Association, Josh Akognon set his sights on securing a spot in the NBA Development League. He got it, but the route — and the destination — were not what he had imagined.

“I used to think it was a lot easier to get into the D-League than it was,” Akognon said from Ohio, where he recently joined the Canton Charge, an affiliate of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

The Charge signed Akognon in the heat of a playoff race as they clung to the sixth of eight postseason spots with four games remaining in a crowded field.

The stakes are high for Akognon, too. As the clock winds down on the NBA season, he eagerly awaits the 10-day contract that can temporarily put an inexperienced player into the spotlight of the pro game.

Upon returning home from China, where he played for the DongGuan New Century Leopards, the former Casa Grande, Washington State and Cal State Fullerton sharpshooter immediately received offers from three teams in Spain and another in Italy. Akognon turned them down. He also said no to the Los Angeles D-Fenders, the Lakers’ D-League affiliate. He needed surgery to remove his adenoids (a procedure he hopes will allow him to breathe easier), and a minor operation on his knee, and he wanted to get his bearings back home before moving forward.

Then the NBA started sniffing around. After a couple of weeks, Akognon worked out for Houston Rockets coach Kevin McHale and his staff in Los Angeles. He left without an offer, but also took the opportunity to work out for Eric Musselman, coach of the D-Fenders.

The way Akognon figured it, he was destined for the D-Fenders, a nearly ideal situation. He could stay in California, and would be especially close to friends and former teammates and coaches from Fullerton.

The only thing that stood in the way of this reality was the Development League’s allocation system. When a player signs up for the D-League with the NBA, he enters a 48-hour waiver process. Each team gets a crack at him, based upon a predetermined, ever-shifting order. In Akognon’s case, the D-Fenders were second in the order. The Charge were first.
Canton had just lost another scorer, Alan Anderson, to a call-up by the Toronto Raptors, and they grabbed Akognon with the first pick. He flew to Ohio last Saturday, leaving behind his wife, Ariana, and toddler son, Josiah. The Akognons had recently moved into an apartment in Windsor to be closer to Josh’s mentor and trainer, Jeremy Russotti.

Akognon practiced with the Charge for the first time Tuesday, and played against the Fort Wayne Mad Ants on Wednesday.

Akognon, 26, is convinced this move puts him one step closer to his NBA dream, noting that there were a record number of D-League call-ups this year, 49 as of Friday. But his mission is to put those dreams aside for the short term and focus on what he can do to help the Charge.

“It’s a weird emotion when you get down to it, because you want to be in the NBA, you understand that,” Akognon said. “But you don’t want to bring it onto the court and make you feel a selfish mindset. Because those are the teams in this league that are very, very bad. Everyone thinks they’re one step away from that call-up. You got family and agents in your ear, so you think that you are the best. It just can’t work.”

Clearly, the Charge believe Akognon can do a lot to help them.

His recent season in DongGuan was highly encouraging. Playing against legitimate competition — the opposition included former NBA notables Stephon Marbury, J.R. Smith and Aaron Brooks — he was among the league’s leading scorers at 27.4 points per game, converting just under 51 percent of his shots.

“It wasn’t only that he scored points,” said Wes Wilcox, the Charge general manager and director of player personnel for the Cavaliers. “But this year he competed against NBA players. He competed at a pretty high level, and was successful doing it.”
Akognon’s second season with DongGuan was good for him, and not just because of the exposure. He also got more comfortable in his role as a shooting point guard.

Ever since he left Petaluma, it seems, Akognon has been fighting against his own scoring prowess.

“Everyone’s always brought me in as a point guard,” he said. “But the minute they see me score and shoot, they in some ways try to put me to the 2 guard (or shooting guard) or try to put me in more plays where I’m coming off ball screens, and I’m in more of a scoring position, rather than one of those point guards that tries to come in and get nine, 10 assists.”

In DongGuan, coach Brian Goorjian played Akognon at the point, but encouraged him to fire away when open. The player responded with some of his best shooting performances ever. It has earned him a chance to play in the equivalent of the NBA’s minor league. He’s hoping it will also bring an invitation to NBA Summer League in a few months — and perhaps an NBA roster after that.

Wilcox acknowledges that Akognon is undersized at 5-foot-11, and not known for his defense. But he doesn’t count him out.

“A guy like Nate Robinson, people have said he’s too small to play in the NBA,” Wilcox said. “Same with Isaiah Thomas, with the Kings, or Earl Boykins.

“I don’t know if there’s a place for Josh in the NBA. Josh has to prove that himself. What I do know is no matter what’s said about a player being too small or not athletic enough, there are players who make it to the NBA who are undersized.”
Akognon is more confident than that.

“Honestly, I have no doubt in my mind,” he said. “If I could sit here and guarantee, I’d almost call it around a 95 percent guarantee that I’ll be playing (in the NBA) this year. It’s just a matter of where, and how much time I’ll be playing.”

You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or