By BOB PADECKY
PRESS DEMOCRAT SPORTS COLUMNIST
PETALUMA — Eyes once closed were opened, wide open as a matter of fact. Josh Akognon — didn’t he play somewhere in China the last couple years, that’s what the NBA scouts were whispering — shot bull’s-eyes in the recently concluded NBA’s Summer League. Playing for the Sacramento Kings in Las Vegas, the former Casa Grande star averaged 19.3 points a game.
Akognon was the Kings’ leading scorer, ahead of one highly touted Jimmer Fredette, and five points more per game than the Kings’ No. 1 draft choice, Thomas Robinson.
Akognon was the 11th highest scorer in the NBA’s Summer League. He shot 53.3 percent from the floor. He averaged more than a point for every minute played (18.3 minutes).
He’ll never forget ex-Warrior and ex-King Chris Webber coming up to him and asking Akognon how to pronounce his last name (A-coy-en). Akognon wanted to show the NBA he could score like an NBA player and he did.
“Mark Cuban (Dallas Mavericks’ owner) said he wanted me to come to the Mavericks’ training camp,” Akognon said. “He said my outside shooting would take some inside pressure off Dirk (Nowitzki).”
Akognon paused to review that last sentence. Dirk Nowitzki. Eleven-time NBA All-Star. NBA MVP in 2007. And Cuban said Akognon’s jumper would take some of the heat off the icon of the Dallas franchise.
“Yeah, that’s what Cuban said all right,” said Akognon, soaking in the best basketball compliment he’s ever received.
In 2009 an NBA scout said if Akognon was 6-foot-6, “he’d be a lottery pick.” But he’s 5-foot-11.
Akognon has been invited to the training camps held by the Indiana Pacers, New York Knicks, Orlando Magic and Sacramento Kings.
Akognon no longer is the recent college graduate (Cal State Fullerton) so desperate for the NBA that he would go to a training camp for a box of donuts. The time is different. The man is different.
Akognon, whose ancestry is Nigerian and who has played for Nigeria’s national team in international competitions, has a wife and a son now.
Having been taught the value of responsibility by his father Emmanuel, Akognon will not put his family through unnecessary financial risk.
Although he has never played in the NBA, pro basketball has been very good for Akognon. This past spring, playing for the DongGuan Leopards in the Chinese Basketball Association, Akognon averaged 28.2 points a game. He was fifth in the CBA in scoring. He made 88.4 percent of his free throws and 51 percent of his field goals. Akognon made, give-or-take, $400,000.
Given the kind of year he had, Akognon has been receiving a lot of queries from Euroleague, the top-tier basketball league overseas. Siena, an Italian team, has been on his trail. The increase in attention has also found a comparative increase in money. A salary next season of $600,000, Akognon said, appears well within reach.
Unbeknownst to most NBA fans, salaries overseas are quite hefty, although maybe not NBA hefty. It is not uncommon for an American-born player, realizing his NBA dream is unlikely, to sign a three-or-four year deal for about $4 million.
“I have a lot of friends who have taken that deal,” Akognon said.
The money alone is enough to sway any decision, but Akognon has added focus on it.
“I have two priorities right now,” he said. “One, I want my cars paid off. Two, I want to buy a house and pay it off.”
While these may seem like modest goals for a professional athlete, Akognon has never fallen victim to pro sports’ saddest refrain: greed. He may love basketball but he is a husband and father above everything else.
Akognon doesn’t want to go to the Mavs’ training camp or any of the other four NBA teams merely as a practice player, with no realistic hope of making the team. What he wants is a fair and just opportunity. What he wants is to be told the truth, so he doesn’t waste his time or a team’s.
A lot of it, he said, will be determined by body language.
“I want to hear the confidence in my agent’s voice,” Akognon said of Scott Nichols. “Look I am totally leaning toward the NBA but I want it to be a good fit for the team and me. The difference now, as opposed to when I first left college, is that I am financially stable.”
Akognon won’t go to the Developmental League, unless it has guaranteed NBA money behind it. The D-League, after all, is the temptation that too many times leads into a never-escaping rat hole.
“I know a lot of guys who think they are better than they are,” he said. “They play in the D-League for $10,000 a year and go nowhere. I’m not going to do that, especially not with a family. If a team asks me to go to the D-League (for that kind of money), the conversation will stop.”
Akognon, 26, wants a legitimate NBA tryout because the NBA always has been his dream. “I didn’t sleep with a basketball at night dreaming of playing somewhere else. I didn’t dribble a ball everywhere I went as a kid without thinking of the NBA.”
Akognon exchanged weekly texts these last few months with his close friend, Jeremy Lin, a surprise NBA star in his own right. Lin critiqued Akognon’s play, offered suggestions on how to improve and supplied the same kind of support Lin received on his way to the Knicks, and now the Rockets.
So what will Akognon do? He doesn’t know. He expects at least another 10 days before his situation crystallizes. But he wants to be the first player from Sonoma County to play in the NBA. Initially, it was never a goal. But Akognon always has been a guy to accept challenges, to carry the torch of hope, that a little guy can make it in a big man’s game, that a scorer also can learn to be a passer.
So to be the first player from the area to make it in the NBA? That’s another heavy weight. No problem, Akognon said. I may not be big but I can carry quite a load.
You can reach Staff Columnist Bob Padecky at 521-5223 or firstname.lastname@example.org.