By PHIL BARBER
THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Josh Akognon was the closest he’s ever been to reaching his NBA dream. But the reverberation of bouncing basketballs and the squeak of sneakers weren’t the only sounds that accompanied his time with the Dallas Mavericks. He also heard a ticking clock in the back of his mind, and it was getting louder.
Faced with a Saturday deadline to exercise an out clause with the Mavericks and preserve his contract with the China Basketball Association, and with playing time sparse in Dallas’ preseason games, Akognon asked for his release. The Mavericks granted the request.
On Sunday, Akognon leaves for China, where he will play for Liaoning, a province that shares a border with North Korea.
“There’s a lot of things in China I’m motivated about,” the Petaluma native and Casa Grande High graduate said. “There’s all-star games. And not to make it a greedy thing, but there are lot of players over there who I played better than that are making more money than me. I take that as a disrespect. I’ve got a chip on my shoulder to destroy them every time I play them.”
With one young son and his wife, Ariana, pregnant with a second child, Akognon has learned to take a pragmatic view of basketball. If he hadn’t made the Dallas roster, it’s unlikely he could have found a job that paid anything close to his CBA contract.
And making that roster seemed like a long shot, based on preseason results.
Akognon averaged 2 minutes, 42 seconds of court time in the Mavericks’ first four games (including two in Europe), scoring a total of seven points on 3-for-8 shooting. He didn’t feel cheated, because the team had told him up front that his playing time was likely to be spotty. The Mavs, less than a year and a half removed from winning the NBA title, have six pure guards under contract.
Still, Akognon feels he benefited greatly from the experience. When he got to Dallas, he said, general manager Donn Nelson and coach Rick Carlisle weren’t sure if he had NBA skills.
“After a while they said, ‘We know you’re an NBA player. You’ve just got to work on your point-guard skills,’” Akognon said. “They said that if I don’t, I’ll always be a specialty player — a shooter for certain situations. So if I continue to work as a point guard, I can have more of a solid role in the NBA.”
At this point, no one questions Akognon’s ability to put the ball in the basket. He averaged 23.9 points per game as a senior at Cal State Fullerton, 28.2 last year for Dongguan and a team-high 19.3 with the Sacramento Kings in Summer League. But at 5-foot-11, his defense isn’t strong enough for the shooting-guard spot. He needs to be a true point guard to get a shot at the NBA.
Akognon believes he has a legitimate chance.
“My agent is actually a straightforward, reality-type guy," Akognon noted. “And he said he’d almost put money on it that I’ll be in the NBA within a year.”
In the meantime, Akognon can cherish his three weeks with the Mavericks. He rubbed elbows with the likes of Dirk Nowitzki, Vince Carter and O.J. Mayo, was treated like royalty as Nowitzki’s teammate in Berlin, watched Lionel Messi play soccer in Barcelona and got on the court against the Phoenix Suns.
One day, a reporter asked Akognon what it felt like to finally make it to the NBA. Puzzled, he said he didn’t think he was there yet, because he wasn’t under contract. The reporter told him to look around: Akognon was in a Dallas Mavericks uniform. He had a locker in the team locker room, and was flying on the private team plane. He was in the NBA.
“I started to realize how far I’d come since Casa Grande,” Akognon said.
And once again, the former Gaucho showed everyone that he can score from practically anywhere inside the halfcourt line. After one particularly torrid practice session, a couple of local Dallas basketball blogs anointed Akognon the best shooter on the team.
That stoked the competitive juices of Nowitzki, a future Basketball Hall of Fame player. Akognon’s name, which is Nigerian, is pronounced a-KOY-uhn, but Nowitzki liked to teasingly address him phonetically, as a-COG-non.
After Akognon’s shooting drew all that attention, Nowitzki said: “OK, A-cog-non, after practice we’re going to have a shooting contest.”
“I beat him the first three or four games,” Akognon said. “But the last couple games, Dirk came back and tied it up. Right then we had to leave for Europe. He said, ‘We’ll have to settle this later.’”
Akognon believes he will get the chance to break that tie. But he may need another big year in China to secure the opportunity.
You can reach Staff Writer Phil Barber at 521-5263 or phil [dot] barber [at] pressdemocrat.com.