Akoh wins Big Sky player of the week, returns ferociously from early season injury

First seen in The Montana Kaimin

In the last minute of a closed-door preseason scrimmage, the cornerstone of the Griz basketball team fell backward and stuck his hand out to catch himself. Jamar Akoh, who weighs over 250 pounds, landed on his shooting arm wrist. The adrenaline helped him play through the pain, but on the bus ride back to Montana he rolled his hand around, testing his wrist out.

Akoh’s position, a forward, requires him to battle with the opposing team’s biggest and strongest players for the basketball under the hoop every possession. But this wasn’t a normal bruise or sore spot. It didn’t feel right. It hurt worse than the normal .

Akoh leaned forward to whisper to his teammate, senior guard Michael Oguine, who sat in front of him on the bus.

“It may be bad,” he said.

Akoh practiced for two weeks before trainers and the team realized his wrist injury was serious — a torn tendon and ligament. He spent the next five weeks sidelined from practice, often with a soft cast encircling his arm. Everyone wanted him to heal quickly, but it took time.

He missed nine total games, he returned for the team’s win against North Dakota State, but missed the next game against Arizona. He returned permanently in late December, but Akoh is still working toward full recovery. Despite his injury, he posted 25 points and 10 rebounds against Weber State Saturday, Jan. 26. He averages almost 17 points and over nine rebounds per game this season.

“He’s really a monster,” Oguine said. “No one can stop him, especially in our conference.”

Friends and teammates refer to Akoh’s size often – both an “unstoppable force and immovable object” and a “thicc guard”. But, they most often refer to him as the G.O.A.T, or greatest of all time, a title earned for his caring and reliable attitude.

“When he cares about you, he’s going to do everything he can to make sure you’re good,” Oguine said.

But Akoh’s wrist wasn’t good. The Grizzlies’ G.O.A.T was sidelined. He was left to figure out how to mold his leadership role while recovering to one on the bench and off the court. But it hurt to open doors and take showers.

Akoh shoulders a large role for the team, but it morphed into the mental burden of healing after the injury. The Griz struggled to compensate for the loss of his height and girth low on the court with young players, while Akoh sat the bench.

It’s hard to be a leader if you cannot play or be on the court, head coach Travis DeCuire said. Akoh focused on maintaining his physical fitness while his wrist remained immobilized.

“Through an injury, when you’re not involved physically, the hardest thing to do is stay involved mentally,” DeCuire said.

Akoh’s season has been a grind, but grinding doesn’t scare Akoh. When the team traveled to the Bahamas, Akoh was stuck on the bench with a cast full of sweat. Weeks of traveling to road games made rehab difficult. He spent his weeks off the court, wrist immobilized in a splint that turned his arm into a gangly flapping wing when he ran, working on the side of practices with his trainer.

“[My teammates] were looking over there like, what is this guy doing?” Akoh said. He sprinted and worked with bands for his conditioning, using strange variations of exercises that eliminated stress on his wrist.

The Griz adapted with a top-heavy offense built to fill Akoh’s absence with more focus on guard play. Now that he’s back, the team is trying to find its stride as he shakes back into the swing of on-court leadership and playing in the paint.

DeCuire said it’s a struggle to reintegrate players who take time off for injuries and then have to get back into shape. Akoh’s hard work while injured allowed the team to bring him back onto the court with ease.

“He’s brought energy from the sidelines while he was out, which, when we got him back again, it wasn’t a drastic change for us on the negative, which you can get sometimes when guys are out. I think it’s been more positive,” DeCuire said.

“When guys can see him on the sidelines doing sit ups and slides and sprints staying physically involved, knowing he’s done everything he could to get back, I think they had a lot of confidence in him and his return as much as he had in them when he was out,” DeCuire said.

The injury created space for Akoh to take himself less seriously, a hard feat for a player who is his own worst critic. He was patient with his wrist even if fans were impatiently waiting to see him back on the court. He couldn’t go to the grocery store or put gas in his car without a stranger asking him about the healing status of his wrist.

Off the court, he was fighting to get back to playing a game that he says means everything to him. A season bundled up with high expectations after last year’s Big Sky Tournament win marks Akoh’s fifth and last year playing collegiate basketball.

The 6-foot-8, 253-pound player didn’t think he would ever play college basketball, much less Division I, until his sophomore year of high school. In one summer, he transformed from a “5-foot-11, chunky dude” to a 6-foot-5 athlete.

After being recruited to play Division I basketball, he transferred to the Griz from Cal State Fullerton and redshirted the 2016-2017 season. After a successful redshirt junior year, he worked hard this summer to condition himself for his last year. Over the last weeks of his recovery, what worried Akoh most was the loss of his hard-earned fitness from preseason work.

As he dominates in game day lineups, his voice rises again as a leader on the court. Before, while sidelined, he felt unable to yell at his teammates on the court to try harder when he couldn’t even play. He invested heavily in coaching the young players who were filling his shoes.

The forward, a germaphobe who brings his own towel, pillows, and sheets in his suitcase when the team travels on the road, upgrades both sides of the court for the Griz.

“If you are going to win games at this level, you’ve gotta out-rebound your opponent as much as possible,” Decuire said. “Having his presence on both sides of the ball defensively just as much as offensively has been huge.”

Akoh’s high scoring offensive stats easily distract from his defensive prowess. In the game against Weber, he powered through defenders to propel the team to its win. Whole stretches of the game held Akoh turning possession after possession into a jumper, dunk, or drawing fouls for free throws shots. A few months ago, Akoh couldn’t even dribble a ball or shoot because of his injury.

On defense, Akoh stole the ball two seperate times from stunned Weber players and pulled down 10 rebounds.

“We’re just a better team with him,” Oguine said.

A small two inches of white athletic tape still circle the double major in business management and marketing’s wrist. He’s enjoying his last collegiate season even more now that he’s back on the court. He hopes to keep playing basketball professionally after college. But he said whatever he focuses on next, he knows he will succeed because he knows how to grind.

“Jamar works hard. He’s focused. He’s committed to the program’s success, and it’s contagious, like a lot of other guys in this program,” DeCuire said. “I think he’s a phenomenal role model when you talk about being a complete student athlete.”