Here at The Only Colors, we have used the offseason to take a look back at Michigan State men’s basketball’s 2021-2022 season by reflecting on the individual performances of those players who are expected to return for the Spartans next year. As a reminder, we are examining how each player performed during the recent basketball season, where he is at this point in his MSU career and what we might be able to expect in 2022-2023.
One of the major bright spots of last season, albeit in a more limited role on the court, was the play of freshman guard Jaden Akins. He proved to be a lot further along than many people expected during the 2021-2022 season, and has a good chance to break out during the 2022-2023 campaign. Underrating Akins will most likely not be an issue for many people next year.
36 games (one start), 14.8 minutes, 3.4 points, 2.4 rebounds, 0.7 assists, 39.4% fields goals, 38.0% three-pointers, 60.7% free throws
Coming out of high school, Akins was considered to be a “tweener” as he started out his career as a point guard, but always possessed the athleticism and length to also play off the ball. With the Spartans having two very solid point guards last year in A.J. Hoggard and Tyson Walker, Akins switched to playing the two-guard position full-time and basically never got a real chance to run the team.
Many thought that it would be an uphill climb for Akins to find any minutes in a relatively crowded backcourt, but the freshman made the most of his opportunities and then some. He embraced the role of an energizer bunny off the bench, and from his first minutes in a Spartan uniform, played with tremendous tenacity. For Akins to finish his rookie year averaging almost 15 minutes per game is truly remarkable and shows how much trust the coaching staff has in him.
The great thing about Akins’ performance was that he did more than spark plugs off the bench normally do, as he showed plenty of offensive skills, elite level athleticism and a knack for impacting the game in a variety of ways. Most notably, Akins found success with his relentless and aggressive defense, using his quick feet and long arms to hound opponents all over the court. He had nine blocks on the year (not too shabby for a guard) and some of them — like his chase down defense at Minnesota — will make plenty of highlight reels in the future.
Scoring wise, Akins’ numbers were OK for a freshman (3.4 points per game), especially considering that he rarely had any plays run for him and pretty regularly had to create his own opportunities. After not being known as a shooter in high school, his strong percentage from downtown was encouraging (38 percent), even if it came at a relatively small sample size (50 shots), although that also puts his weak free throw shooting into perspective (60.7 percent on only 28 attempts).
As expected for a freshman, Akins shot a lot better at home than on the road. He was rarely overwhelmed by strong opposition as he had his best performances against top teams like Baylor (12 points, 6-of-9 shooting) and at Wisconsin (10 points, 3-of-4 shooting). He also hit his only shot in the NCAA Tournament’s Round of 32 loss to Duke, a first half three-pointer with the shot clock running down.
It wasn’t all perfect for Akins, as he shot a lot better in November and December (both months north of 43 percent from the field) and struggled toward the end of the year (36.4 percent field goal percentage in March). He did make 46.2 percent of his three-pointers during the last month of the year, though, which is a big positive. Still it was noticeable that the long college season and the higher talent in the Big Ten were somewhat of an adjustment for the freshman.
State of his game
Akins oozes energy and has a non-stop motor that sparks him on both ends of the court. He pairs his aggressive attitude with elite level athleticism and a very solid wingspan for the guard position. So far, this makes up for his relatively small build (6-foot-4, 180 pounds), which in turn doesn’t really hurt him much in physical confrontations. Akins is somewhat of a throwback Michigan State player with plenty of toughness, a will to mix it up at all three levels, and not even an ounce of fear in his body.
Akins proved as a freshman that he possesses a very versatile offensive game. He can create his own shot, often using his dribble to gain space for a step back or blow by his defender with a strong drive. While he clearly has the ability to generate his own offense, Akins will have to learn how to solidify his scoring mentality and perform inside a settled structure. At times he can be a little erratic and hectic, which should get better with experience. More pace control would suit his game pretty well.
While his overall shooting numbers aren’t overly impressive, Akins still proved that he has to be accounted for on the perimeter and actually can knock down threes at a solid rate. As mentioned earlier, the relatively weak free throw shooting and smaller sample size gives you a bit of a pause, but in the end, Akins has done very well from downtown in game situations. His form, at times, can get out of hand as he not always squares up perfectly and turns his body a bit too much. His great bounce, though, makes it easy for him to get his shot off even if he has a defender bearing down on him.
Akins’ strong suit, though, is clearly his ability to get into paint. He also has a lot of potential in transition and should find plenty of opportunities in the future as a sideline runner. His rebounding has been a major plus so far as well, as he routinely flies in and skies for rebounds out of his area. Doing that he also had a couple of nice put-back dunks last season. For a guard, these were tremendous signs and with more experience and brawn his rebounding is definitely something that Akins should look to further develop into a major strength.
Defensively, Akins has passed many tests with flying colors, and it was this side of the ball that basically earned him his minutes as a freshman. The Michigan native loves to attack and irritate the offensive player in his own space, he is very active with his hands, can bother the opponent in the passing lanes and has the ability to impact plays out of his area either via his quickness or athleticism.
Outlook for 2022-2023
All in all, Akins probably couldn’t have asked for a better freshman year relative to expectations. He not only endeared himself to the coaching staff, but also proved to everyone that he has a boatload of fundamental ability that will help him excel at the college level. He opened plenty of eyes by being a better shooter than he was given credit for, he was an even better defender than expected, and he also thrived in areas that usually take time for a freshman to master.
With all that said, next season will now be a completely different animal for Akins. With Max Christie leaving for the NBA Draft and Gabe Brown also finishing his college career, the sophomore all of sudden looks like a shoe-in for the starting shooting guard spot in 2022-2023. If not, he will play a significant role either way. This will be a huge step up in responsibility and a big challenge for a player that wasn’t really counted on at all as a scorer last season. Consistency, his offensive mentality and the shooting will surely be put to the test early.
Considering the hard-working mindset that Akins showed already, and the willingness to do everything that was asked of him, it is hard to see him fall completely off the cliff. Actually, a reasonable development should be expected from Akins with more plays run for him, more opportunities to shoot and plenty of minutes to be had at the two-guard spot. His defensive intensity alone should make him a dependable rotation player, but his potential and natural talent shouldn’t let him be satisfied with that.
So far, Akins has just scratched the surface of what he can do as a basketball player, yet he has plenty of boxes checked already. Now the next step will be to adjust to bigger expectations. From everything you hear Akins is a great, hard-working kid and that should bode very well for his future in East Lansing.
After losing plenty of firepower from last season, the Spartans surely need Akins to excel in a likely much bigger role next year, especially considering Michigan State doesn’t really have any other natural two-guards on the roster (that said, Walker will see plenty of minutes there).