Offseason assessment: Michigan State’s Jaden Akins brought energy, now more will be asked

Note: This is the third in a series of stories evaluating returning players on Michigan State’s 2022-23 roster. Previously: Peter Brooks, Tyson Walker

EAST LANSING — There was the block out of nowhere in Michigan State’s win at Minnesota, the comeback dunk at the Bahamas, the backboard block against Oakland, the 3-point deficit against Duke.

In his entire time on the court, Jaden Akins has spent more than his share of time on the Michigan State highlight reel as a rookie.

It all made for a solid freshman campaign overall. Now, with a major roster rotation to come, Akins could see his role expanded as much as any player on the Spartans roster in 2022-23:

THE BASICS: Akins averaged 3.4 points per game while playing 14.8 minutes. He shot 39% from the field and 38% from 3 points.

NOTE QUOTE: “Charlie (Bell) progressed to becoming a pro and I see the process for Jaden leading in the same direction.” Tom Izzo, November 29.

BEST PERFORMANCE OF 2021-22: Akins played a key role in one of Michigan State’s best wins of the year: a Jan. 21 road victory over eventual Big Ten champion Wisconsin. Akins missed just one shot that day, going 3-for-4 from the field while making both of his 3-point attempts and hitting both free throws in an unturned 10-point performance in 13 minutes. He had more points in the Spartans’ loss to Baylor, but given the result, that performance is lauded.

GOOD: Akins was a spark plug all season on the bench, providing consistent energy and big plays. In many plays, Akins would find his way to the highlights reel with a dunk, a high-flying rebound, a quick steal of hands on the perimeter. He made a lot of plays that didn’t result in box scores but were important nonetheless.

His scoring numbers were modest but his rebounding percentages (12.8% defensive rebounds, 5.3% offensive rebounds) were the best of any Spartans perimeter player. And that 38% on 3-point shooting is promising.

Akins has also shown signs of becoming a positive defenseman for Michigan State; Izzo has often compared him to the former standout Bell.

THE BAD: Akins didn’t seem to have a real role in the Spartans offense as a rookie despite playing a decent amount of minutes. He took the lowest available shot percentage of any Spartans rotation player and at times seemed limited to stepping back opportunities and shots late in the shot clock.

And after a strong start in non-conference play, Akins’ role didn’t expand much through Big Ten play; his minutes and most of his offensive numbers fell slightly in January, February and March — a development not unexpected for a freshman playing a big role in the Big Ten.

THE INTRUDER: Akins was a point guard as a high school player, and it was no surprise to see him walk away from the ball when he arrived at Michigan State. What was odd, however, was that Akins wasn’t even third on Michigan State’s list of point guard options. When Tyson Walker and AJ Hoggard weren’t both in the match, the job went to Max Christie, who had never held the point before.

REASONED PERSPECTIVE: If you were just looking at 3.4 points per game, it might look like a slow start to Akins’ career at Michigan State.

But anyone who has watched Michigan State regularly this season knows Akins was brimming with potential. He was strong on both sides of the court, a powerful shooter but quick and athletic enough to reach the hoop. He showed all the basics to be a good college player.

Akins was playing behind two players who were expected to play big minutes in Gabe Brown and Max Christie, which limited his role. But 14 minutes per game was probably close to ideal for Akins: enough to acclimate him to college basketball, not to throw him over his head.

EVALUATE AND ESTIMATE IN 2022-23: Christie’s NBA decision emerges as the most significant factor in the Spartans’ perimeter rotation for 2022-23. But Akins believes his role will be significantly expanded whether or not Christie returns.

Following Brown’s departure, Akins seems likely to move into a starting sophomore role. If Michigan State chooses to play Tyson Walker more off the ball in 2022-23 to help ease a traffic jam at point guard, it could reduce that role somewhat. But with only two true wings returning from last year’s roster, if Christie leaves, and no new member should run out of minutes to make the rounds – Michigan State has sought to add on the perimeter through the portal of transfer, but so far does not have a so.

With that starting role will come a bigger role in the Spartans offense. This will be a significant step up for Akins as we find out how he fares with more offense designed for him but also with increased defensive focus. Can he use that quickness and athleticism to reach the rim more often and make mistakes? Can he be a 38 percent 3-point shooter at higher volume?

But overall, Michigan State should benefit from having a player who brought more energy than any other as a rookie on the field much more often in sophomore year.

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