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Akok healthy again and looking to give Huskies lift this winter

Akok Akok has frequently fielded questions about his health during a long and challenging recovery from a ruptured Achilles tendon.

His response has varied depending on his condition.

On Tuesday, Akok gave another update.

"Hundred percent," Akok said.

That's tremendous news for Akok and members of the UConn basketball family.

A 6-foot-9 redshirt junior forward, Akok is expected to be fully healthy and ready to play this season after seeing action for a total of 29 minutes in 2020-21. He's underwent surgery in February 2020.

He couldn't be happier to return to form or more determined to contribute to the team.

"I had high expectations for my sophomore year," Akok said. "But the game was taken away from me for a year, so I want to come back and have a very strong year."

Coach Dan Hurley has noticed a difference in Akok, mentally and physically.

"He's got that same look in his eyes that he had when he got there," Hurley said. "That self-belief, that hunger, that player that's on a mission to reach these big goals."

Akok is nearly 16 months out from his surgery. Eighteen months is considered the normal period to fully recover from that type of injury.

He's in a good place right now.

A much-needed and long overdue trip home to Manchester, N.H., in May, visiting family and friends, did wonders for Akok. He spent quality time with his father and worked out with friends.

During pick-ups games, Akok says he realized he had reached the 100 percent level health-wise.

Vin Pastore, who's known Akok for about 10 years and served as his Mass Rivals AAU coach, agrees with that assessment. He worked with Akok last month in New Hampshire.

"He's back to where he was," Pastore said Wednesday. "He's as athletic as he ever was. He's in a good spot right now."

The time at home also helped Akok's state of mind. He hadn't seen family and friends since prior to last year's pandemic shutdown.

Akok returned to the Storrs campus with his batteries recharged.

"It was great going back home," Akok said. "I haven't been back there in like a year and gone to see my father and people that I know. It was good for myself and my mind and just my well-being."

Hurley says Akok looks great.

"I think that was good for him," Hurley said of Akok's trip home. "I think that rejuvenated him."

Ever since suffering the injury on Feb. 16, 2020, against Memphis in Hartford, Akok has been on an emotional rollercoaster.

While his teammates were home for long stretches during the shutdown, Akok stayed on campus the entire time doing his rehabilitation and recovery work with team trainer James Doran.

He had to deal with a double whammy of life without basketball and being without his teammates.

"He loves basketball," Pastore said. "He had to be away from the game for a long time. There was a question in his mind. He studied the injury. It's not an injury that you always come back from and be as good as you were. Psychologically, it's difficult.

"But he did what he needed to do. He actually took the energy and worked hard with the people at UConn."

Akok took a significant step last season, being cleared to play and making his much-anticipated season debut on Jan. 9 at Butler. He played six minutes and scored two points on a dunk, giving his team an emotional lift in a big road win.

"It was just great to play basketball again," Akok said. "The game was taken away from me during that time for like nine months. Just to get on the court and play basketball again was pretty fun.

"Just putting on that jersey was just like an indication that I'm cleared to play the game that I love. I feel like that was all that mattered."

While Akok continued to gradually improve, he wasn't far enough along in his recovery process to be a regular part of the rotation. He appeared in just seven games.

Hurley took a cautious approach with Akok, with an eye on preparing him for the 2021-22 season. He's referred to Akok as a heart and soul type player.

Akok remained in uniform on game day, supporting his teammates from the bench. He tried to remain patient with the process.

"I just had to take my time with it, knowing my injury was a very serious one," Akok said. "The timeline of when the average person is supposed to recover fully is 18 months, so I had to take my time with it and trust the process."

Come August, Akok will hit the 18-month mark.

Akok has grown and matured as a player and a person from the trying experience.

Pastore saw a change in Akok while spending time together in May.

"Any time you have things like this in your life, setbacks, they help you mature," Pastore said. "You look at things a little bit differently. Top it off, age helps you, too, and being away a year at college. So, you add all that together, it was good.

"He's as focused as he's ever been on his goals. He's better academically. He was less emotional. His responses were more calculated. And he built some self-esteem over this period."

When healthy, Akok provides more than just a defensive presence. His teammates feed off his boundless energy and enthusiasm.

"That's just for the love of the game," Akok said. "Going out and having a chance to play basketball is a great feeling. I'm always grateful."

g.keefe@theday.com

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