MISSOULA — Montana forward Jamar Akoh expected the double team to come.
It never did, and the 6-foot-8 redshirt junior scored a career-high 34 points in the Grizzlies’ 89-80 win over Northern Colorado on Saturday. Two days earlier, he recorded 22 points and 11 rebounds, both team highs, in a 109-79 win over North Dakota.
He finished his week with 56 points and 19 rebounds. He dished out the ball, too, and tallied six assists to go with two blocks and one steal.
For those performances, he was named the Big Sky Conference player of the week on Monday. He’s the first Griz to earn the award this season through nine weeks, but he deflected any praise.
“It’s an honor, I guess,” Akoh said. “I’m more about the team. I think our team is rolling right now. We’re playing pretty well. Just trying to sustain that and keep going off that.”
The Griz have won six of their past seven games, and Akoh’s emergence as an inside presence has been a key reason for the recent success. Over that stretch, he’s averaging 21.1 points and 8.4 rebounds. In the first nine games, he averaged 9.1 points and 5.7 rebounds.
“A lot of that is the team believing in him, getting him the ball in areas he’s going to be successful,” Griz head coach Travis DeCuire said. “I think his shot selection is good. I think he passes out and got it to guys when other things were there for us, which allowed us to keep giving it to him. Those are team awards, but I’m excited for him.”
Akoh sat out last season after he transferred from Cal State Fullerton to Montana because of the opportunity to win a conference championship. He found his voice and leadership role while sitting out, and that’s carried over.
“I think it’s pretty obvious the leadership he has and how much people respect him and look up to him,” senior Fabijan Krslovic said. “I think that’s a big reason we’ve had a lot more success this year is we’ve been more mature, and he’s been a huge part of that."
Akoh focused early in the season on adapting to the pace of play, working on his conditioning and avoiding foul trouble. Recently, he’s concentrated on sustaining his aggressiveness on both ends of the court.
“I think I’ve always been a confident player,” Akoh said. “At the beginning of the season, I think it was just a matter of me getting going and getting back in the flow of things. I think I’m starting to get that. I’m rolling right now. Hopefully I can keep that going.”
He’s been able to find success against the smaller forwards and centers in the Big Sky after playing against Big West guys his height or taller nearly every game. Through four conference games, he’s averaged 22.8 points and 8.3 rebounds — both rank fourth among Big Sky players in league games — although he said those smaller post players can sometimes be harder to score against.
“You have to be smarter with the ball,” Akoh said. “They probably have quicker hands, probably are reaching around on entries. I just have to be aware of that.”
When he gets those entry passes, he runs through a specific progression to make his next move. He sees if the player who passed him the ball gets open for a kick-out pass, he checks for a double team and if his fellow post player got open, and then he’ll make his move.
DeCuire has been pleased with the increasing level of play he’s seen from Akoh. It’s what he expected when the big man transferred in, but he knows they can get more from him.
“I think he could play away from the basket,” DeCuire said. “We’ve minimized what we were trying to get out of him offensively to get him in sync. Now that we’ve got him in sync, I think there’s more out there for him, but we’ll let that come. We won’t force the issue. He’s shooting such a high percentage around the basket, I don’t know why we’d change.
“There’s more out there for him. I think he can rebound better. I think he can defend better, too.”