It’s been a few years since University of Colorado basketball has had an X-factor freshman, but Thomas Akyazili may just change that trend this year.
The 6’2” shooting guard with a three-star ESPN scout rating hails from Belgium, where he played at the club level for the Antwerp Giants. At just 18 years old, he’s already played for the Under-16 and Under-18 European championship teams and was the leading scorer on both.
When he played for Belgium’s U-18 team last summer, Akyazili excelled in all areas, averaging 15.6 points, 4.6 assists and 4.1 rebounds. Thanks to that and many other outstanding performances, he was rated one of the two best European guards eligible to play college ball in the United States.
He caught the attention of Head Coach Tad Boyle and staff, who began pursuing Akyazili to fill the void that former guard Askia Booker left upon his graduation from the program last season.
Although St. John’s had also been recruiting Akyazili at the time, Boyle’s offer was ultimately one he couldn’t refuse. Akyazili recalled the coaches being “really persuasive,” and his visit to campus at the end of last season sealed the deal for him.
“I just really liked the way they contacted me,” Akyazili said. “It was like there was a need for me here, so I came on my visit here in February. I saw the game against Arizona, and the game was really bad, but I still liked it and I liked the team environment, the coaches, everything. It was the right place for me.”
But that wasn’t Akyazili’s first trip to the U.S. Back in 2014, he traveled stateside to spend some time at Stephen Curry’s Under Armour SC30 guard camp. Beginning in 2014, the annual four-day camp features the 20 best high school guards in the world who, by invitation only, receive the opportunity to learn under the NBA MVP himself during a private workout.
You can watch the video of Akyazili (No. 32) and the rest of the guards in last year’s camp here.
Since his arrival on campus in August, Akyazili has been making great strides on the team. After the first week of practice, he has already shown great versatility on the court with exceptional shooting abilities and fairly good ball-handling skills. Not only that, but the Belgian already shows a high basketball IQ in nearly every play he makes during intra-squad scrimmages.
This was something that Associate Head Coach Jean Prioleau, who also doubles as the guards coach, said played a big role in the team’s recruitment of Akyazili.
“He’s transitioning well. He plays hard. Because (he) plays hard and has a high basketball IQ, he’s going to be fine,” Prioleau said. “He has a good feel for the game, he has a good pace of play and he’s picked up the offense really well. We’ve actually added a lot of new things that we haven’t done before, concepts and things like that, and I think he’s picked it up pretty good.”
In addition to his hoops smarts, Akyazili brings a strong work ethic to a team that didn’t necessarily have one last year. That work ethic ultimately left a big impression on the coaching staff, even though they couldn’t watch him much when he played overseas.
“I’m not over in (Belgium) seeing him play every single second, but it’s more about him than maybe where he played,” Prioleau said. “It doesn’t matter if he was from the moon — just his makeup is playing hard and going hard.”
As for his adjustment into Boyle’s new style of play, Prioleau is confident that Akyazili is ready to take on the challenge.
“I think he’s definitely going to help us. We need everyone on our team, and I think he’s doing a great job. Everyone has to make that transition when you come in. It doesn’t matter if you’re a freshman, it doesn’t matter if you’re a junior college player,” Prioleau said. “He’s picked (the new offense) up well. His intensity and how he plays is perfect. He’s picking it up fine. He’s right where he needs to be.”
Akyazili shares that confidence with his coach and believes his best skills lie in his offensive game.
“On the court right now, my biggest strength is creating … I think, for myself and my teammates — just making plays,” he said. “I just think I can find the open man, let the team come in this game, knock down open shots, and I just hope that everything I have to do I will do.”
But that’s not to say there aren’t some parts of his game he needs to work on.
Akyazili said he believes one of his biggest areas of improvement lies in limiting his turnovers.
“If you saw me in practice, I made like three turnovers in practice,” Akyazili said. “That needs to change, but I have a good feeling about the season.”
Even though the Buffs haven’t played a game yet his season, Akyazili already has big plans for himself and his team.
“For me individually, I want to just make myself known, be important for the team and be a good teammate,” he said. “As a team, I just want to make March Madness and win the Pac-12 championship.”
Contact CU Independent Assistant Sports Editor Alissa Noe at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow her on twitter @crazysportgirl1.