By Jack Williams
Georgia Tech’s fast-paced Yellow Jackets – now you see them, now you don’t – are shooting for the stars this basketball season and Tony Akins, the smallest man on the team, may have the biggest dreams.
“I will do anything it takes to help this team make the NCAA Tournament field,” Akins said this week after he had engineered one of the early-season’s biggest surprises, a 72-67 win over UCLA in the John Wooden Classic in California. “If we keep shooting well and get our share of rebounds, we can fool a lot of people.”
Under new coach Paul Hewitt, the Jackets already have fooled their share. Although they stumbled, 75-70, against Georgia Wednesday night, they carry a 4-2 record into Saturday’s Delta Air Lines Classic for Kids at the Philips Arena. Tech meets Kentucky in a noon headliner while Georgia battles North Carolina State in the second game at 2:30 p.m.
Akins (5-11 and 187 pounds) scored 28 points and was the Player of the Game when Tech beat UCLA. It was his second-half performance that turned the game around and lifted the Jackets to victory. He did not fare so well, however, against Georgia, shooting poorly throughout. He did manage to dish out six assists and had just one turnover. For the season, he ranks fifth in the ACC in assists and is in the top 10 in shooting percentage.
It is becoming obvious as the season progresses that, as Akins goes, so go the Yellow Jackets. A junior from Lilburn, Ga., who was Georgia AAAA High School Player of the Year in 1997-98, Akins is in his third season as a Tech starter and leader at the point-guard position.
He is excited to be a part of the new Georgia Tech system – which quite frankly, makes me dizzy just watching. Under Hewitt, the Jackets are perpetual motion. These guys are so tuned in to the breakneck system it seems sometimes they can run faster going backwards than most people do traveling full speed ahead.
Akins is enjoying every second of it. “The conditioning pays off,” he said. “We run full court drills every practice at top speed. Every drill has to be perfect or we do it again. I can tell a big difference in my stamina. I run the court going full speed and am not even tired. I feel I can run past anyone.
“The coaches are very friendly, always joking and kidding around off the court. But when we get on the court, everything is business, which is the way it should be. The practices are very tough to say the least. But you realize out there that everything you are going through is good for you.”
Akins rates Tech’s win at UCLA as “one of his biggest thrills at Tech.” He says it ranks up there with the Yellow Jacket victory over North Carolina at Alexander Memorial Coliseum his freshman season.
“Beating a team like UCLA, with all its tradition, was really special,” he said. “It make it even more special that Coach (John) Wooden was there. I got a chance to shake his hand after the game. He congratulated me and that meant a lot to me.”
Tech’s third left-handed point guard of the past decade, Akins currently is third on the Tech team in scoring (14.5) behind big Alvin Jones (17.2) and Shaun Fein (15.3). His 32 assists are more than twice as many as those recorded by any other Jacket player.
Akins, however, gives much of the credit for Tech’s success to other players, some of them the youngest guys on the team. “Marvin Lewis (freshman forward) is, without a doubt, the best shooter I have seen outside the NBA,” he said. “His jump shot has no flaws.”
Akins also talks glowingly about his back-court sidekick, Fein, who scored 24 against Georgia, and freshman Halston Lane. “We have four or five guys who are excellent shooters,” he said. “I hope that is going to enable us to finish high in the ACC race.”
The Tech guard rates Duke “as clearly the team to beat in the ACC” but does not concede a title to the No. 1 ranked Blue Devils. “I honestly believe we are capable of competing with any of them,” he said.
Right now, the main focus of Akins and his teammates turns to the big game with Kentucky Saturday in which the Jackets will be trying to end a six-game losing skid against the Wildcats.
“I have seen Kentucky on TV,” Akins said, “and it is a team with outstanding athletes. It’s a very big team, too. But I am confident we will play well.”
Akins has been involved in basketball since he was six years old and he played on his first midget league team a year later. Later at Berkmar High in Lilburn, he was a three-sport star, playing leftfield in baseball and running back in football as well as point guard in basketball.
“Baseball used to be my favorite sport when I was growing up,” he said, “but I got away from it because the game is so slow. I miss football now, but not baseball.”
In his early years, Akins modeled his game after that of two NBA stars, Isiah Thomas and Tim Hardaway. “Both are my size and played the game like I do, counting a lot on quickness,” he said. “But my main inspiration always has been my father (Jewell), who was a basketball guard in the old CBA. He sees all my home games and we are very close.”
At Berkmar, Akins emerged as Georgia Prep Player of the Year in basketball, averaging 28.6 points per game and leading his team to the AAAA Championship game where it lost to Savannah. He ended his high school career as the all-time top scorer in Gwinnett County with 1,955 points.
He represented the United States in the Albert Schweitzer International Tournament in Mannheim, Germany, an event which he says he thoroughly enjoyed. “It was a great playing in a foreign country, getting to experience all the different cultures,” he said. “I liked Germany and the German people a lot.”
He also was chosen to play in the Diaper Dandy Tournament at Auburn Hills, Mich., where he was teamed up with an array of the nation’s best players, including Corey Maggette, who went to Duke and then the NBA, and Erick Barkley, formerly of St. John’s.
Akins was recruited by more than a dozen major schools and narrowed his choices to Georgia Tech and Michigan. “I grew up in Detroit and had pulled for the Wolverines as a youngster,” he said. “But when we moved to the Atlanta area, I became a Tech fan.”
So Akins chose Tech, its management course of study and its basketball tradition. Now, he’s running, like Citation in the stretch, in an all-out effort to lift Tech back among the nation’s basketball elite.