Growing up in London, junior UMBC forward Daniel Akin wasn’t exposed to a ton of quality basketball.
A track and field and handball talent growing up, Akins saw his first high-level basketball game in person during the 2012 Summer Olympics, when he watched the Team USA take on Spain, but he didn’t pick the game up officially until he was 16, after a growth spurt pushed him to 6-foot-9.
“I was kind of forced to play after that,” Akin says.
Now entering his junior collegiate season, Akin is part of a small but important contingent of international players on UMBC’s men’s basketball team. In their fourth season under coach Ryan Odom, the program is pursuing its fourth consecutive winning season and a second trip to the NCAA Tournament.
Akin showcased his skills both with the English national program and at London’s Barking Abbey School. His height and multi-sport athleticism made him an enticing, if a bit under the radar, NCAA prospect.
Enter Odom. While an assistant at UNC-Charlotte, Odom built a relationship with Lloyd Carter, the Director of Basketball Operations at Barking Abbey. That relationship carried over to Odom’s first year at UMBC, and when Carter let him know about his homegrown prospect.
Instead of sending one of his assistants, Odom flew to England to personally scout Akin.
“He came to see me practice, and that day I said to myself, ‘I’m going to UMBC,'” says Akin. “He made an effort to come all the way to London. Most of the time it’s assistant coaches that come, not the head coach, so that was pretty big for me. He felt like a good family guy and someone I could talk to.”
Akin realized his potential early, earning America East All-Rookie Team and All-Tournament honors after grabbing 121 rebounds and scoring 126 points. He was also a key defensive matchup late in the season, and scored the Retrievers’ first basket in the program’s famous First Round upset over No. 1-seed University of Virginia.
Hoping to have a great followup year, Akin instead spent the 2018-2019 season battling a knee injury that he suffered playing for Team England in the U-20 European Championships the previous summer. He played in just seven games as a sophomore.
As a junior, Akin is slowly finding his form again. He’s played in all seven contests in the early season, averaging 7 points per game and snagging 35 rebounds.
“Dan is a willing learner,” says Odom. “He’s a guy who’s going to give you his best, and he’s very competitive, which is a very good attribute to have. His skills are beginning to catch up with his athleticism. He couldn’t do skill work because he had a knee issue, but he rebounded in summer training and started the fall well.”
Odom’s international recruiting goes beyond just Akin. Sophomore R.J. Eytle-Rock is another Barking Abbey recruit from the London area. As a freshman, he earned America East All-Rookie honors after playing in 31 games, standing out as both a speedy offensive guard and a strong defensive matchup.
“It was a very welcoming program,” says Eytle-Rock. “I knew Dan from before so that was an easy transition, It just sort of connected right away. The older guys showed me what coach expects.”
In the offseason the team also picked up forward Dimitrije Spasojevic, a Serbian native who transferred to the Retrievers in the fall after two seasons at East Carolina. Through the first seven games he’s scoring 9.9 points per game and averaging 21 minutes on the court.
“We have a very global game now, and I’ve recruited overseas at all the stops that I’ve been at,” says Odom. “Not to say you fill a full roster with players from abroad, but you like to sprinkle that in. You can find some really good players, kids that want to chase a great education and play a high level of basketball.”
There’s also a learning curve for adapting international talent for both player and coach. For the players, there’s the obvious cultural barriers that have to be broken, even for players from England.
“Being away from home, not being able to go home for six months at a time, it was pretty tough,” says Akin. “And we all speak English over here, but it’s different. British English communicating with Americans, it was kind of weird.”
Since his freshman year, Akin has made it a point to explore the region more, visiting both nearby Baltimore and Washington, D.C. He’s also served as a leader for players like Eytle-Rock who are also learning to adapt to a new country and a new style of play.
“It’s a good relationship,” says Eytle-Rock about Akin, “He knew the program before me, so he brought me along and showed me the ropes before I got here. I love playing in this arena, it’s a great arena. It’s nothing like I’ve ever played in before. We have great fans, a great atmosphere. It’s a very family-oriented program. I like it a lot.”
Despite some cultural barriers, adding that sprinkle of international talent has been one of the key pieces driving UMBC’s recent sustained success. While the world remembers the team’s 2017-2018 NCAA upset, the Retrievers followed through with another winning season (21-13) in ’18-’19.
Currently, the Retrievers hold a 5-4 record heading into Saturday’s home game against St. Francis (Pa.). They still have a tough out-of-conference schedule ahead of them, including home games against local rivals Towson and Coppin State and high-profile road contests against Georgetown and George Mason.
But like most mid-major programs, the road to the postseason goes through the conference schedule. UMBC starts America East play Jan. 4 against UMass Lowell. That’s when the team’s health and depth, both roster foreign and domestic, matters.
“We have to remain patient with this team because we have to put the pieces together,” says Odom. “I think there’s a really high ceiling for this team to get a lot better as the season goes on. We’re really excited.”