DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell having breakout summer league with Denver Nuggets

LAS VEGAS — Sometimes Illinois State coach Dan Muller worries when his players take their professional basketball careers overseas, wondering how they will adapt to a new culture and living across an ocean from their families.

But when DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell joined Denmark’s Bakken Bears in 2016, the coach knew Akoon-Purcell was ready for the adventure. He had already moved from Orlando to rural Oklahoma to Normal, Illinois. He always reacted to hard coaching with a steady demeanor. And the way he figured out how to train his dog or repair his own car without asking for help reminded Muller of a man twice Akoon-Purcell’s age.

“He’s got a natural maturity about him,” Muller said of Akoon-Purcell. “He’s very simple as far as what he needs in life, and that carries over with success. He doesn’t need a lot. He just needs a ball.”

Akoon-Purcell is one of the “great surprises” of the Nuggets’ summer league team, which plays its final game in Las Vegas Friday night against Minnesota. The athletic shooting guard with defensive versatility and a ferocious offensive approach has averaged 12 points, two rebounds, 1.5 assists and two steals in 19.3 minutes per game, making his case for a two-way NBA contract with Denver or another team watching from the Cox Pavilion on UNLV’s campus.

“Honestly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into,” Akoon-Purcell said of his mindset in Las Vegas. “I didn’t know if I was gonna play two minutes or 20 minutes (per game). Just whatever opportunity they gave me, I took advantage of it.

“I just come in and play as hard as I can, and that’s what makes the minutes increase. As long as I keep doing the same thing, it should only be good things from here.”

Akoon-Purcell was not a defensive dynamo when he arrived at Illinois State from Eastern Oklahoma State, a junior college in a town called Wilburton with a population less than 3,000. But Muller always marveled at how Akoon-Purcell’s peak physical condition allowed him to maintain his competitive scorer’s mentality. He immediately became the Missouri Valley Conference Newcomer of the Year, and averaged 13.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and one steal in his two seasons at the school.

“He steps on the court and he thinks he can get buckets against anybody,” Muller said of Akoon-Purcell’s collegiate career. “That’s a gift. That’s important. A lot of guys, they have the talent to do it, but they don’t have that confidence level. DeVaughn always has.”

As a pro, Akoon-Purcell’s 6-foot-5 frame has bulked up to 200 pounds. He refined his skills and improved his outside shot. He became the top scorer and MVP of the Danish Basketligaen League in 2017 and won his second consecutive championship earlier this year.

Now Akoon-Purcell relishes being a disruptive defender, using his long wingspan, body control and constant energy to deflect passes. He told point guard Monte Morris on the first day of summer league mini-camp “I’m gonna ride with you. I’m a dog.” Morris, who acknowledges he did not know anything about Akoon-Purcell at the time, responded with a sly “Alright, we’ll see in Vegas.”

In Denver’s opening win over Minnesota, coach Jordi Fernandez quickly lauded Akoon-Purcell’s activity and communication on that end of the floor. In Saturday’s breakout effort over Boston, he compiled three steals and 19 points — including a strong finish at the rim that caused Nuggets coach Michael Malone to peek over the elevated press seats on the baseline to praise Akoon-Purcell’s aggressive style. While starting in place of an injured Malik Beasley in Monday’s victory over Milwaukee, Akoon-Purcell went 3-of-4 from 3-point distance and finished with 18 points.

But the moment that perhaps most impressed Fernandez? An intangible hustle play Monday night, when Akoon-Purcell lost the ball on offense but quickly recovered on the other end of the floor to take possession back.

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