On Nov. 30, 2015, DeVaughn Akoon-Purcell and the Illinois State Redbirds marched into Rupp Arena to face the top-ranked Kentucky Wildcats and their highly-touted freshman guard Jamal Murray. Kentucky won 75-63 but Akoon-Purcell got the better of his future Nuggets’ teammate in the head-to-head matchup.
He remembers it well.
“I kind of went off that game. I think I had 22 (points) and six (rebounds),” said Akoon-Purcell, rattling off his exact stat line from the game that took place nearly four years ago. “We were matched up that game too. Jamal didn’t’ really do that much. He was the main guy on the scouting report for us and we focused in on him really well. He really didn’t get off how he did against other teams. But they got the ‘W.'”
Murray, who finished with 16 points on 3-9 shooting, five rebounds and one assist against Illinois State, has no recollection of that game. He was drafted seventh overall by Denver six months later and averaged 21.5 minutes his rookies season with the Nuggets across 82 games on his way to All-Rookie Second Team honors. Murray would eventually supplant Emmanuel Mudiay and Jameer Nelson as the Nuggets’ starting point guard at training camp next fall. Entering his third NBA season, he’s quickly emerged as one of Denver’s franchise cornerstones.
Akoon-Purcell took a bit of a different path to the league. After Illinois State’s loss to Kentucky, the Redbirds went on to finish the season with an 18-14 record. They fell in the first round of their Conference Tournament to Indiana State. Akoon-Purcell, who spent two seasons at Eastern Oklahoma State junior college before arriving in Normal, Illinois, turned pro.
The 6-foot-5 guard went undrafted in 2016 but found a home in Denmark where he starred for the Bakken Bears in the country’s top league. Last season Akoon-Purcell averaged 18.2 points, 5.0 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game. He took a liking to Denmark, in part because of the considerable amount of English that’s spoken there but always kept the NBA in the back of his mind.
“I always wanted to play in the NBA I just didn’t know when the time was going to come,” Akoon-Purcell said. “I felt like I had the talent to be in the NBA. I was kind of motivated by people saying I couldn’t get to the NBA from Denmark, so that’ one of the reasons why I had so much success last year because a lot of people said that I couldn’t.”
Akoon-Purcell got the invite to join Denver’s Summer League team and impressed during the week-and-a-half Las Vegas showcase. The energy, intensity and passion he plays with on both ends of the floor and his willingness to scrap, claw and do the dirty work that many players turn a blind eye to impressed Nuggets coaches and executives.
After averaging 12.0 points 2.0 steals per game and showcasing an improved three-point shot, Denver and Akoon-Purcell agreed to a two-way contract a few weeks after Summer League concluded. Per an official G League release, “NBA two-way players will earn $77,250, prorated for days spent on an NBA G League roster, and the NBA rookie minimum salary, prorated for the days with their NBA team, for maximum potential earnings of $385,000 next season.”
Akoon-Purcell said he was also receiving interest from top-flight European clubs like Barcelona, Gran Canaria and passed up “big-time offers” from teams in Russia to join the Nuggets.
“I kind of felt like the two-way contract was a definitely a possibility after Summer League but I was actually leaning towards bigger jobs in Europe, but some of the offers didn’t match up to what my agent was really trying to get me,” Akoon-Purcell said. ” We came to the conclusion that we think the two-way thing might work out and if it doesn’t, I can just go back to Europe next year.”
The Orlando, Florida product follows in the footsteps of Torrey Craig, who the Nuggets also signed to a two-way contract last summer but after a standout year in Australia’s National Basketball League.
Like Akoon-Purcell, Craig came to Denver as a relatively unknown. He played a significant role at times for the Nuggets last year while splitting the season between Denver and the G League’s Sioux Falls Skyforce. Craig and the Nuggets agreed to a two-year, $4 million contract this offseason that will keep him in Denver on a full-time basis next year.
Akoon-Purcell and Craig’s similar paths towards the NBA have quickly forged a tight-knit bond between the two with Craig offering counsel to the rookie about what to expect while playing both in the G League and with the Nuggets next season.
“Me and Torrey chopped it up and he kept it straightforward with me,” said Akoon-Purcell. “He said, ‘The G League is basically where you go have fun and play your game and when you play in the NBA you just do things that other players don’t do which is work hard, play defense, rebound and earn your spot that way. Because everybody in the NBA can score. It’s just the small things that some guys don’t do.’
“[Craig] told me, ‘You just need to make open shots, play defense, rebound and just work hard. Every time I’m out there work hard and once they see that consistent level of play every time I get on the floor whether it’s two minutes or 20 minutes. Just be that same person every time.'”
The 25-year-old is joining a playoff-ready team in Denver with a rotation that’s already two or three-deep at every position. It will be difficult for him to match the 39 games Craig logged last season for the Nuggets but the two are cut from a similar cloth. Akoon-Purcell brings a lot of the same intangibles to Denver Craig did a year ago. On a roster that’s hurting for plus-defenders, his skill-set will likely grant him an opportunity at the NBA level at some point this season.
Akoon-Purcell will take whatever he can get this year. He’s thrilled to be in a place where he’s comfortable and ambitious about the journey he’s set to go on next season.
“It wasn’t nerve-racking because I felt like I was going to get a good job anyway it went. It was just about being in the right situation,” Akoon-Purcell said about the emotions he experienced while waiting on a contract this summer. “I’m only 25 so I thought giving the league a shot wouldn’t hurt.”