Last year he was the youngest player among a group of talented youngsters who actually was playing up an age level against international competition — a sort of dipping-in-his-toes test for what Thomas Akyazili would soon face playing NCAA basketball.
This summer the University of Colorado guard is back with the U20 national team from Belgium ready to begin play in the European Championships. The 19-year old Akyazili and his Belgium teammates open the tournament Saturday against Sweden.
"My role is going to improve. I should have a bigger role," Akyazili said. "I'm still one of the younger guys, but I should have a bigger role. I'm eager to show what I learned the past year. I've got a lot of freedom, I think, and I'm looking forward to playing."
A veteran of Belgium's U16 and U18 national teams in previous years, Akyazili appeared in all 10 games of last season's U20 tournament despite is relative youth. He averaged 6.9 points per game while shooting .362 from the field. That included a .333 mark (9-for-27) from 3-point range.
Belgium went 4-6 in the tournament last year, and both Akyazili and CU head coach Tad Boyle credited the experience for exposing Akyazili to a level of competition closer to what he was about to face in Division I basketball.
"He's more experienced now and he's more confident now," Boyle said. "Sometimes when you're a 17, 18-year old kid, you're just there to kind of be at the end of the bench and take it all in. But as he gets older this is going to help his development as a player. That's the great thing about the Euro players — they have a lot of that international competition before they come over here."
It was a solid but not spectacular freshman season for Akyazili last year, appearing in 33 games overall while making his first career start at UCLA in historic Pauley Pavilion.
Akyazili put together a team-leading assists-to-turnovers ratio of 1.71 (53 assists, 31 turnovers) on a squad that generally struggled in that department, yet he never truly found a shooting rhythm from the outside. Sometimes falling into the freshman trap of trying to do too much in his limited minutes, Akyazili averaged just 3.7 points and finished with a percentage of .288 (17-for-59) from 3-point range.
That errant outside shot has been the focus of Akyazili's offseason workouts, and he hopes he shows some of the results of that effort during the U20 European Championships.
"After my freshman year I know what I have to work on, and the most important thing for me is my scoring ability and different ways of scoring," Akyazili said. "I've really been working on my mid-range and my 3-point shot and floaters. I've looked at different ways of scoring and getting my percentage higher. That's the most important thing.
"Another thing was that I didn't shoot a lot of 3s. I shot like two every game, and if you miss both, your percentage is going to go down. That may have been an issue, but I've been working on it a lot with the coaches and it's improving."