Adjusting to life without Akal, veteran Harlan squad determined to continue winning ways


John Henson

Team members include, from left, front row: Cameren Maples, Will Austin, Kaleb McLendon, Jaedyn Gist, Kyler McLendon and Derek Pruitt; back row: Dylan Cox, Nate Montanaro, Jacob Clark, Matthew Pennington, Connor Daniels, Jake Brewer and Trenton Cole.

By John Henson, Managing Editor

With a senior-dominated lineup back from a 22-win team that made its fourth straight trip to the 13th Region Tournament, you might expect the Harlan Green Dragons to be ranked among the region’s elite teams heading into the 2022-2023 season.
Instead, the Dragons will have to answer one question that just about everyone who follows basketball in the 13th Region has asked since last season ended with a loss to South Laurel in the first round of the regional tournament — how will the Dragons play without Jordan Akal?
Akal, a five-year starter who ended his career as the second-leading scorer in school history behind only 1995 Mr. Basketball Charles Thomas, is now at King College while his teammates are left with the task of carrying on without their leader.
“To lose your point guard of five years, who averaged 25 points a game, is going to be an adjustment for me and the rest of the staff and the team,” said Harlan coach Derrick Akal, who is also Jordan’s father. “It’s an adjustment we’ll make during the course of the season. I don’t expect it to happen the first game. They are ready for it and look at it as a challenge. We’ll have to play a different style without him, and I don’t know if you can replace 25 points in six months.”
Even with Akal no longer around, the Dragons may be the region’s most experienced team with two four-year starters, along with a three-year starter and a two-year starter from last year’s squad that won its third straight All “A” Classic regional title and made it all the way to the All “A” final four.
“I think we’re deeper this year, so we can pick people up on defense. I also think we have more shooters coming off the bench and can shoot more 3s,” Akal said. “I’d love to shoot 45 3s a game.”
If not for the covid rule that allowed students to repeat a year of high school, the Green Dragons would be in the midst of a massive rebuilding job, but instead they have three seniors coming back for a fifth year of high school and two juniors going into their fourth year.
Harlan took something of a hit in the preseason rankings despite the experience returning. The Dragons were ranked siixth in the region by the Cats Pause and seventh by the 13th Region Media Network.
“Had it not been for the extra year, I would be bringing one starter back instead of four. Having that extra year allows these other guys to get more on-the-job training,” Akal said. “We’ve seen both sides of it. Some think we can be better without him with all the experience we have. Others expect us to be in trouble without Jordan. I think we’re still a good basketball team, and I don’t see how you couldn’t be with four starters back from a team that made it to regional tournament and the All “A” state semifinals. They’re winners, and they have confidence and believe they are supposed to win. They will tell you they will miss Jordan, but they are competitors.”
Akal is confident the Dragons have made improvements in several areas.
“I think depth was our Achilles heel last year. We had to play five guys for 31 minutes. We’re hoping we’re deeper this year,” Akal said. “We also have to learn to play without a guy like Jordan, and that will be a process. We hope these younger guys learn what it means to play varsity basketball. They have responded well so far in practice.
“I’m optimistic our younger players will make a quicker transition to high school basketball now than they would have if those guys were gone,” Akal said.
Jaedyn Gist (12.8 points per game last year, 11.0 rebounds), a 6-1 senior, is one of the players taking advantage of the opportunity and will likely become the Dragons’ top option on offense after three seasons of playing Robin to Akal’s Batman.
“I always call him my Swiss Army knife. He can guard any position on the floor or play any position. He does multiple things for us on both ends of the floor,” Akal said. “He’s another one with great leadership abilities. He’s an all-around good basketball player. He is totally different than last year. He’s bigger and stronger.”
Kaleb McLendon (11.5, 4.7), a 5-11 senior, is a 3-point and defensive specialist who is also back for a fourth year in the starting lineup.
“He has been a four-year starter. He’s Mr. Energy and Mr. Athletic. I think he’s one of the top shooters in the region,” Akal said. “He’s a great leader and one of our better defenders. He’s one of those guys who can do multiple things on the floor for us.”
Kaleb’s brother, Kyler (7.7, 4.3), returns in the backcourt where he will take over at point guard after sharing that role with Akal last year.
“I expect Kyler to take a step ahead of where he was last season,” Akal said. “He has two years of experience starting. We expect him to be the floor leader and do well.”
Will Austin (7.5, 7.6), a 6-3 senior, is coming off a breakout football season to again team with Gist to form the region’s most athletic post tandem.
“Will has gotten bigger and stronger, and he’s an under-rated ball-handler and passer,” Akal said. “We’ve been fortunate the last couple of years to have Jaedyn and Will. Both of them are great rebounders.”
The fifth starting job was somewhat in doubt during the summer, but eighth-grader Trenton Cole, a sharp-shooter from Wallins Elementary School and the brother of former HCHS standout Tyler Cole, appears to have won a job at wing.
“He’s gotten a little bigger and stronger. He’s a good shooter, and I love the way he plays and his toughness. We expect him to contribute immediately,” Akal said.
Nate Montanaro, a sophomore guard who saw extensive action off the bench last season, will also vie for a starting job or fill the sixth-man role.
“He hadn’t played much this year due to football, and it takes a little while. We think once he gets his timing and rhythm back he will help us a lot. He has a lot of raw talent,” Akal said. “He can help us on both ends of the floor.”
Connor Daniels and Dylan Cox, both freshman, will give Akal a couple of options off the bench to provide a spark in the backcourt.
“Dylan has made a huge jump from the summer to the start of the season. He does everything we ask and is one of the most coachable kids I’ve had. He’s going to be a heck of a defender and has learned to play without the ball,” Akal said. “Daniels is a good shooter and good defender. He plays hard. He’s a little under-rated as an offensive player. Those younger guys will get a lot of experience.”
Matthew Pennington, a 6-2 junior, provides depth at forward.
“He will hustle, rebound and play good defense,” Akal said. “He will also run the floor, and he’s a good shot-blocker for his size. He can help us at the four and five positions.”
Despite their recent success in the 52nd District Tournament with five straight trips to the finals, including a championship two years ago, the Dragons expect another tough battle with Harlan County bringing back a talented lineup and Bell County coming off its first championship since 2014.
“I have been saying for 12 years, going back to my years coaching girls basketball, that we have the toughest district to win in the entire region,” Akal said. “I don’t know that Bell just doesn’t retool. They have some guys who have been waiting on their turn to play and they still have (Dawson) Woolum. Harlan County is obviously one of the top teams in our region. Middlesboro has a new coach and I’ve heard some positive things about what they are doing.”

Nov 29, 22 South Laurel home 7:30 PM
Dec 5, 22 TBA WYMT Mountain Classic
Dec 13, 22 Pikeville away 7:30 PM
Dec 16, 22 Middlesboro away 7:30 PM
Dec 20, 22 Ashland Blazer at Pikeville 7:00 PM Pikeville Invitational
Dec 21, 22 TBA Pikeville Invitational
Dec 28, 22 Bishop Brossart at Bath County 3:30 PM Dan Swartz Classic
Dec 29, 22 TBA at Bath County Dan Swartz Classic
Dec 30, 22 TBA Dan Swartz Classic
Jan 3, 23 Pikeville home 7:30 PM
Jan 5, 23 Knox Central away 7:30 PM
Jan 7, 23 Lynn Camp at Barbourville 4:00 PM 13th Region All “A” Classic
Jan 12, 23 Clay County away 7:30 PM
Jan 13, 23 Bell County home 7:30 PM
Jan 20, 23 Middlesboro home 7:30 PM
Jan 27, 23 Harlan County home 7:30 PM
Jan 31, 23 Bell County away 7:30 PM
Feb 4, 23 Clay County home 2:00 PM
Feb 7, 23 Harlan County away 7:30 PM
Feb 8, 23 Knott County Central away 7:30 PM
Feb 9, 23 Knox Central home 7:30 PM
Feb 11, 23 South Laurel away 7:30 PM