Despite the changing of the guard after a quartet of NBA departures, the ‘Cats are entering the 2018-19 season with a still tremendously talented roster. Most of the focus on who steps up is understandably on Jay Wright’s exiting ninth ranked freshman class. But could Jermaine Samuels, the one member of the 2017 recruiting class who wasn’t featured last season, make the greatest impact of any newcomer to the rotation?
This year’s cohort of freshmen promises an instant impact at guard and in the frontcourt via Jahvon Quinerly and Cole Swider, but there is more trepidation about the readiness of promising wings Brandon Slater and Saddiq Bey. If you recall, Mikal Bridges had no true backup at small forward last year; Jay Wright would often play a three-guard lineup with Donte DiVincenzo serving as the three. While Wright popularized this style and itmore than suits the way he likes his teams to play in short spurts, it could prove unsustainable if the majority of minutes are doled out this way, at least on the defensive end of the floor.
What people also seem to forget from before last season is that Samuels was in fact the top-ranked member of Wright’s 2017 recruiting class, ahead of fellow four-star recruit Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree and well ahead of three-star recruit Collin Gillespie. Now a named starter, Gillespie is proof that circumstances and public perception of a player can change very quickly. In fact, even Wright was surprised by the shift in the proverbial power rankings within his freshmen, saying, “Our first thought was it was gonna be an easy transition for him [from high school]… I thought for Collin Gillespie it would be a really difficult transition.”
But what is it about Samuels that puts him in a position this upcoming season to reverse his fortunes and increase his reputation in a similar fashion? Although Wright was famous for his pioneering three-guard lineups throughout his first decade in charge of the ‘Cats, since the 2011-12 season he has started an undersized player at the three only once, during the 2015-16 championship season. Josh Hart was the de facto small forward that season, but as undersized forwards go he was an unusually tough defensive matchup. Because college position listings sometimes come off as slightly political, think of a traditional small forward as 6-6 or taller: lineups Wright put on the floor with three players 6-6 and taller are effectively traditional one through five lineups. Samuels is listed at 6-6 on Basketball Reference and at 6-7 on Villanova’s official site. With Cole Swider, Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree, and Eric Paschall seemingly destined to occupy the minutes at the four and five, Samuels’ only apparent sources of competition for minutes at the three are freshmen Brandon Slater and Saddiq Bey. While Wright says it is unlikely at this point, one of these two still could take developmental redshirt season.
But even if both freshmen compete with Samuels for minutes, they could struggle just as Samuels did last year in limited playing time behind Mikal Bridges. Notably, Wright sees a nuance in Samuels’ game compared to the freshman class that he attributes to “experience level,” which seems to point towards him having a leg up over those two at this stage. Admittedly, whispers around the program seem to indicate Jahvon Quinerly joining already-anointed starters Booth and Gillespie for the ‘Cats first game in the Pavilion against Morgan State. However, Wright tends to tinker with his defenses through his non-conference slate before becoming satisfied around the start of BIG EAST play, and don’t be surprised if he decides neither of the 6-3 Gillespie or Booth are capable of handling BIG EAST forwards and Quinerly shifts to the ever-worshiped sixth man role allowing Booth and Gillespie to assume their more natural roles in he backcourt.
There is a precedent at Villanova for wings to mount storied careers on top of disappointing freshman seasons. Kris Jenkins, he of perhaps the most famous moment in program history, averaged 11.7 minutes and 4.1 points per game his freshman season. Two seasons later he sank the buzzer-beating shot to win the program’s first national title in thirty-one years. Now, Jenkins’ freshman season stat line is certainly not as dire as the 6.1 minutes and 1.1 points per game Samuels recorded last year, but Wright explains some of that away because of how “when [Samuels] got injured he got caught behind.” There was simply not enough time available in the thick of competitive conference play to give him the time to catch up.”
Wright obviously thinks Samuels is ready to play a role for the ‘Cats this season. More importantly, in hearing Samuels’ teammates talk about the changes in his play and his attitude this past offseason, an upward trajectory seems almost inevitable. While Eric Paschall first noted that Samuels work ethic is obviously improved coming into this year, he noted that Samuels is more than simply working harder; he is also working smarter and “asking a lot more questions.” Phil Booth has seen the effects of this as well, stating confidently that Samuels “has learned everything that we do.”
This lack of comfort in the system above all else was the greatest weakness in Samuels’ game last year. When he was confident, he would show flashes of the talent that made him the most coveted recruit in his three-man class. Too often, however, he appeared uncomfortable in Wright’s admittedly complicated system, which led to him making sometimes groan-inducing mistakes. Veterans’ passing down wisdom to younger players is a hallmark of Wright’s program, and although there are fewer sources of wisdom this year, the squad’s elder statesmen are going above and beyond to compensate by making themselves available “all the time,” as Paschall explained.
While his fluency with the concepts of the system was Samuels’ primary obstacle last season, his improved skill on both sides of the ball is also turning heads. Both Paschall and Booth noted his defense and shooting from behind the arc are much improved from last season. It goes without saying that a program like Wright’s that relies on spacing the floor on offense and discipline on defense can never have a surplus of able three-point shooters and defensive stoppers. This is especially true on the wing, often a tweener-zone defensively for smaller guards who often find themselves overwhelmed and big men who lack the necessary mobility. Having a player who can mesh length and agility similarly to how Bridges did for three seasons for the ‘Cats is a huge asset. As Booth put in less quantifiable terms: “he’s proven a lot to [us], and we’re excited for Jermaine.” Whether he provides this length and energy from the starting lineup or off the bench, Samuels should find his niche to make a difference on this ‘Cats squad after losing his place last season.