I coach high school boys’ basketball. It’s often a cruel job, because the moment kids mentally and physically mature, they graduate and move on. Often, kids only reach their playing potential in the final few weeks of their senior season. I’ve had so many “if we only had one more year with you…” conversations at post-season banquets.
Of course, in college, the maturation process is usually much shorter. These days, a sophomore is often considered a veteran. And yet, without high school basketball this winter, I kept thinking about Jermaine Samuels having a high-school type career when I watched him play.
And then, following the season-ending loss, Jermaine Samuels gave us this quote:
“I thought I came in knowing that I knew basketball and everything about it, and I realized I didn’t right away. Coach Wright was patient with me every step of the way. I had guys that are older that showed me the way, kept in contact, and kept encouraging me. My teammates gave me confidence. It wasn’t easy at all. It wasn’t a smooth ride. I could’ve given up plenty of times, but the resiliency and this culture alone kept me going. The guys in this locker room kept me going. There’s so much I could say, honestly, but I’m just grateful to have this jersey on my back.”
That, my friends, is a quote from someone who experienced a very long road to actualization. His freshman year, he looked mostly lost in limited minutes on a title team. As a sophomore, Samuels struggled mightily playing on the wing, before finding a role as an undersized post contributor. Poised for a breakout junior year, Samuels struggled to consistently make shots for most of the season. The beginning of his senior year brought more disappointment. Samuels scored in double figures in only 2 of the first 9 games, with his shooting slump carrying over from 2019-2020. Samuels plays so hard that he was always going to find ways to contribute, but as Villanova took a month-long COVID pause beginning at Christmas, it looked as though Samuels would never truly reach his potential in a Villanova jersey.
However, he returned from the pause (in which he himself had COVID!) a different player. Over the final 16 games, Samuels scored 14.4 ppg, with a true shooting percentage of 63.3%. He shot 42% from 3, and went 56-65 from the line. He finished with the highest offensive rating of any Big East Player at 125.0, according to KenPom. As the second half the season progressed, Jay Wright seemed to lean harder and harder on Samuels to initiate offense, and as his usage rate increased, his efficiency remained. When Collin Gillespie went down in early March, it was Samuels who picked up the slack, in a variety of ways. Against Providence, Jermaine attacked the rim with a vengeance, scoring at will and getting to the line on his way to 21 points and 8 rebounds. Against Georgetown, Samuels continued his season-long torture of Qudus Wahab, shooting and attacking from the perimeter on his way to 20 points and 9 boards. In the NCAA Tournament, Samuels went back inside against smaller matchups, going 12-16 from 2, and 15-16 from the line in 3 games.
I used to joke that Jermaine Samuels was the most productive player I’d ever seen who couldn’t really shoot, pass, or dribble. It took him a long time, but he proved that take completely absurd. Samuels game isn’t the prettiest, but he is much more than a role player. He has found creative ways to score- with a creative array of jab jumpers, wrong-footed layups, and scoop shots. He has learned to make the right play with the ball almost every time he gets it. This is a player who proved in the final stretch of his senior year that he was capable of being one of the best players on a team that could play deep into March and April.
And here’s where we circle back to my experience with high school basketball players. Samuels was destined to be one of those “if we only had one more year with you” guys. And yet, because the NCAA is allowing an extra year of eligibility, Jermaine really will get that chance. And should we be surprised that he is taking advantage of that option? As he himself stated, he spent most of his career spinning in the wind, trying to find a way to be productive. And yet, by March, he was tormenting the eventual national champions in the paint. I bet that was fun. I’d want to do more of that too.
There has been a lot of talk this week about how Villanova will replace Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, the co-Big East Player of the Year and the only departure from the 2020-21 team. After seeing what I saw over the last 16 games, that replacement is already here. Samuels proved that he can be a matchup nightmare – exposing bigs from the perimeter, and punishing guards in the post. In his fifth year, he is more than capable of anchoring Villanova’s switching defense. I expect Samuels to be in the conversation for Big East Player of the Year in 2021-2022. The question shouldn’t be who replaces Robinson-Earl. That’s an easy answer. The question is how do you then replace Jermaine Samuels?