After going undrafted out of Louisville, Samardo Samuels is preparing to enter his third season in the NBA playing in the NBA summer league for his team, the Cleveland Cavaliers. It is impressive in general that an undrafted rookie has done enough to cement a third year in the league with the same team, but as with any professional sport, players in Samuels’ position do not have the type of job security that LeBron James and Kobe Bryant have. He has shown flashes with the Cavs, but not nearly enough and has not exactly proven himself to be indispensable. According to Mary Schmitt Boyer of the Cleveland Plain-Dealer, Cavs Head Coach Byron Scott had a little talk with Samuels once this past season ended. Scott basically told Samuels that he was squandering his opportunity to play in the NBA. He had entered last season out of shape and Scott was not pleased with Samuels’ performance filling in for injured power forward Anderson Varejao, who suffered a season-ending broken wrist. Samuels took the conversation with Scott to heart. Since the season has ended, Boyer reports he has lost 18 lbs and has dropped his body fat percentage from 13 percent to 9 percent. It has shown on the court, as he has looked quicker and more explosive to the delight of the coaching staff.
In his two years at Louisville, Samuels was an enigma on the court. He came to Louisville as the highest ranked recruit in the Pitino era, listed as the no. 2 overall prospect by Scout.com behind Brandon Jennings, now of the Milwaukee Bucks. He was ranked no. 9 overall by Rivals.com, who described him as an “automatic double/double guy.” He was both a McDonald’s and Jordan Brand All-American. Needless to say, Louisville fans expected the world from him, even if it meant a one-and-done type season. Fans (along with Rick Pitino) had been driven insane by the Derrick Caracter circus the previous two seasons. The fans wanted somebody who was going to do his job correctly, respect the coach, respect the game, display a positive attitude, play consistently, be reliable, and work his tail off on and off the court to get his job done. In a sense, fans wanted the anti-Derrick Caracter. The fans ended up getting that in a way, but not exactly the way they wanted.
In the first few exhibition games and regular season games Samuels appeared against Mickey Mouse teams, he appeared primed to live up to his billing. He looked like a man amongst boys in the offensive paint, throwing down powerful two-handed Shaq-like dunks consistently and displaying nice touch as well. His rebounding was not wowing anyone yet, but fans were not worried about that. As the season progressed, however, Samuels’ weaknesses began to surface. While he would dominate smaller opponents from schools like Iona, he would disappear against tougher competition. He was absolutely manhandled by players like DeJuan Blair and Hasheem Thabeet. In a way, he looked completely intimidated by them. When things were not going his way, cameras would pan to him, where he would display a pouty look on his face. He would get frustrated, make mistakes, and get lazy on the court. His billing as “an automatic double/double guy” looked to be an exaggeration, as his rebounding numbers were rarely in the double digits, and at times, he seemed to be less than enthused when going for rebounds. In a way, he was the anti-Derrick Caracter, but not in the way the fans had hoped. Say what you will about Caracter, but he was not intimidated by anyone, and he would go right at guys like Blair and Thabeet and would at times, make them look stupid. His problem was his attitude, work ethic and disregard for authority and rules. Samuels’ problem was his tentativeness, his inconsistency, and the fact that he would get way too down on himself when things went bad.
It should be noted that while Samuels had his issues, he was in no way an underachiever at Louisville. He was one of the best scorers of the Pitino era and helped lead the team to an Elite 8 and no. 1 overall NCAA Tournament seed as a freshman. He did his work in the classroom, did what Pitino would tell him to do, and had no trouble off the court. He was by all accounts a good young man. Yet, he was frustrating to watch, as he was always a solid scorer, his subpar defense, his inconsistency and perhaps his lack of effort on the glass left something to be desired. The talent was there, it just was not always completely utilized. When he elected to go pro after his sophomore year, fans were stunned, as he was not even projected to be drafted. As it turns out, those projections came true. He went undrafted, but due to a strong showing in the summer league playing for the Chicago Bulls, he earned a contract from the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Samuels has been fortunate to stay with the Cavs and has plenty of opportunity for playing time. Yet, one of the reasons he has been able to stay with the Cavs is because…well…it’s the Cavs. If someone out there can tell name player on the Cavs roster aside from Samuels, Kyrie Irving, and Antawn Jamison, they either are a die hard Cleveland fan (my sympathies) or spend way too much time watching the NBA. With a thinly talented roster with not much depth at the 4 and 5 positions, Samuels has had plenty of opportunity to establish himself. He has had some good games for the Cavs, registering multiple double digit scoring games and a few double doubles. Yet, he has not done enough to separate himself from the pack and he has been passed over for former Notre Dame star Luke Harangody on more than one occasion. Scott saw this, was tired of seeing it and decided to give Samuels a wake-up call. The minutes were not just going to be given to him. He did not have the luxury of taking his position on the team for granted. He was going to have to work for it, plain and simple, and so far, it appears he has done just that.
Scott has been pleased with the way Samuels has played in the summer league and could barely recognize him when league play started.
“I hadn’t seen that guy,” the coach said. “I was wondering, ‘Where’d he come from and did we get a new player?’ His body . . . it was an amazing transformation. It was good to see that he’s obviously taking this coming season very seriously.”
Samuels admitted he took what Scott said seriously and decided after the season to clear his head, get focused, and get himself more basketball ready.
“I have to have a good summer. That’s the only thing I was thinking in my head every day after the season: I had to have a good summer. I have to be a better basketball player. I have to do this. I have to do that. Instead of just talking about it, I just did it every day. That progression, every day, leading up to here — you can’t come to summer league in bad shape.”
He has taken his workouts more seriously and his diet has improved as well as he has dropped fried food from the menu and has been eating more turkey and grilled chicken, as Boyer points out. Samuels has already noticed the difference and says he can move around a lot better, feels quicker and is “ready to go.”
Samuels has all the talent in the world to succeed in this game. The question has always been, “Is he willing to work for it?” Perhaps he had been taking it all for granted. Perhaps he thought the NBA would always be there no matter what happened. Perhaps Scott’s speech is exactly what he needed to hear to get his mind right. For in the NBA, no one has a guaranteed job, especially an undrafted rookie with a history of inconsistency and work ethic issues. In this league, it has to be earned and the players have to prove they want to earn it. It sounds like after hearing Scott’s words, Samuels now realizes that. Hopefully, he will remember whatever the words were in Scott’s speech, because if he does, he could have a long, fulfilling career in the NBA.