Written by Garrett Catalana – @GarrettCatalana
When the Philadelphia 76ers announced their 2014 Orlando Summer League roster, there was little buzz surrounding the players who were on the team except for Nerlens Noel, who was set to make his pro debut. Filling out the roster were players from the year before (Noel, Hollis Thompson, Casper Ware), draft picks (Arsalan Kazemi, KJ McDaniels, Jerami Grant, Pierre Jackson), a few notable undrafted free agents (Aaron Craft, Ron Roberts), and some no name players who had little chance of making into the NBA (Isaiah Sykes, Travis Bader, Talib Zanna, Ed Daniel, Jamelle Hagins, Melvin Ejim). The other undrafted no-name player was Akron, Ohio native and Saint John’s product, JaKarr Sampson.
Sampson had modest production during his two years at Saint John’s, averaging 13 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.1 assists per game. He declared for the draft following his sophomore season but was not invited to the NBA Draft Combine. He participated in a “mini combine,” run by the Los Angeles Clippers, meant for fringe draft prospects that were not invited to the Combine. This list includes some NBA players today such as Tarik Black (Lakers), Eric Moreland (Kings), Russ Smith (Grizzlies), Ron Roberts (Raptors), Bryce Cotton (Jazz), and Scottie Wilbekin (Sixers). In that workout, Sampson was measured at 6’8.5,” weighing 207 pounds, a wingspan of 7’0,” and a standing reach of 8’7.5.”
Following all the pre-draft workouts, including visits with the Kings, Clippers, and the Heat, Sampson went undrafted in the 2014 NBA Draft and was free to sign with any team that presented the best opportunity for him. Sampson latched on with the Sixers on their Orlando Summer League roster and was a key member of that team that actually won the summer league championship. In five games, he averaged 19.4 minutes, 8.2 points (50% from the field), 4.8 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 0.6 blocks per game. Sampson defied the odds and was signed to a contract by the 76ers following his performance in Orlando with a shot to make the 15-man roster.
When the 2014-2015 regular season began, JaKarr Sampson’s name was still on the roster. Sampson had made it into the NBA as an undrafted free agent. Sampson started with a small role with the team just playing 6.5 minutes per game in October, but his minutes increased every month (11.1, 11.8, 13.6 19.3 MPG in March). He averaged 18.6 MPG in April but played the most minutes of his career in the last month of the season when he was averaging 21.2 minutes per game, following the trade of fellow rookie KJ McDaniels. His season total stat lines were as follows:
Totals: 74 games (32 starts), 15.3 MPG, 5.2 PPG (42%), 1.3 FTA (67%), 24% from three, 2.2 RPG, 1.0 APG, 0.5 SPG, 0.4 BPG
Advanced Statistics: 9.4 PER, .50 TS%, 1.1 Defensive Win Shares, -0.7 VORP
In most of these statistics categories, Sampson ranked between 11th and 23rd amongst NBA rookies, ranking like a player who should have gotten drafted. He was able to provide much of his statistics based on the minutes and games he logged, which were higher than most other NBA rookies in different situations, providing most of his value from his versatility. According to Basketball Reference, Sampson logged minutes at four of the five traditional positions, with most of his minutes coming at the small forward spot (58%), while also playing minutes at the two (7%), the four (33%), and even some center (2%). At times when Michael Carter-Williams and Tony Wroten were both injured, JaKarr would become a secondary ball handler in the offense, creating the nickname “PointKarr.” Sampson also had some aerial assaults on the rim that were “Vine-able” as well as strong moments in transition. In a time where the Sixers were devoid of talent, Sampson took advantage of his opportunity and became a regular in the rotation by the end of the season. The question now becomes, what does Sampson have to do to become a legitimate rotational NBA player?
For players who don’t have the overall skillset to set them apart in this league, they need one definable skill, one tangible thing that will keep them in the league. Some sort of skill that is either very good or elite, like Steve Novak with his shooting, Joel Anthony for his rim protection, or Reggie Evans for rebounding. These guys have stuck around for so long because they had one definable NBA skill. Which begs the question, what is Sampson’s skill that will keep him in the NBA for the next six, seven years? To answer that question, let’s look at his primary strengths and weaknesses:
- Positional Versatility
- Quick First Step Off the Dribble
- Ability to Run in Transition
- Leaping Ability
- Ability to Contort His Body at the Rim
- Bad Shooting Form
- Inability to Finish at the Basket
- Poor Decision Making
- Poor Rotations on Defense
- Below Average On-Ball Defender
Based on this template, it seems obvious what his NBA role could be: a versatile NBA defender that could theoretically guard anyone from the one to the five.
At 6’9, 215 pounds, Sampson has the ideal body size to be a very good defender in the NBA. His issues aren’t in the physical department; they are in the mental department. What he doesn’t lack in size and athletic ability, he lacks in general basketball IQ, especially around the rim and on the defensive end. Just like KJ McDaniels, Sampson struggled with defensive rotations and knowing where to be when he was the help-side defender. He also struggled at being an even average on-ball defender; with mental lapses that gave his man open lanes to exploit him. His on-ball defensive stance isn’t ideal and he cheats too much which allows older, veteran players to easily drive by him.
Here is a famous example of that, but thankfully he had Nerlens Noel to back him up (emphasis on “Just Blows by Sampson”):
Since he lacks the mental awareness to cut off angles to attacking players, Sampson was rarely in a position to take charges or force turnovers while playing on-ball defense. According to Hoops Manifesto, Sampson only took one charge in 74 games. For someone who wants to make it in the league as a perimeter defender, that is unacceptable. On the flip side, defenders drew twelve offensive fouls on him. JaKarr will need to figure how to better use the angles, and if he does that with his freak athleticism, he can defend his space way more efficiently.
If Sampson can figure out the mental side with team defensive concepts and be more disciplined when it comes to on-ball defending and knowing where he has help behind him, Sampson can become the Sixers best perimeter defender in 2015-2016.
On the other side of the court, Sampson has both physical and mental issues when it relates to offense. The form on Sampson’s jump shot is elongated, slow, with his feet very far apart, resulting in too many contested shots and blocks.
(from 2:00 to 2:07)
He also can’t create a jumper off the dribble, either. Of the 31 three pointers he made last season, 30 were assisted. Sampson has to greatly improve his shooting form to become even an average shooter in this league.
While Sampson has an ultra quick first-step off the dribble on his way to the rim, his decision-making is very suspect once he enters the lane. I’m not sure if it is his court vision, the inability to make up his mind, or whether he’s out of control when he’s around the rim, but usually there are issues if any defender is in the vicinity of the lane. As previously stated, defenders drew twelve offensive fouls on him which attributes to his “out-of-control-ness.” He was blocked 33 times (majority of those at the rim), drew just 43 shooting fouls, and just seven And-1 opportunities. Sampson should take a page out of his former teammate, Michael Carter-Williams’ book. MCW didn’t have the same attacking ability that Sampson has but he was able to use his size and length to contort his body in order to make a layup or dump off a pass to a waiting big man, like this:
Sometimes Sampson displayed the ability to contort his body in the lane, like here:
(from 2:26 to 2:37)
(from 5:46 to 5:52)
Sampson is a decent finisher at the rim; making 23 of his 26 dunks attempts (89%), and 59% of his layups, resulting in a 65% field goal percentage at the rim. If he can figure out how to better utilize his ability while attacking, dishing, or contorting his body at the rim, Sampson could become a decent slasher in the NBA.
Via Basketball Reference, here is his Shot Chart and his Heat Map for the 2014-2015 season:
Based on theses charts, Sampson’s offensive strengths lie within three feet of the rim. While he took most of his 127 three pointers up top or on either wing, Sampson was better percentage-wise in the corners (the easiest three pointer). Like here:
(4:57 to 5:04)
This leads me to believe that in the half-court, Sampson should only be doing one of three things: shoot corner threes, attack the basket off the dribble (slash) within the parameters of the offense, and attack the offensive glass looking for second chance points. If defenses take away his ability to catch the ball on the perimeter or in the corner, he should cut back door and see if an opportunity presents itself in that scenario.
Perhaps Sampson’s best ability is to get out in transition, which is essential to what Brett Brown is preaching with this young, athletic group. Down the line, I believe Sampson has the ability to both start and finish a fast break. He has the latter part of that equation down, as seen here:
If JaKarr can become an above average on-ball defender, he can start breaks by forcing turnovers and getting defensive stops as well as using his height and leaping ability to get rebounds to end defensive positions. His defensive potential can lead to even more fast-break opportunities.
In conclusion, if JaKarr wants to stick around in the NBA for the next seven years, he needs to improve in many areas. He needs to improve his shooting form, his shot selection, his decision-making/body contortion in the lane, his defensive IQ, and defensive stance to make it in the NBA.
Courtesy of Tom Moore of the Bucks County Courier Times, Brett Brown said: ”Our best balanced team is with JaKarr because he can guard. In a perfect world, you want 2-way players.”
I couldn’t agree more with Coach Brown’s assessment. At the start of the regular season, the Sixers starting five will consist of at least three minus defenders (Canaan, Covington, Okafor) and one major plus defender (Noel). The missing starter is at the two-guard spot, with conventional wisdom saying Nik Stauskas (a minus defender) would start there. I agree with Brett that starting Sampson would be ideal for the start of the season to help the team defense. Sampson does not represent a 2-way player, but with this team there is no perfect world.
“I want to be that guy who can shut down or make it tougher on great players.” – JaKarr Sampson
I have two words for JaKarr: Prove It.
He is signed for his season and the following season, but both are non-guaranteed salaries, so he can be cut at any time without financial repercussions. He needs to prove himself this season because the team has (potentially) four first round picks and Dario Saric coming over next season, which could mean JaKarr would be out of a job only two years into his NBA career.
JaKarr Sampson has all the physical tools to become a successful NBA player, but he needs to improve his fundamentals and decision-making in order to stick around for at least another season. Who knows if he is around for the next Sixers winning season, but he needs to improve in the areas already stated to keep collecting paychecks. With this organization focused on player development and allowing young players to learn while playing actual NBA minutes, Sampson has every opportunity to become a legitimate NBA player. He proved himself by making it to the NBA after going undrafted in 2014, now let’s see if can he prove himself again in 2015, new hairdo and all.