A Time for Change: Samuels’ Senior Season

16 Dec

 

Jamar Samuels looks like he is rewinding. Having been airborne for a split second while contesting a shot, he comes back down, moves in the opposite direction of his dead sprint down the court and throws his hands up in the air. He tries to pull himself back, creating space between himself and the Virginia Tech player with the ball. Nevertheless, referees whistle him for going over the back on the rebound. It’s his second foul in the opening minutes of the game. He goes to the bench.

Back on the floor after the other team has put together an 8-0 run, he battles for a rebound after a teammate misses a shot. On the second chance attempt, his sneakers leave the floor and his hands meet the rim as he gets his first points of the game on a slam-dunk.

As he yells in triumph, his face is a mix of righteous fury and determination. Without further fanfare than a pump of clenched firsts, he quickly turns and heads down to the other end of the floor to play defense.

That would not always have been the case.

In his younger years, Samuels would hang onto plays. If he made a shot, he would be all caught up in that moment of success. If he made a mistake, his disappointment showed in his posture. If someone fouled him and it did not get called, he would engage in a personal, play-by-play battle with that player rather than focusing on the goals of the team. In all the scenarios, he would let one play affect subsequent ones – and that would affect the team, said Kansas State coach Frank Martin.

“To a certain extent, he was being emotionally selfish,” Martin said. “Now, he’s not allowing that to happen. Whether he makes a positive or a negative play, he remains positive and remains on-task, which then allows him to help the other guys continue to play.”

Because Samuels has been able to temper his emotional reactions, his coach has allowed him to play through mistakes in situations when he might have yanked him out of games in earlier years. Martin challenges the traditional wisdom that coaches have to let players play through mistakes.

“Not when a mistakes leads to two and three and four,” he said. “You don’t let those guys play through mistakes. Denis Clemente, Jacob Pullen, I let them play through mistakes because they made mistakes, but they wouldn’t hang their head or droop their shoulders when they made one. They kept playing to make sure they don’t make two in a row. Jamar’s kind of getting to that point now.”

Samuels is a senior, so this is his last chance – his last year at Kansas State University. Is Samuels ready to be a go-to guy for the basketball team? Martin has pondered the idea before, and his answer now is different than it has been before.

“He’s matured a lot,” Martin said. “I never would have answered that question with a positive answer before. That’s nothing against him. He just wasn’t mentally ready, nor had he put in the time for me to be willing to consider that. But he’s done it now.”

The process toward that new level of maturity began this summer, Samuels says. Over the months away from classes, he added 30 pounds of muscle to his tall, sinewy frame. Though no one would describe him as bulky now, it is evident that defenders are not able to push him around like they might have in his first few years. He has been able to go strong to the basket with more success.

While Samuels said the overall improvement in his game is the most indicative of his progress, his coach and his teammates say his attitude and demeanor toward the game and the group as a whole is also completely different.

“Last year he really followed,” sophomore guard Will Spradling said. “He wasn’t a leader at all. If other people maybe did something that wasn’t right or they shouldn’t be doing, he kind of just followed in their footsteps. He wouldn’t step up and be like, ‘No, we’re going in the wrong direction. We need to be going this way.’ He’s really changed. He’s really stepped up and taken lead of the young guys and put them in the right direction, which is something he definitely didn’t do last year.”

Spradling remembers a period of practices when the team was just “dead.” Samuels energized the team by picking up the intensity and going hard against the younger players to show them the kind of competition they will face when the team’s Big 12 schedule begins in January. In particular, he introduced big-bodied freshman forward Thomas Gipson, who could teach a clinic on post moves and whom no one else can the team can effectively match up with physically in the paint, to the bruising, relentless style of play he has to learn to have success down the road.

As for why he is holding those guys accountable now, Samuels said that it is simply his time to do so.

“I’m the old guy now,” he says with a laugh. “I have to do it. I can’t be a senior and just [be] letting the guys do things wrong. I’ve got to step in and let them know what to do.”

Early in the season, though, it seemed that Samuels’ example might be anything but positive. He began the year with a three-game suspension for violating team rules. While it is unknown what rule he broke or when the infraction occurred, missing the team’s exhibition game and its first two regular season contests hardly seemed like a good start to a senior campaign.

His first press conference with the media began with an apology and an indirect request to leave his unknown indiscretions in the past.

“My actions that I did, they’re behind me now,” Samuels said. “I just want it to be behind the people of K-State. You guys mean so much to me. I’m just glad to be back now and put all that stuff behind me.”

Temporarily losing the privilege of playing and taking responsibility for the actions that caused the loss of game time, Samuels gained a new perspective. He could not sleep at night. He was thinking about how his team was struggling and he was unable to help it during games.

“Sitting on the bench with street clothes on, it sucks. I wouldn’t wish that on any college basketball player at all,” Samuels said.

After serving his suspension, Samuels immediately entered the team’s starting lineup, and he scored in double figures in the first three games in which he played. The second and third games, he earned double-doubles: 10 points and 10 rebounds against George Washington and 17 points coupled with 14 rebounds in a road game against Virginia Tech.

Martin had spoken positively about Samuels since before the season began, and while the coach is notorious for being tough on his players when they make mistakes, he is someone they all find worthy of their loyalty and trust.

Samuels’ parents have been divorced for 18 years. His father is Jamaican, so he goes back and forth between his native country and the United States, and he and Samuels rarely speak. They do not have a strong relationship like Samuels has with his mother. This season, with the departure of associate head coach Dalonte Hill, whom Samuels knew since high school, Martin has taken on that father figure role for the senior.

Among the coach’s off-court emphases are giving effort in the classroom, being a gentleman, being nice to people and showing others respect to receive respect.

He’s guided me a lot,” Samuels said. “I don’t really have anybody out here that’s an elder that I can look up to now. I really do thank Coach Martin for that.”

Before his time at Kansas State, he credits his mother Ernestine and his brothers Devin and Brandon for giving him thick skin. In a house full of boys, there was sibling rivalry galore. Every athletic competition would inevitably lead to a fight, which they all thought was pretty funny. Their mother was less amused.

Samuels did not get to see his mother at Thanksgiving this year but eagerly looked forward to visiting with her at Kansas State’s road game against Virginia Tech. She follows his basketball career closely. He remembers one game in particular during his freshman year when her feedback was extensive after he scored just two points.

“She pretty much gave me a whole game plan of what I did, what I didn’t do, what I should’ve done, and I’m just on the phone, ‘Yeah Mom, okay Mom,’” Samuels said. “And then I actually looked at the tape, and she was actually right. She’s always been tough on me, but tough love’s always come around in my family.”

Between her tough love and that of Martin, Samuels indeed looks and sounds much more like an adult than he did two years ago. He is still a funny guy, a bit of a quote machine with that easygoing smile and joyful sincerity in his brown eyes. There is the impression, though, of some sort of deeper understanding and purpose.

“I’m still the same person off the court,” Samuels said. “I just got a little more wiser. I’m still the same person.”

Yet his answer to another question might belie that just a bit, albeit unintentionally. Asked to describe himself to someone who does not know him, he does not talk about his laidback nature, his class clown personality or his work ethic. The attribute he chooses to mention is not what one might expect.

“I’m very caring,” he said. “Anybody that knows me knows that I really care about them. If you’re part of my team, you’ll always have me. Forever.”

On the court, though, Samuels has just these next few months. Martin said the senior’s presence there stabilizes a youthful team because of his understanding of the system and his experience with the speed of the game. Spradling describes his elder as a complete player, one who blocks shots, brings intensity and scores.

In short?

“Jamar’s everything.”

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