Quiet by nature, Brandon Sampson doesn’t blindly leap into answers when he’s asked questions, whether they are about his LSU basketball teammates and especially himself.
There’s a slight pause, some reflection, no clichés.
Then there’s Sampson on the basketball court, who brings energy and high-level skills – exactly the kind of player the revamped Tigers need to blossom this winter in a season when not a lot of folks are giving them much of a chance to be successful.
As LSU enters a new phase without the one-year phenomenon of Ben Simmons hovering over the program and his one ill-fated season that unraveled late, Sampson has emerged as an intriguing wildcard among the returning veterans.
During a recent media day event, Sampson was referred to as the Tigers’ ‘forgotten man’ on a few occasions. That role doesn’t seem to bother the soft-spoken Baton Rouge native.
“Not at all,” he said after that pause and reflection mentioned above. “Last year I don’t think anybody except Ben established a title and I certainly don’t give myself one. I just think about what this team needs and what we need to go forward as a team.”
With no Simmons, no Keith Hornsby, no Tim Quarterman and no Josh Gray, what LSU needs is for experienced players to step into more prominent roles, and Sampson is in that core group.
Antonio Blakeney and Craig Victor are back as full-time starters from last year to provide a foundation. After that, fifth-year coach Johnny Jones and his new-look staff must fill in the gaps with a handful of players with experience blended with a five newcomers.
Sampson and Jalyn Patterson are the two veterans back who played the most, and in what figures to be a three-guard lineup, that tandem will be counted on heavily.
A former high school star at Baton Rouge powerhouse Madison Prep, Sampson showed up in the summer of 2015 and made a strong impression when LSU went on an exhibition tour to Australia, averaging 11.8 points and 3.4 rebounds a game.
Leading up to the 2015-16 season, the silky 6-foot-5 guard earned a starting spot with Hornsby mending from a knee injury and came out firing – scoring 18 points in his college debut and hitting double digits in three of the first five games.
When Hornsby returned to action, Sampson’s role diminished, and conquering that emotionally took a toll.
“I think he put too much of an emphasis on starting coming out of high school, which most kids do,” Jones said of the 2015 Mr. Basketball in Louisiana. “They’re stars when they’re seniors in high school and people are telling them and giving them direction on what program they should go to and how they could impact teams sooner. He came here knowing he had to challenge for a spot with guys like Blakeney and Keith Hornsby. When he comes in he sees the physical presence of those guys and the experience they have and they may have been a little ahead of him at that time and I thought that might have discouraged him somewhat.
“It affected him in a sense where it as tougher for him to fight through and he put too much of an emphasis on that. But as the year progressed he was able to work through it and I think he’s had a tremendous summer. That’s why I think he will impact our team really well this year.”
And that increased impact will happen in small ways that may not necessarily show up in a box score or on TV highlights.
Shooting and scoring were the easy parts to master as a freshman a year ago. The natural things to any basketball player who has achieved enough to advance to the college level.
For Sampson, it was things like operating within an offense without the ball, being the guy who made the pass before the pass to score and especially adjusting to the physicality needed for 40 minutes on defense that chipped away at his playing time.
In other words, Sampson encountered the same hurdles almost every freshman does making the transition from high school to college.
“Last year there were a lot of small things I needed to critique and a lot of stuff I needed to learn to do better,” Sampson said. “I see last year as a big stepping stone for this year. Going from being a freshman to sophomore is a big learning experience.”
Which is something he and Blakeney have talked about often after they went through the fire together last season.
Blakeney was a starter most of the year and hit a basketball maturity growth spurt midway through the season. He averaged 18.6 points over the last 11 games as Simmons faded at times, Hornsby missed the home stretch and Quarterman struggled to play consistently.
Sampson had a front-row seat to Blakeney’s emergence, so he knows what is needed to approach that corner and turn it.
“Samp has been work very hard and competing,” Blakeney said. “He’s knocking shots down and he’s playing as confident as I’ve ever seen him.”
More than that, Sampson has evolved from quiet freshman soaking everything in to a sophomore no afraid to speak up.
“He’s way different now,” Blakeney said with a smile. “He’s loud and he’s getting on guys in a positive way. He lets me know when we’re on court that he’s working with me to make sure we both get better and that the team is getting better.”
One area where that work could show up, even subtly, is on the defensive end of the court.
Without the kind of rim protector last season that the Tigers’ better teams in recent memory have had, LSU’s defense struggled, especially the two freshmen frontcourt players.
At times, both showed that they have the athleticism to contain an opposing guard, but Jones has urged both to get better in that regard.
Now with shot-blocker Duop Reath as a menace at the rim, the Tigers need their guards to ratchet up their defensive game.
“The area that I want them to get better at and buy into more – and they are very capable because of the size, strength, length they have – is on the defensive end of the floor,” Jones said.
“Brandon Sampson, I thought especially over in Australia last year, may have been our best perimeter defender early on. As the season progressed, he kind of tapered off a little bit, but we know what he's capable of doing. It's just getting him locked in and doing that throughout.”
“We all know as a team that there a lot of people that can score,” Sampson said. “Since this summer, being a better defensive team is something we’ve all focused on.” http://www.scout.com/college/lsu/story/1721371-lane-kiffin-s-offense-dra...
Add the element of defensive stopper to Sampson’s contributions, or if he simply gets to the stage where he is a reliable defender, and the potential for his impact is tantalizing.
During that early-season burst, Sampson twice buried four 3-pointers in a game. He and freshman Kieran Hayward from Australia are poised to be the two perimeter shooters most likely to fill the void left when Hornsby graduated.
More than, though, Sampson is a solid free-throw shooter who is quick enough to draw contact on dribble-drives. Because he played on teams at Madison Prep that were loaded with talent – including two years with former LSU standout Jarrell Martin – Sampson is also comfortable distributing the ball when he draws the attention of the defense.
“The good thing about Brandon, he’s got a sidekick over there in Antonio Blakeney, and he's not a guy that people can just focus and concentrate on and just trying to stop (Sampson) from scoring because of the explosiveness that Blakeney brings,” Jones said. “But Sampson, in his own right, should be able to help Antonio because of his ability to score and really stretch the defense. He’s excellent in terms of ball-handling in the open floor. If we can get him out on the open floor and allow him to attack the basket, with his athleticism, it certainly brings an added dimension to our team.”
Enough so that Sampson doesn’t figure to be forgotten much longer.