Player preview: JaKarr Sampson's only pressure is his own

John Alber

Sampson averaged 14.9 points and 6.7 rebounds per game as a freshman in 2012-13.

Being the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year has its perks. You become the talk of college basketball enthusiasts, everyone knows your name and you're popular, prestigious and memorable on campus.

The higher the bar, the higher the expectations become the next time around. JaKarr Sampson finds himself looking up at a high bar as the 2013-14 season begins.

Individually, he has been placed on the Big East's preseason all-conference second team, projecting him as one of the league's top ten players. Talks of a possible entrance into the NBA Draft only halfway through his college eligibility will likely surface.

But Sampson's greatest expectation this season likely lies in what he'll be able to give his Red Storm, a team that is widely anticipated to be an NCAA Tournament selection come March. If Sampson isn't the most important ingredient for Steve Lavin's current Johnnies, he's a close second.

Pressure is on.

Vitals for 2012-13: 14.9 points/ game | 6.6 rebounds/ game | 44.9% FG shooting | 13.6 field goals attempted/ game (27.4% usage rate)

Whether he wants to admit it or not, there is a greater pressure on JaKarr Sampson to produce for St. John's this season. His team is counting on it. His future career could be dictated by it.

He is someone that needs to be attacking the rim off the bounce, get some points in transition using his speed and get on the glass for second opportunities. -Steve Lavin, on JaKarr Sampson

If you ask Sampson yourself, he'll say the only stresses he feels are those which he imposes on himself.

"I don't think there's outside pressure [to perform well this season]. I know I put a lot of pressure on myself to get better every year and get better every game," Sampson said on Wednesday.

Before Sampson hit his stride last season, he struggled in St. John's early season games. He only scored a combined ten points in the team's first two games against Detroit and College of Charleston. Was it a slow start or did the forward simply need time to adjust to the college game as a freshman?

On Saturday, Sampson again struggled in the Red Storm's first outing of the season, scoring just three points on 1-8 shooting in 23 minutes against Division II San Francisco State. Is it a trend?

"JaKarr wasn't aggressive enough [against San Francisco State]," Lavin said. "He is someone that needs to be attacking the rim off the bounce, get some points in transition using his speed and get on the glass for second opportunities. If you put that all together, it's going to be a double-double every time."

Lavin said that, though Sampson didn't play overly well in the Johnnies' two exhibitions, he continues to excel in practice. The focus on improvement is evident, and there doesn't seem to be a worry that the sophomore's early success hasn't gotten to him too much.

"We haven't had a sit down conversation. I'm not concerned with any complacency or JaKarr not playing with a hard edge," Lavin continued. "If anything, you have to sometimes remind him to take a deep breath and re-channel the energy. We'll flush it and move forward, and I don't see it becoming a trend."

Friday's season opener, where St. John's will meet #20 Wisconsin in Sioux Falls, S.D., is an important game for the program. If the Red Storm can come home with a victory over a ranked opponent, it would be a welcomed first step toward an exciting season in Queens.

The game could be equally important for Sampson, as he seeks to leave his personally inflicted pressures behind him. He knows Friday night is a big stage to show the world just how good and versatile a player he can be. The outwardly goofy Spongebob-loving, always smiling JaKarr Sampson is on a mission.

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