Matured and enthusiastic, JaKarr Sampson finally hits center stage for St. John's

Tim Dimas

JaKarr Sampson is happy to be back at St. John's, and reflects on his re-recruitment by Steve Lavin.

On one side of the court, standing on the arc of the 3-point line was 6'8" wing JaKarr Sampson, in his white and red St. John's jersey, #14.

On the other side of the court was teammate Orlando Sanchez, waiting.

In front of Sanchez, about five feet away lay the basketball on the hardwood floor of Carnesseca Arena.

Sanchez moved towards the ball, flipping it up with his feet, over his shoulder, catching it in mid-air and leaving it off for JaKarr. Sampson rose up for the ball, contorting his body to receive the lay-off from Sanchez and slammed the ball for a perfect 10 dunk, a SportsCenter highlight, and a video that has earned well over 5000 views.

His moment had arrived, and on the first night of the season, JaKarr made his noise.

Last summer, Sampson was one of the highly touted freshman coming aboard coach Steve Lavin's ark. But JaKarr was halted on his way up the deck by the NCAA, who had ruled him academically ineligible to play for the upcoming season.

Frustrated, Sampson returned to Brewster Academy for a prep year with no promises to return to St. John's.

"I was hurt; you know, I was upset. Mad at myself, mad at St. John's," said Sampson Tuesday as he sat behind his red cloth table at St. John's Media Day. It seemed to be the first time he hadn't been smiling all day. "That's the reason I de-committed, but when I sat back and thought about it, I realized it wasn't St. John's fault. It was my fault for putting myself in that position. Not taking care of school work and business in the classroom."

A mature response from a 19-year-old student-athlete who understood the repercussions of not playing hard both on the court and off of it.

Coach Lavin stood by his side, even though Sampson had de-committed and Lavin was battling his own issues with cancer. Lavin never gave up on him.

"It was a hard conversation to have. Very emotional conversation," said Sampson about the phone call Lavin and him had after the NCAA's ruling. "He just told me to keep working hard, and even though you de-committed, I'm still going to recruit you. That made me feel important; important to the program."

When asked about Sampson during St. John's Media Day, Lavin broke down his ESPN Top 100 recruit down as a player and person.

"From a physical standpoint, JaKarr is long, bouncy and athletic," said Lavin. "And then he has this degree of confidence, a swagger that is contagious. There's a noticeable enthusiasm and passion that he has for the game. He has a desire to compete and to win that separates him from others."

Lavin called JaKarr "a treat to coach" because of his happy and joyful temperament and disposition.

"Sometimes you have kids who are somber or high maintenance," continued Lavin. "JaKarr just brings constant energy. He's a competitive individual who loves basketball."

When player introductions were being made during Tip-Off, Sampson came out vivacious. With the music in the background and the crowd applauding, Sampson ventured into the noise with dance moves that got everyone going and also showed his fun, spirited character.

"It felt good. I was happy to be there," said JaKarr, this time with the smile back on his face. "I was thinking, 'it was about time'."

Sampson prided himself on his ability to play multiple positions - a "mismatch nightmare" for defenders, like last year's standout Maurice Harkless.

"We are both mismatch players," said Sampson. "If we have a bigger player on us, we're going to go to the hole; take it around him. Use our athleticism and quickness. If we have a smaller player, we'll use our height and post him up; back to the basket moves."

Teammate Phil Greene was giddy about the opportunity to run the court with Sampson on the wing.

"It's great," said Greene. "You could really just throw the ball up to him and he'll go get it. He's a play maker; high-energy guy. We love having him on this team."

Amir Garrett, who, like Sampson, was ruled ineligible last season but was able to meet NCAA's standards to play in the second half of the season, said that he and JaKarr spoke often. And when they spoke he always told Sampson one thing.

"I used to just say to him, 'we belong here. This is where we need to be,'" said Garrett.

D`Angelo Harrison also had high praises for the 6-8 forward.

"JaKarr's been great. JaKarr is really going to be a factor in this league. He might win Rookie of the Year," said Harrison.

Harrison is known for boldness, so him putting Sampson at the top of the list for Rookie of the Year candidates isn't so surprise, though not out of the question with the promise Sampson has.

Harrison has been working on his combo guard skills this offseason. Having a finisher like Sampson involved eases the transition. Thinking of alley-oops and lob passes, the guard smiled and laughed, excited about what was to come.

"Oh man," let out Harrison through his laugh. "From me to him, to [Christian Jones] to Amir to Felix [Balamou]. Everyone's all athletic so I might throw an alley to JaKarr and he might throw an alley to someone else right there. It's going to be crazy, it's going to be crazy."

Through grueling practices and simulated games, Sampson said he doesn't have a set role yet but Lavin has given him instructions as to what he expects from the lengthy high-flyer when he's on the court.

"He asked me to be physical, offensively and defensively and just to play my game," said Sampson.

From a year well spent maturing and re-preparing for the college game, JaKarr Sampson is about to take on a huge role for this St. John's squad. But don't worry, he doesn't feel pressure.

"I don't feel like I carry any weight," said Sampson. "I feel we have a good young team coming in, good freshman coming in so I feel like we're all going to carry the weight. It's not just on my shoulders."

The only thing that is constantly on Sampson's shoulders is the force of gravity when he launches himself towards the net for a dunk. Even then, the pressure of gravity can't bring down a player with so much promise and talent and an effervescent smile.

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