‘He’s really not afraid’: Sampson relentless against LeBron, Cavs in surprising start
CLEVELAND – If you’ve watched the Kings play enough this season, it’s clear there are games the team lacks energy and enthusiasm for long stretches.
Those are two qualities no one would ever say JaKarr Sampson lacks.
“That’s what I do,” Sampson said. “I want to be that energy guy out there, that guy goes out there and do all the dirty stuff, get my hands dirty, lock up the best player, grab rebounds, make it easy for my teammates. And that’s what I’m good at and that’s the type of player I am.”
Still, even Sampson did not expect the news he received when he arrived at Quicken Loans Arena for Wednesday’s game against the Cleveland Cavaliers: He would be starting the game and defending superstar LeBron James.
Sampson grabbed a career-high 16 rebounds, but the Kings still lost to the Cavs, 101-95. It was Cleveland’s franchise record-tying 13th consecutive win.
James hit a 3-pointer over Sampson with 15.8 seconds to play to give the Cavs a 100-95 lead. Sampson spent most of the night doing all he could to make it tough on James while playing with endless energy, something the Kings consistently struggle with.
Sampson played a team-high 33 minutes and showed the style of play that caught the attention of the Kings during summer league play.
“It was a surprise to me but I was happy for the challenge,” Sampson said of starting. “I know this is what I bring to the team, it’s defense. I like guarding the best player so I live for moments like this. It was fun.”
Sampson scored only six points, but his rebounds were the most by a King this season. More importantly, he was a bigger body that was not afraid to match up with James physically.
James still had a dominant performance with 32 points, 11 rebounds, and nine assists, but the way Sampson approached defending James seemed to energize the Kings, who led most of the game before late breakdowns in the fourth quarter cost them a shot at winning.
Sampson gives the Kings something they lack, a forward who is big enough to make it tough on the NBA’s bigger frontcourt players.
“I think he did great,” Kings coach Dave Joerger said. “He has some experience in the NBA and he has played (James) before. He was our best chance and I thought he fought like crazy.”
Sampson is one of the Kings two two-way players, so he plays primarily for their G League affiliate, the Reno Bighorns. In his watching the Kings while with Reno, Sampson saw what everyone else saw from the team. He saw nights where rebounding and defense were lacking – two areas that are bound to slip when energy and effort are problems.
Sampson knew he had to bring “a lot of juice, a lot of energy.”
“That’s what I tried to do tonight, but we came up short,” he said.
Sampson’s efforts were noticed by teammates, who made sure to continue to tell him he had a good game.
“He made a difference with just his energy,” forward Vince Carter said. “There’s a different energy than some of our other guys as far as our bigs and it’s a great switch for us. … He has a nose for the ball, that’s just what he does.”
The Kings wanted to make sure Sampson knew the team’s plays and schemes since he’d been with Reno. What he might not have known did not stop him from being relentless.
“He was aggressive, he has a high motor and he just loves to play and he’s not really afraid,” Carter said. “It’s not really the name (of the opponent), he just wanted to compete and take advantage of his opportunity and he felt comfortable putting him out there. … He just competed well and that’s what I love, he just plays hard and it doesn’t matter.”
Sampson finds nights like Wednesday fun. He was defending James, who, like Sampson, is from nearby Akron and played at St. Vincent-St. Mary. Sampson played there for three seasons before transferring to Brewster Academy in New Hampshire as a senior.
Sampson, who started 72 of 147 games he played in from 2014-16 with the Philadelphia 76ers and Denver Nuggets, wasn’t flustered at going from the G League to guarding James, even in his first start for Sacramento.
“It ain’t bad,” Sampson said. “I pride myself on defense. I love guarding the best player, that gets me going. I like that, I look forward to it.”