On Wednesday night – the final home game of the season – the Cavs officially turned their focus to the future. The starters got most of the night off and D.J. Kennedy, in his first game as a pro, topped the team in minutes and scoring.
Last year, the Cavaliers were entering an entirely new era. This year, they began laying the foundation for a new one.
Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson were the obvious building blocks. Irving is the presumptive Rookie of the Year and if Thompson isn’t First Team All-Rookie, something’s seriously askew. He’s been the best rebounding rookie in his class. Kyrie’s been the best rookie overall.
Anthony Parker and Antawn Jamison were solid veterans and provided leadership on and off the floor. Alonzo Gee established himself as – at the very least – a strong rotation player. Anderson Varejao and Boobie Gibson had their campaigns cut short by injury. Omri Casspi and Luke Walton spent much of their season adapting to a new environment.
And a pair of second-year players – Samardo Samuels and Manny Harris – has spent the waning days of this season working to impress Byron Scott and Chris Grant.
Samuels and Harris came into the league together, both undrafted players who’ve had to work for every minute of floor time in the NBA. Their lockers are next to each other at The Q and almost always on the road.
They’ve had a similar journey to this point, and their play over these past two weeks could go a long way to determining their future with the Wine and Gold.
Manny has notched double-figures in five of his last seven games. In that stretch, he’s shooting .517 from the floor and an even 50 percent (9-of-18) from beyond the arc. He dropped 18 points on the Pistons in front of friends and family at the Palace and tallied a career-high 12 boards – along with 19 points – in a win over New York.
“It’s important to finish out strong, but it’s more important to just try to – as a team – finish out strong also,” said the former Wolverine. “But individually, I have a lot more confidence.”
As a rookie, Manny played in 54 games, starting 15. But during the NBA lockout, he suffered a serious freezer burn on his right foot in a Cryon-X recuperation chamber at the Nike facility in Oregon. Mychel Thompson, took advantage of the opening and made the Cavaliers out of the abbreviated Training Camp. Manny was released.
On December 28, he was signed by the Cavs D-League affiliate, the Canton Charge, where he began working his way back to the big leagues. He did so by winning NBDL Performer of the Week twice and averaging 41.0 ppg over his last two outings in central Stark County.
Samardo Samuels has been with the big league squad all season, but it hasn’t been an easy one.
After finishing his rookie season strongly, Samuels came to Camp after the lockout with a couple extra pounds. He scored 17 points against the Pistons in Cleveland’s second game of the season, but by early January, seemed to fall out of favor with Coach Scott – racking up five straight DNP-CDs.
“Being a bench player, you have to be ready for whatever,” observed the Jamaican-born Samuels. “And that’s what I learned at the beginning of this season. I had high expectations and I started off well in Detroit and I was feeling good. But coach hit me with he didn’t think I was in shape.
“So you get setbacks in life and that’s how it is, but I’m excited about this summer. I know what I need to do: Just live in the gym and come back in unbelievable shape. And take my game to the next level.”
In 37 games as a rookie, the 6-9 banger finished averaging 7.8 points and 4.2 boards per contest – good for 10th among rookie scorers and 8th in rebounding. In his 10 starts, he averaged 12.9 points and 6.4 boards per contest.
Like Manny, Samuels has turned up his game in the homestretch of the season.
Since April 11, he’s notched double-figures on four occasions and is shooting .531 from the floor and .826 from the stripe. He’s flashed some strong post moves as well as the 18-footer – averaging 8.7 ppg over that span. In Cleveland’s final home game of the season, Samardo went 4-for-6 from the floor and led the squad with nine boards.
“(I’ve been) just relaxing and just playing basketball,” said Samuels. “It was tough in the beginning, not knowing when you’re going to play and stuff. That was tough, I went through that phase. Now, I’m starting to be more consistent and I know what I need to do when I get in there.”
Manny Harris also ended the season feeling more relaxed on the floor.
“It’s more me being comfortable,” added Manny. “It’s not about me feeling like I’m under pressure or anything like that. It’s more me getting back to playing the way I like to play.”
Both Samardo and Manny will have an entire off-season to sharpen their games heading into next season. They figure to be in the Wine and Gold’s plans moving forward. And ending this strong is the first step.