Big Man on Campus

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If there’s one Cavaliers player who’s looking to parlay a strong finish from last season into this one, it’s Samardo Samuels.

The bruising big man from Jamaica rumbled his way into Byron Scott’s rotation towards the end of last season, and Samuels looks to make an even bigger splash as a sophomore.

Samardo is the only Cavalier big who wasn’t drafted, and it doesn’t take hours of game film study to see that he still carries that chip on his considerable shoulders.

Once one of the most highly-recruited prep stars in the country – Samuels opened scouts eyes with the Bulls Summer League squad two summers ago in Vegas. In Sin City, he took out some of his Draft night frustrations – saving his best game (17 points, seven boards) for a matchup with that year’s No. 5 overall pick, Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins.

Samuels worked his tail off in Byron Scott’s first Camp as coach, but his opportunity to shine wouldn’t come for another two months. Samuels played in Cleveland’s second game – a blowout in Toronto – but registered 31 DNP-CDs in the Cavaliers’ first 35 games.

But in January, Anderson Varejao’s ankle injury pushed Samuels into Byron Scott’s rotation, and two months later, Antawn Jamison’s broken finger forced him into the starting lineup. It was a memorable one – seeing Samuels take on his childhood idol, Tim Duncan.

In that contest, Samuels doubled-up with 23 points and 10 boards. Samuels would go on to notch double-figures in seven of his next eight games.

But not long after his eye-opening rookie run, Samuels suffered a pair of injuries – (to his right wrist and left groin) – that derailed his promising freshman campaign.

Still, in 37 games, the 6-9 banger finished averaging 7.8 points and 4.2 boards per contest. Samuels finished 10th among rookie scorers and 8th in rebounding. In his 10 starts, he averaged 12.9 points and 6.4 boards per contest.

Over the extended offseason, Samardo continued to work on his game. But, in a testament to his “basketball IQ,” he decided to do so in Los Angeles – working out with former (then-current) Cavalier, Baron Davis.

Davis set Samuels up with an apartment in So-Cal and Samardo would walk to the UCLA campus. “I had a schedule where I was walking (over to campus) to work out in the morning,” said Samuels. “Guys would come out around 3 p.m. – all the NBA guys that lived in LA. It was a great run. It was packed and we’d have nothing but NBA players.”

The L.A. experience seemed to re-energize the Cavaliers big, who missed nine of his last ten games with a pair of injuries.

“(It) was good to see other teams and see how they work,” added the former Cardinal. “To get familiar and just get comfortable with your opponent.”

Like a pair of his new teammates – Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson – Samuels cut his teeth in the uber-competitive New Jersey high school hoops scene, one that included players like the trio of Cavaliers as well as Corey Fisher, Corey Stokes and Lance Thomas.

“It was tough, and we were all tough Jersey kids,” said Samardo. “That’s why the Big East is so tough. It’s mostly kids from that region.

“We’d always look at the west coast kids like they were soft – they had it all. They live in paradise compared to walking to the train through the snow. That’s where I think the Jersey toughness comes from.”

Samardo battled Tristan Thompson – his teammate at St. Benedict’s in high school practice. Once he got to Louisville, he had to battle another current teammate, Luke Harangody, under the lights of the Big East.

“Luke was the man in college!” exclaimed Samuels, adding that he remembers Harangody dropping 30-something on his squad.

“I matched up with him a couple of times,” he recalled. “I did a good job on him. But you know, college is different because we’d sit in a zone. It wasn’t like man-to-man coverage. I would’ve done a better job on him if I went one-on-one.

“But Luke’s a great player; he’s a great shooter.”

The two bruisers now have their battles on the hardwood of Cleveland Clinic Courts in Independence.

At least these days, Samardo is able to pick on someone his own size. Growing up in Trelawny, Jamaica, the Cavs current power forward wanted to be a soccer player.

Samuels remembered: “When I switched to basketball, my coach told my mom – this is what he has to do: 10 push-ups this week, next week, he’s gotta go up to 20 push-ups to build (his) body up. And I remember I was still playing both sports. So I would leave the basketball training and go play soccer.”

“But all my friends would be like, ‘Dude, you’re getting too strong,’” laughed the former Cardinal. “They wanted to fight me because they thought I was overly aggressive, bumping them off the ball. I wasn’t doing anything wrong – I’m just a big dude!”

At 14, Samuels had outgrown both the sport of soccer and the competition in Jamaica. He was sent to live with a host family in Queens and, already at 6-6, originally went to a school on Long Island called Our Savior New American for a year. He made a name for himself as a freshman and throughout summer camps.

The next year, he would enroll with national powerhouse, St. Benedict’s in Newark, New Jersey.

Samuels spent two seasons under the tutelage of Rick Pitino at Louisville – playing the center spot, sometimes against his preference. After leading the team in scoring and rebounding as a sophomore, Samuels entered the NBA Draft two summers ago. Two rounds went with no takers.

But fate put the big man from Jamaica in Cleveland, and here is where he’ll make a name for himself at the NBA level.

“I still have a lot to learn and a lot to build on,” concluded Samuels. “I’m used to being that guy on every team I’ve played on. But now, this is the NBA; this is the elite of the elite. I just come in and listen to what Coach Scott wants, and play as hard as I can.”