JaKarr Brings Joy, Energy to Kings

A positive outlook and defensive focus helped No. 29 ascend from the G League to the Kings starting lineup.
by Alex Kramers
Writer, Kings.com

Bursting with endless energy, an infectious positive spirit and childlike exuberance, it didn’t take long for JaKarr Sampson to endear himself to coaches, teammates and fans at St. John’s University.

On the hardwood, the Big East Rookie of the Year led all freshmen in the conference in both scoring (14.9 points per game) and rebounding (6.6), while racking up 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game. Inside his off-campus apartment, the perpetually joyful and admittedly-goofy big man mounted a shrine to his favorite cartoon character, thumbtacking his collection of SpongeBob SquarePants memorabilia across the walls.

“I’ve always loved SpongeBob – that started at a young age,” he said with a chuckle. “I’m outgoing. I can be goofy at times. But I turn into a different person when I’m on the court. I’m not backing down from anything and I’m not taking any plays off. That’s just who I am. I love working hard, I love the game, and I feel like (fans) can sense the joy that I have when I’m out there."

That compelling good nature and competitiveness – combined with his length, athleticism, and defensive-minded playing style – intrigued the Sixers coaching staff during Summer League in 2014. The undrafted free agent was a late addition to Philadelphia’s training camp roster, but his hustle and rim-rocking aggression made him impossible to keep out of the regular rotation by midseason.

“My personal first attraction to JaKarr was his personality,” Sixers Head Coach Brown told local media in 2015. “He’s got that infectious personality and willingness and desire to learn. He’s wide-eyed and wants to take it all in. And then you add in the fact that he’s got such a motor, is a bouncy athlete, and he’s 6-foot-8 … There was a versatility, there was an athleticism, there was a personality and charisma, all wrapped up into somebody who wants to learn and get better.”

Although he’s showcased his all-around skill set on multiple occasions – including a career-high 22 points to go along with six assists, five rebounds, and three steals against the Heat on April 15, 2015 – Sampson recognizes he isn’t the type of player whose NBA contributions will be neatly quantified through traditional statistics.

His modest career averages – 5.1 points and 2.5 rebounds per game – don’t instantly jump off the stat sheet, and his shooting percentages – 43.2 percent from the field and 23.6 percent from behind the arc – likewise hover around the League averages.

And even while his high-flying, posterizing dunks and chase-down blocks have been a staple in highlight reels, his intangibles are what have set him apart from countless other players still waiting for an NBA opportunity.

The electrifying spark plug has unhesitatingly welcomed coaching, and despite his young age and relative inexperience, has set an example for his peers by committing to playing stifling defense and willingly adapting to any role imaginable on the court – his gap-toothed grin never dissipating.

“(I bring) a lot of energy, a lot of juice – just a not-backing-down mentality,” he said. “I don’t care who you are, I don’t care what you’ve done in the League, I’m going to guard you hard, and I’m going to make you work for what you want to get. Having that energy can be contagious, especially on the defensive end of the floor.”

Taking advantage of his near-seven-foot wingspan and lateral quickness, Sampson has regularly embraced the challenge of slowing down the opposing team’s biggest offensive threat. Staying in front of perimeter players, as well as closing out on three-point shooters, the fourth-year pro has held opponents to 43.4 percent from the field as a rookie and 42.7 percent the following year, according to NBA.com.

In four games with the Kings this season, No. 29 has been even more effective, limiting his counterparts to just 34.8 percent shooting – 16.3 percent below their cumulative average.

“The way this team is built, we have a lot of people who can put the ball in the basket, but we don’t have a lot of people who can defend and lock down the best player on the other team,” he said. “That’s something I’m good at naturally. That’s the only way I know how to play. I give energy, I play hard and I don’t mind getting my hands dirty.”

A longtime admirer of fellow Akron, Ohio native and St. Vincent-St. Mary’s alumnus, LeBron James, Sampson has worked on expanding his versatility to the offensive end, studying film to better understand positioning and taking cues from the four-time MVP.

Throughout his rookie season, Sampson split time between both forward positions, occasionally shifted to center, and despite last playing point guard in middle school, even took on the role of primary ball-handler when injuries depleted Philadelphia's backcourt depth.

“It was insane, but it helped me a lot,” he said. “I picked up so many things that rookies still have to go through. The game slowed down a lot.”

As his playmaking and efficiency have improved, the 24-year-old has become more accustomed to pushing the ball in transition, utilizing an array of swift spin moves to get to the rim, and moving without the ball to become an around-the-clock alley-oop threat.

“That’s one of my strong suits – slashing to the rim, knowing when to cut and when to backdoor,” he said. “I’ve definitely focused on that and try to do it as much as possible during games.”

The 2017 G-League All-Star’s nonstop motor and eye-catching Summer League performance – 7.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 1.2 blocks in four contests – earned him a two-way contract with the Kings, allowing him to continue to hone his craft with Sacramento’s minor-league affiliate and spend up to 45 days on the NBA roster during the 2017-18 season.

“I knew that with my talent, the opportunity was going to present itself if I just went out there and played hard in Summer League,” he said. “They decided to give me an opportunity and I’m grateful for it.”

With starter Willie Cauley-Stein sidelined with a back injury against the Bucks on Dec. 2, Sampson – five days removed from a 26-point, 17-rebound performances in Reno – wasted no time in making his presence felt in chilly Wisconsin. No. 29 played an essential role in Sacramento’s second-half comeback effort, chipping in four points, three rebounds and one block, and finishing among the team-leaders in plus-minus (+5).

"He has a body that we need – an athletic, 6-foot-8 guy who can play a couple of positions," said Kings Head Coach Dave Joerger. "It's a little easier for him to stand in front of some versatile dudes, some drivers and some physical guys ... He was ready for the moment and I think we'll be seeing more of him."

Starting at center against the Cavaliers on Wednesday, Sampson corralled a career-high 16 rebounds – the most by a Kings player this season – along with six points and one steal, earning the praise of his NBA idol.
“I’m just happy to see him back in this league,” James said. “That’s a guy who works extremely hard and we trained a lot in some of his earlier years back at our alma mater. It’s great to see Sac giving him an opportunity, and he played well tonight."

In 71 minutes with Sampson on the court this season, the Kings have outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions, according to NBA.com. Not surprisingly, the spirited big man is also prominently featured in the Bighorns' two most productive and frequently-utilized lineups, which have outpaced the competition by 16.6 and 10.5 points per 100 possessions, respectively.

“Right now, this is the perfect situation,” Sampson said. “I’ve always believed in myself, I always knew I’d get back (to the NBA), and whenever I did, I would take advantage of it. That’s what I’m trying to do now. I’m hyped.”

No matter what assignment he’s tasked with, the ever-optimistic and relentless “SpongeBob” Sampson – ready to seize any playing time that’s there for the taking – is the epitome of what the coaching staff desires from its youthful roster.

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