By CODY WORSHAM | Tiger Rag Editor
In the wake of LSU’s disappointing 2015-16 season, I spoke with several folks in and around the LSU basketball program about the team’s hopes for the following year, what they could do to ensure the next season was better than the previous one. With the losses of Ben Simmons, Tim Quarterman, and Keith Hornsby, the outlook wasn’t, from my perspective, particularly positive.
In those conversations, though, the name that came up time and time again, no matter who I spoke to, as the team’s biggest variable was Brandon Sampson. How well he played, I was told, would go farther in spelling LSU’s success — or lack thereof — than any other player. Antonio Blakeney, Duop Reath, Craig Victor – these, at least to those who knew best – were relatively known quantities. Sampson was a wild card, with a ceiling so high even he might not be able to reach it with his 40+ inch vertical.
I was also told that Sampson was better than the numbers he put up in his freshman season — 4.0 points per game, 32% shooting, 23 DNP-Coaches Decisions — indicated, and that in terms of his development, he was further along as a freshman than was Tim Quarterman, who saw a notable uptick in his production between year one and year two.
“When the focus comes,” one person told me of Sampson, “he can be a nightmare.”
Fast-forward to this winter, and we’re seeing those truths bear out. Sampson’s averaging 12.5 points per game in LSU’s 8-2 start, shooting 52.3% from the field and posting a team-best 123.8 offensive rating.
The focus has come. Sampson is a nightmare for opponents, and a dream for his team. He is vastly improved, and, consequently, so is his team.
Sampson arrived last year with oodles of potential, a top 40 national prospect from LSU’s own backyard, one of the Killer B’s. I saw him firsthand a handful of times in high school, both for Madison Prep and his AAU squad, and when he was on, he was a sight to behold. Smooth stroke. Superb elevation. Elite length. At his best, he was as good a shooting guard as I’d ever seen in person at the prep level.
But he tended to fade from games, at times. It was hard to tell if it was disinterest or, my personal opinion, simply a natural lack of aggression. Sampson’s a soft-spoken kid, and he was a relatively late bloomer on the floor for Madison Prep. At times, I don’t think he realized how good he could be.
That manifested itself in his freshman season. Sampson flashed the sort of raw talent fans crave, particularly early on in the season. In the preseason, he balled out in Australia, averaging 11.8 points per game while shooting 49% from the floor and 46% from the arc. Johnny Jones said he was, at times, “the second best player on the floor” behind No. 1 NBA draft pick Ben Simmons.
It just didn’t translate into the regular season on a consistent basis. He flashed the talent, but at other times looked lost. For a guy who’d been a regular starter since day one of high school ball, he never could find a rhythm off the bench, buried the depth chart behind proven quantities like Hornsby, Quarterman, and Jalyn Patterson.
“I think he put too much of an emphasis on starting coming out of high school, which most kids do,” said Johnny Jones of Sampson earlier this year. “They’re stars when they’re seniors in high school and people are telling them and giving them direction on what program they should go to and how they could impact teams sooner. He came here knowing he had to challenge for a spot with guys like Blakeney and Keith Hornsby. When he comes in he sees the physical presence of those guys and the experience they have and they may have been a little ahead of him at that time and I thought that might have discouraged him somewhat. It affected him in a sense where it as tougher for him to fight through and he put too much of an emphasis on that. But as the year progressed he was able to work through it and I think he had a tremendous summer.”
“I think that’s normal,” Sampson said earlier this year of his freshman season. “I don’t think that was a bad thing, just facing those things. I think it was a good thing that I went through those challenges, because it prepared me to where I am now. So (I’m) just getting off those things and trying to improve from them.”
The biggest cause for improvement in Sampson on the offensive floor is his willingness and ability to attack the rim as a sophomore.
A year ago, he was mostly a catch-and-shoot player. He spotted up on 41% of his possessions used as a freshman, scoring only 0.895 points per possession on such plays, per Synergy Sports. When spotting up, he only scored five points off the dribble, compared to 44 points on catch-and-shoot attempts. He used just six pick and rolls all season, scoring a single point.
The transformation in year two is drastic. Sampson’s now very much a slasher with a mid-range component to his game. He’s shooting an SEC-best 71.7% on 2-pointers (33-of-46), a full 10% better than the next-highest guard with at least 25 attempts from inside the arc (Grant Williams of Tennessee, 61.0%), according to KenPom.com. He’s spotting up less, and when he does, he’s driving more, scoring nearly half his spot-up points off the dribble, per Synergy Sports. He’s already used 28 pick and rolls, nearly five times the number he ran all of last season. Watch the move below. He’d never have had the confidence to try this as a freshman.
In the mid-range, he’s become exceptional, as he is around the goal. He’s shooting 58% on two-point jumpers, 22% above the national average and triple what he shot a year ago, and a remarkable 82% at the rim, 21% percent above the national average and a 20% improvement from last year, per Hoop-Math.com.
His ability to hang longer than shot blockers and his touch around the rim leads to points few others could produce as a driver.
This is particularly true in transition, where he scores 1.6 points per possession. He can dunk with the best of them, or use craft to make something else happen.
In the half court, he’s also become a more intelligent cutter. He opened his 20-point game vs. Charleston, one of the best defensive teams in the country, with a nice curl off of a stagger screen for a layup, then later busted his defender with a backdoor cut and the finish through the foul.
Here’s a look at some of Sampson’s numbers from the past two seasons compared to the national averages, courtesy of Hoop-Math.
[table],,FGA,TS%,eFG%,% shots at rim,FG% at rim,%assisted at rim,% shots 2pt J,FG% 2pt Jumpers,%assisted 2pt J,%of shots 3pt,3FG%,%assisted 3s,FTA/FGA,FT%
Brandon Sampson 2015-16,,109,0.439,40.40%,19.30%,61.90%,76.90%,19.30%,19.00%,25.00%,61.50%,26.90%,88.90%,24.80%,70.40%
Brandon Sampson 2016-17,,88,0.614,59.70%,30.70%,81.50%,27.30%,21.60%,57.90%,27.30%,47.70%,31.00%,84.60%,33.00%,69.00%
2016-17 National Averages,,–,54.20%,50.99%,35.79%,60.56%,44.01%,27.85%,36.26%,33.03%,36.37%,35.18%,85.23%,35.79%,69.38%[/table]
Meanwhile, his ability to elevate that makes him effective as a rim attacker also makes him effective as a pull-up jump shooter. He gets defenders on their heals and leaps during their retreat for uncontested looks, or simply jumps so high that the defender can’t get a hand up to obstruct his view.
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) December 17, 2016
“I’m adjusting to it well,” he said of his new role. “It’s a big change, of course, from the role I played last year – just a role player – to be a guy that really contributes, it’s pretty big. I’m just trying to do the best I can at it to help my team any way I can. Even if it’s not scoring, getting rebounds and assists, keep my man in front of me, that’s what I’m trying to do to make my team better.”
Sampson’s a good enough shooter that his 30% clip from deep should start trending closer to 40%, particularly as opponents start accounting for his ability to drive past them. It should free up better looks from behind the arc. The same principle applies as a free throw shooter.
His biggest growth area, though, is on defense. When he turns it on, he’s an exceptional defender, as he showed in the closing seconds against North Carolina Central. Matched up against their best player, Patrick Cole, and with NCCU needing a bucket for the tie or win, Sampson got a big block and then forced Cole into a travel, giving LSU the ball and the win, proving he can defend when he locks in.
“I know what I’m capable of,” Sampson said. “I really appreciate my coach putting that trust in me. It just lets me know he has faith in me, knowing I can do anything. I’m going to work as hard as I can to prove it to him too.”
“He’s doing really well on defense,” Blakeney added. “He’s so athletic, he anticipates so well. We guard each other every day. He can anticipate what an offensive player does. He’s doing well with that.”
It’s just about staying locked in on that end for Sampson, who can be prone to the lapses all young defenders succumb to. His strength – anticipation – can, like all strengths, be used against him. He’ll allow dribble penetration by over-anticipating an attacker’s move. His closeouts can be a little stiff. And he’ll sometimes try to jump to his man too quickly at the expense of help, leaving his teammates vulnerable.
But overall, he’s been much improved defensively. A year ago, he gave up about 0.9 points per possession as the primary defender. This year, he’s improved the number to 0.75, per Synergy Sports. It’s his team defense that needs the most refining. LSU’s giving up 101 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor, per OpenLookAnalytics.com, compared to 90 when he’s off of it. Of course, he’s usually off the floor when reserves are playing, meaning the opposition is at its weakest, offensively.
The best news is that Sampson is just beginning to tap into his potential. He’s realizing it, quite literally, figuring out just how good he can be, just how high his ceiling is. The sooner and closer he gets to it, and the longer he sustains his current level of play, the better LSU’s chances are of getting where they want to go this season.