Jermaine Samuels (above) has become a regular double-digit scorer for No. 10 Villanova in his third season. (Photo: Mark Jordan/CoBL)
Zach Drapkin (@ZachDrapkin)
Jermaine Samuels has come a long way since arriving at Villanova.
In high school, the highly-recruited Franklin, Mass. product hadn’t thought much about what he was doing on the basketball court — he just played. He soon realized as a freshman for the Wildcats that the same wasn’t going to cut it in college, and played limited minutes behind veterans like Jalen Brunson and Mikal Bridges, adjusting while Villanova made its way to capturing the 2018 National Championship.
Samuels knew he had a lot to learn.
“Physicality. Terminology. Literally everything across the board that had to do with thinking about basketball,” he said. “Coming out of high school, everybody just plays, they don’t really teach as much, you just go out there and play, and when you get to college, there’s a whole lot of things you’ve got to know or you’re not playing.”
As a sophomore, it was much of the same for Samuels, who started playing more minutes but couldn’t put together consistent performances on both ends of the court. Things finally clicked during the final weeks of the season, however, and Samuels earned a starting role, averaging double-figure scoring over the Wildcats’ final eight games.
Over the offseason since that stretch, the 6-foot-7 forward has undergone a serious role change, moving from young breakout player in March to now one of Villanova’s three junior leaders for the 2019-20 season, alongside Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree.
After averaging 6.4 ppg and 5.4 rpg as a sophomore, and only 1.1 ppg as a freshman, Samuels is now a bona-fide scoring threat in the Big East, averaging 10.3 ppg and 5.3 rpg for No. 10 Villanova (10-2, 1-0 Big East).
Samuels has certainly improved a lot during the two seasons he’s spent at Villanova, and he credits that improvement watching lots of film and putting up extra shots before, during, and after practice. Still, for a player who just found his footing at the end of last season, it’s been a somewhat-quick transition to make.
“I’m still learning myself, so I’ve got to lead the way as well,” he said. “It’s an interesting role, but I’m grateful to have it and I’m still getting better at it and I’m getting better and better every game.”
That he is. Samuels has truly looked like a veteran out on the court, stepping up in big moments and keeping his composure while a young Villanova roster makes the same adjustments he went through during his first two seasons.
And where Samuels was previously known to mostly make big plays on defense, it seems he’s found his mojo on the offensive end too.
Against top-ranked Kansas last weekend, Samuels scored 12 second-half points (15 total) and drilled the game-winning three for the Wildcats. With a 14-point, eight-rebound performance in ‘Nova’s 68-62 win over Xavier on Monday night to open Big East play, he’s now up to double-digit points in four straight outings and has looked much more fluid when it comes to reading defenses and making decisions on the fly.
He’s quickly become a reliable weapon on both ends of the court for Jay Wright, which is both giving Samuels confidence and bringing even more flexibility to the Wildcats’ rotation. Against Xavier, Samuels’ contributions helped negate off-nights from Saddiq Bey, Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, and Cole Swider.
“Down the stretch, having a veteran like Collin, a veteran like Jermaine making those smart plays down the stretch, that made the difference,” Wright said after Monday night’s victory. “When it got tight at the end, these two were great.”
“It’s a good feeling to have, coach putting the trust in me and now giving me the ability to make plays,” Samuels added. “Especially knowing when I damn sure wasn’t ready my freshman year and then just working my way, listening, and being coachable, being able to step in and play a major role definitely means a lot.”
Now that Big East play has begun, the veteran mindset and experience that Samuels, Gillespie, and Cosby-Roundtree bring to the table will be crucial for the Wildcats. The three juniors have two seasons of intense conference play under their belts and have built serious chemistry between one another over that time — Samuels and Gillespie even played together over the summer for Team USA at the Pan-Am games.
Year after year, Villanova’s top players have graduated or left for the NBA Draft and the next generation of veterans has seamlessly stepped in and taken hold of the reins. Things will be no different for this bunch, which is leading the Wildcats’ many freshmen and sophomores just like its National Championship-winning predecessors did — by example.
“We just try to show them what it is,” Samuels said. “It’s one thing to talk about it, we have to go out there and do it, and that’s the thing we try to focus on.”
“It’s just growing up in the program and getting better at the little things and learning what it’s all about,” he added. “And as time goes on, you get better and better at little things and they start to add up and they start to show out on the court.”
That seems to be Villanova’s formula for consistently churning out both talent and wins: leaning on veteran players while the young guys get reps in and get valuable teaching from Wright and the coaching staff.
For Samuels, the process has certainly proven fruitful. The question for Villanova this season will now be how long it takes the current underclassmen to reap the same benefits.
“We’ve had success because we have had really good players,” Wright said. “We do have very good players but they’re just young and inexperienced. And we’ve got a couple of older, great players that are carrying them through it right now and the quicker that we can get these guys experience…that’s what our season is going to be about.”