When I met Samardo Samuels for the first time, earlier this season, I din’t know what to expect from this guy.
Of course, I knew about his past basketball experiences (including the NBA), but I really wanted to meet him to know what kind of guy he was.
Funny, this is the first word I would associate to him. Samardo Samuels is definitely a funny guy: he’s talkative, he definitely embraced the “fashion mode” living in Milan, he’s genuine and I’d say he’s a naive, candid big boy. A football addicted (soccer, for US readers), who once dreamt to play in the Premier League for a top English club, who pretends that he cried when Roberto Baggio missed the decisive penalty in the 1994 World Cup Final and now he’s crazy for AC Milan and Mario Balotelli.
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Everybody recognized from the very first minute how important he had to be for EA7 Emporio Armani Milan: starting the season he was the only “center”, as Angelo Gigli (then loaned to Reggio Emilia) and CJ Wallace (who’s more a PF but he’s got size) where struggling with injuries and/or fitness.
Even after the arrival of Gani Lawal, Samardo is still the only one low-post big man in the team, where he can work either with his body (especially in the Italian League) than with his soft touch. But, during the season he also had his troubles to deal with.
A few games in Israel last season can’t be enough to say that he arrived in Milan experienced enough to know how to be consistent any given day, for practice or games. He was facing Euroleague Basketball, and a big role in a top European team for the first time of his life.
Entering EA7 practice facility, he saw that sign that welcomes everybody is coming in: “If you’re not here to win, you are in the wrong place”. Well, this is just a sign. But it reminds to everybody how bad this team needs to win. Milan is desperate to lift a trophy since 18 years now. In 1996, the “then-called” Stefanel Milan won the Italian League and Cup, coached by Euro legend Bogdan Tanjevic, led on the court by stars like Nando Gentile (Alessandro’s father), Dejan Bodiroga, Rolando Blackman, Gregor Fucka and specialists like the sharp-shooter Flavio Portaluppi, who’s currently in charge of the general manager position.
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Not easy to face it, especially when the team that has dominated the last 7 years in Italy lost a lot of its power (Siena), and there are no more reliable title contender if we think it on a playoffs situation. Pick a team of your choice between Sassari, Siena, Rome and tell me who could beat Milan on a 7 games series, on paper. Yes, you know the answer.
That’s a big pressure, and everybody understood how much the team was feeling it during the quarterfinal series against Pistoia, a newcomer in the Beko Serie A League with a very short rotation: still, they pushed Milan to the limit, even leading by 1 at the halftime in game-5. In that meanwhile, EA7 was dealing with struggles on their game, arguing with referees, losing that confidence that led them to with the last 19 games of the regular season (19-0 since Daniel Hackett came).
In this situation, Samardo Samuels had worked good enough to figure out how to become a reliable starting center even at Euroleague Basketball level, being there day in and day out in the domestic league, improving his consistency in defense and overcoming a big injury that occurred in late november (he broke his right hand, then he came back in January). “When you’re forced to sit out injured you can better understand how the things are going, when you’re playing you’re just focused on that few things you have to do, and it’s more complicated to observe the whole thing”, he told me a few months ago.
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His impact before and after that injury was totally different: some insiders from the team told me that Samuels was a “coachable” guy, willing to improve and showing it. Sometimes, at practice, I saw him doing things that he never showed during the games: great passing, most of all. Then he started putting all his pieces together: his usual low-post moves, mid-range and long-range shooting (he scored a 3 pointer in the last 3 playoffs games), great passing from the post to find cutters and spot-up shooters. It’s safe to say that he is now the best center in this League.
Here are his numbers in the playoffs (5 games vs. Pistoia, 1 game vs. Sassari), compared to the regular season: Samuels is averaging 14.0 points (+2.6), shooting 65.9% on 2FG (+12.1), 36.4% on 3FG (+1.1), 70% on FT (+0.8), grabbing 6.7 rebounds (+1.6), even doing better on blocks (+0.5), assists (+0.1), turnovers (-0.1), plus minus (+1.0) and minutes played (+4.6).
Samuels signed a 2 years deal last summer: now it’s easy to understand why. He brought good technique and an interesting body. They bet on those qualities to make him a legit Euroleague starter and a difference maker. This is not 100% done yet, but we all can see the mark of progression.