Is Jermaine Samuels Jr. experienced? Yes and no

LAS VEGAS – James Wiseman, the second pick in the 2020 NBA draft, announced Jabari Smith Jr., the third selection in the 2022 draft. Smith advanced in front of the 7-footer and forced a lob pass over the top. The Pistons looked to get the ball inside.

Few may have noticed Jermaine Samuels Jr., who was not drafted at all after he finished his five years at Villanova in 2022, lurking in the shadows of the stars.

The spotlight shined in many places as the Rockets won their first three summer league games, with Smith and Tari Eason, the forwards playing Samuels’ positions, excelling. It has not often found Samuels and his more subtle contributions.

The Rockets have noticed. They have since minicamp in Houston.

When Rockets summer league coach Ben Sullivan was reminded of the moment days later when the Pistons tried to put Wiseman in, he immediately recalled the well-executed defensive help that has become typical of Samuels’ game.

By the time the pass reached Wiseman, Samuels had moved in from the short corner and bottled up the 7-footer so he had no room to move. Wiseman stepped up to shoot over the 6-7, 230-pound Samuels only to have the shot blocked. But until Samuels rejected the shot, there were no stats indicating what he had done so well via the kind of plays coaches and teammates noticed that could earn Samuels a spot in the Rockets’ fall training camp.

Asked what he’s seen from Samuels, Sullivan paused, as if adding up the little things, settling for “a lot.”

“He’s kind of like the ultimate glue man,” Sullivan said. – He is always in the right place, both offensively and defensively. He accomplishes what we are trying to do. He knows how to defend without defiling, how to use his body. He will take aim. Or he will block a shot or he will make a verticality. He’s a little different in how he’s helped us in a lot of different small and intangible ways. I really like him.”

The Las Vegas headliners are, as always, the rookies selected early in the draft, highlighted this year by Victor Wembanyama, Brandon Miller and Scoot Henderson. There are second-year players like Bennedict Mathurin, Jaden Ivey, Jaden Hardy, Smith and Eason looking to take their next step. But summer league is filled with players who have much more in common with Samuels, players looking for contracts and a chance to get their Nikes in the door.

The Rockets have two open roster spots and an open two-way slot, with the NBA adding a third two-way contract option for each team. Samuels appears to be the leading candidate among the Rockets’ summer league players to come to camp with a chance to earn one of those spots.

“Anywhere there’s an opportunity for me, I’ll go,” Samuels said. “I don’t know what the cards have in store for me, but I will do my best to put my best foot forward. It would be a great thing to be on a two-way.

Through the Rockets’ first four summer league games, Samuels has averaged 16 points and four rebounds, making 15 of 27 shots, including four of eight 3s. His shot, which had a low release and almost bullet movement, had been a weakness. But after making a pair from the top of the circle Tuesday, he effectively attacked closeouts, got to the rim and repeatedly finished through fouls, then spent Thursday’s game attacking off the dribble. In his two games since moving into the starting lineup, he has scored 19 and 18 points.

“I thought I was able to show that I’ve been working a lot on my jump shot,” Samuels said. “Obviously I try to be a team player and show how disciplined I am on both ends of the floor. Hopefully I did that. Hopefully that resonates with them.

“I hope to show that I’ve improved, show the coaching staff, show the rest of the guys, show the rest of the front offices around the NBA that I’m more than a blower or a rebounder or a defender, that I can actually give floor space. I can make decisions.”

Samuels said he tries to be the kind of player that “holds the team together” and cited Draymond Green, PJ Tucker and Jae Crowder as influences.

His comfort level with NBA coverages and responsibilities is to be expected from an older prospect who stuck with Villanova for five college seasons (which included a 2018 national championship) and played last season in the G League with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants. But his blistering play could be about more than experience.

“It’s a little bit of both (instinct and understanding),” Sullivan said. “You explain the scheme of what you’re trying to do defensively. Some people take it more naturally than others. He seems to be one of those players that we have, whatever we work on, whatever we show on film , then he’s able to take it from the practice room or the film room and then execute it on the field.”

Samuels said his understanding and discipline is not complicated.

“Honestly, that comes from being at Villanova for five years, holding yourself accountable, and then, fortunately in the G League last year, playing a lot of minutes, getting a lot of experience,” he said. “So it comes quite naturally.”

Samuels, 24, stuck with Villanova because of “that school, my teammates and obviously coach (Jay) Wright. They meant the world to me and I felt like I had more to prove. And I felt like we had a chance to do something special.”

He also needed to develop more of his game. As valuable as contributions can be, the more eye-catching ability to put the ball in the basket can also be useful. Last season, Samuels made 66.8 percent of his shots and 45 percent of his 3s, averaging 18.3 points in 32 regular season games. In 18 Showcase Cup games, he made 66.7 percent of his shots, 50 percent of his 3s, for an average of 10.3 points.

Still, he won’t get a shot at an NBA roster spot or two-way contract as a scorer. It must come by contributing in other ways. And while being an older prospect heading into the 2022 draft might have worked against him, it could be an advantage now.

“I like to think so,” Samuels said. “I played a lot of basketball. I know what it takes to win basketball games. I’m still learning at this level how to win basketball games. But basically, I feel like I’m ready and I can help contribute to win.

“Whatever you need, I’ll go and do it. That’s the best way I can put it.”

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