CLEVELAND - LeBron James has turned into somewhat of a public enemy, overnight, in northeast Ohio. But James will always have one fan back home in Akron in Jakarr Sampson, a quick, 6-foot-7 forward, who is getting a long look from Michigan State coaches this month.
Two nights ago, during scrimmage time at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Akron, James and four NBA friends scrimmaged against high school recruits. Sampson's team was designated for court time against James's team. Sampson found himself being guarded by James.
Midway through the game, Sampson faced up against James on the left wing, jabbed to the right and blew by King James to the left. He had a step on James, heading down the lane, but he missed the shot while changing the ball back to his right hand.
"Yeah, that was me, I did get a step on him," Sampson said. "I guess I surprised him. He said it was a good move. I missed the lay-up, though. I should have kept it in my left."
Sampson attends Akron St. Vincent-St. Mary High School, the same school that produced James. Sampson and James have become hoop acquaintances.
"I see him at open gyms and open runs," Sampson said. "Every time I see him, he gives me a big hug. He's just friendly, easy to talk to."
Sampson probably won't be seeing as much of James in the coming years, as James announced Thursday night that he will sign as a free agent with the Miami Heat rather than return to the Cleveland Cavaliers. But Sampson says he has already benefitted from the relationship.
Following Tuesday's scrimmage, James pulled Sampson aside and gave him some pointers.
"He was saying how I was doing a great job and I just should have kept it in my left hand all the way to the rim," Sampson said. "He said he was proud of me."
That's a big difference from James's reaction a year ago when Xavier star Jordan Crawford dunked over him.
"Most people think he is all cocky like, 'I'm LeBron James.' But he is real humble," Sampson said. "He's a real cool dude."
Sampson is ranked the No. 37 player in America by Rivals.com and No. 11 at the small forward position. This week in Cleveland, Sampson has been one of the few players utilized as both a small forward and a power forward. Michigan State is hungry for that kind of versatility, having made good use of the combo forward skills of Alan Anderson, Morris Peterson and Raymar Morgan during Final Four runs under Izzo.
Sampson has good quickness and ball handling ability for a small forward. Those skills get amplified, seemingly going from good to great, when he plays power forward and is guarded by bigger, slower opponents.
For two days in Akron, and through one day of the King City Classic in Cleveland, power forward defenders have not been able to stop Crawford off the dribble. He gets to the rim with an explosive first step in either direction, and mixes a spin dribble effectively. He has even led a fastbreak or two.
However, his slender build leads to some weakness in the paint, especially as a defender. And he lacks shooting touch. Sampson has driven into the paint countless times this week, only to miss from five feet and closer.
He can work on the shooting touch. Meanwhile, his blow-by ability as a face-up four is exceptional, making him a stock-on-the-rise type of project.
"I've been working on that a lot," Sampson said of his driving ability and ball handling. "That's one of the things that I wanted people to notice about my game. I've been working on my ability to get to the rim and create for others. I'm glad you said that."
Although Sampson's shooting touch - even from close range - is suspect, he opened play at the King City Classic with a pair of 15-footers during Thursday's session of morning games. If he ever gets a handle on his jumper he could become quite a weapon. He plays with terrific energy and stamina, which could help him as the King City Classic draws to an end with two more games on Friday.
Sampson has offers from Louisville and St. John's among many others, including Ohio State, Dayton, Cincinnati and Xavier. Louisville coach Rick Pitino and new St. John's coach Steve Lavin were among coaches watching him on Wednesday. MSU's Tom Izzo also watched him closely.
MSU offered Sampson a scholarship late last fall, but the Spartans seemed to cool off on Sampson during the winter. Now, MSU is back in the evaluation stages.
The Spartans have commitments from wing guards Brandon Kearney and Dwaun Anderson, and are looking to add a big wing to the 2011 class. Sampson has big wing characteristics, and is active on the glass - something Izzo likes. The shooting issue is a question. Meanwhile, the Spartans continue to recruit tough 6-foot-6 Chicago wing guard Branden Dawson, who had a big day on Thursday with two big 3-pointers in the waning moments of his team's victory over Sampson's team in opening-round play.
In addition to Dawson, the Spartans are also upping their interest in skilled Saginaw combo forward Tommie McCune, as the evaluation season hits top gear. McCune impressed Izzo at an AAU tournament in Indianapolis earlier this week.
As for new schools that have recently appeared on Sampson's radar, he said: "Tennessee, I've been talking to them lately, and Baylor. I really like Baylor. I think they would fit my playing style greatly."
Sampson attended Midnight Madness at Michigan State last October.
"Man that was great," he said. "It was a great experience. It was crazy there, with the fans packing the place. It was real loud and nice.
"I'm still hearing from Michigan State," Sampson added. "I see them at my games. They came to a couple of my high school games. I talked to Coach Izzo about a week ago. They are still recruiting me, they are still good. He has been saying that he can help turn my weaknesses into strengths. They build up players physically there, and that's good, something I need. They are still in the mix.
"I've been to Cincinnati, Dayton, Xavier, Ohio State, Michigan State, St. John's. I've got plans to go to Louisville, Baylor and Tennessee. I would like to see USC and Miami too. I've been getting some more interest from Miami."
Miami? Now that King James is headed there, could that help the Hurricanes in the Sampson chase?
"I'm open to anything," Sampson said.
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