Gordon Williams, Gleaner Writer
Three days before Christmas and under an hour before tip-off against the Atlanta Hawks, Jamaica's Samardo Samuels was still hoping his National Basketball Association (NBA) team, the Cleveland Cavaliers, would deliver his most desired gift.
He didn't need much. Already his father Rohan, mother Jacqueline and sister Samantha had travelled from the island to spend the holidays with him in the United States.
Samuels could also afford almost anything he wanted after signing a three-year US$2.3 million contract with the Cavaliers - US$500,000 due in the NBA's 2010-2011 season.
But as he scanned the visitors' locker room at Phillips Arena here, observing teammates pull on the Cavs' maroon and gold jerseys, the disappointment on his face was hard to miss.
"Probably not, I don't think," the 21-year-old from Johnson Hill, Trelawny, finally responded in a low voice when asked if he would suit up against the Hawks.
The 6' 9", 260-pound power forward's desperate wish to play wouldn't be granted. Not this night. Counting the Hawks game on December 22, which Samuels, dressed in a dark suit, watched from the end of Cleveland's bench, that answer covered 25 of the Cavaliers' first 29 games this season. For a former high school and college big shot, it's hard to get used to.
"It's been tough man, you know what I mean, especially ... not playing," Samuels said of his rookie season so far.
"My long career playing basketball, it's kinda like everything was smooth sailing ... High school you're the man, college, man, and now it's kinda like damn."
US college scholarship
In 2004, Samuels left Muschett High, a gangly 6' 8" 14-year-old, to attend school in the US. Former national player, Stephen Johnston had spotted him at a G.C. Foster basketball camp and persuaded him to aim for an American college scholarship.
Samuels started at Our Savior New American in New York, but transferred to St Benedict's Preparatory in New Jersey after a year. His game improved steadily and he became a star playing at power forward and centre. He led St Benedict's to a number two US ranking in the 2007-08 season and was named a McDonald's All-American, an elite rating for high school players.
Coveted nationwide by top schools, Samuels took a scholarship to University of Louisville, where he started every game and the school made successive berths to the NCAA tournament, United States (US) college basketball's premier play-offs. But he surprised basketball experts by entering the 2010 NBA draft after only two seasons. League observers agreed Samuels had a prototype 'NBA body' for a power forward, but weren't sure his game was polished enough. Some questioned his defensive skills and work habits.
No team picked Samuels in the draft.
Yet he's sure it was the correct move.
"Definitely, I think I made the right decision," said Samuels. "Even now ... Because you know you belong ... I believe in myself and I feel at the time I was ready."
Now he's trying to convince the Cavaliers. Samuels also stressed that being drafted does not guarantee an NBA career. "ExhibitA" from 2010, he pointed out, is a fellow Jamaican who was chosen by the Milwaukee Bucks, but now plays in Europe.
"Jerome Jordan is a prime example," Samuels said. "He got drafted and ends up overseas ... 10 years from now ... I do what I needed to do and reap success, nobody would even remember (that I wasn't drafted) and that's my goal."
He has no doubt he can compete in the world's best basketball league.
"Most of these (NBA) guys I've played against growing up," Samuels explained. "I know these guys ... Work out with them in the off-season so you know what they can do. You match your talent against theirs ... At the end of the day it's heart."
According to the Cavaliers, Samuels has shown plenty of that. His first impression on the pro game was with the Chicago Bulls during the NBA's 2010 summer league, when he averaged 12.6 points and 7.4 rebounds.
"I thought he was a big, physical, strong guy, had a real nice (shooting) touch from the outside, pretty good in the post," summed up first-year Cavaliers head coach, Byron Scott, a former NBA star.
But the Cavaliers really took notice when Samuels manhandled them.
"The actual time of seeing him was when we played Chicago in a scrimmage game and I was like 'who is this guy?'," said Scott, who praises Samuels' attitude. "He beat us up pretty good.
"He just needed some work on some things - his conditioning, post-up game - and I think he's gonna be a guy who's gonna be really good in this league."
But barring injuries and/or Cleveland's early departure from the NBA playoff race, which should facilitate more game time for the rookie, Scott said Samuels' chances will be rare this season.
He may not agree, but Samuels seems willing to bide his time and learn about the league, tolerating the hazing all rookies endure. His teammates have noticed.
"Oh yeah he's listening to the veterans," said Leon Powe, who has been in the NBA since 2006. "He missed (bringing) the donuts a couple times ... But he's learning and he's progressing and he's doing real well."
They believe Samuels' playing time will come, because he has earned it.
"He's been working his butt off every day at practice and I think when he gets his opportunity to play I think he's gonna be ready," said fifth-year guard Daniel 'Boobie' Gibson.
But the old pros, too, preach patience.
"When we all first come (into the NBA) we all gotta earn our respect and earn the opportunity," added Gibson. "But I think he's going about it the right way and his time is gonna come."
Perhaps not soon enough for Samuels. Scott has charted a three-step plan for his development: Work hard in practice, 'dominate' next year's summer league and fight for a 2011/2012 regular season rotation spot during training camp.
"I told him this might be a year where you don't play at all," the coach explained after Atlanta beat Cleveland 98-84.
"(But) if he looks at it in those phases and works his butt off this summer, I think he's gonna get that opportunity."
What Samuels sometimes gets now is frustrated. He is used to playing and winning, but through December 26 he had made only four NBA appearances, averaging 4.5 minutes, 3.3 points and one rebound - all in Cavaliers losses. His best all-round game was against the Minnesota Timberwolves on December 4, when he played eight minutes, scored six points, grabbed two rebounds, had one steal and a blocked shot.
Samuels in gear
On Boxing Day Samuels was in gear for a Cavaliers loss to the Timberwolves, but chalked up another "Did Not Play - Coach's Decision". Cleveland had the fourth worst record in the NBA - eight wins and 22 losses - after the latest Timberwolves defeat. That makes it tougher.
"It's hard losing and you're not playing and you know you could contribute to the team," Samuels said in Atlanta, before breaking into his native patois. "But suh it guh still, yu nuh."
Established - and higher paid - NBA players, like two-time league all-star Antawn Jamison and J.J. Hickson, are ahead of Samuels in the team's pecking order at power forward. The Cavaliers consider Samuels "a diamond in the rough", still "raw", according to one team insider.
The rookie knows the jump to the NBA from college requires adjusting his game, especially on defence. In college he played a lot of zone. The NBA is mostly man-to-man and everyone can find the hoop.
"Everybody can score," said Samuels, "but being able to not let your defender score ... that's a big challenge."
Home fans appear to have embraced Samuels, easing the pressure. Yet Samuels' key support comes from people he has depended on all his life. Each has a specific role.
"You know my dad is the kind of somebody that I look up to," said Samuels, who explained that his father helps him with his training. "Sometimes I get frustrated and he always says the right things."
His mother brings her own therapy.
"My mom, it's the good old cooking," he said bursting into laughter. "Nothing like some good old grub man."
Samuels' Cavaliers teammates also boost his spirit. Others in the NBA, like Roy Hibbert, a centre with the Indiana Pacers who has represented Jamaica, and Jamaican-born, former NBA great Patrick Ewing, now an assistant coach with the Orlando Magic, offer encouragement too. When he needs additional lift, Samuels thinks of home, which he last visited about two years ago.
"Looking forward to go a Falmouth a di Christmas concert and tings like dat," he said, recalling fond memories of holidays past.
Yet Samuels is happy to be in the NBA.
"I always have a positive attitude man," he said. "I think it's a blessing for me to be here, first of all. Not too many Jamaicans get this opportunity and I just have to be thankful ... ."
Pouting over playing time will not help. So he works.
"Even though I don't play, I'm the last one to leave the gym," Samuels said. "I make sure I keep my game tight. You don't know when the opportunity's gonna come, man, and, you know, I want to blow it out of the waters when it comes."
Gibson senses Samuels won't need any special coddling to get his NBA game going.
"He can do a lot of different things out there on the court, so you've just got to get (the ball) to him and let him do his thing," the guard explained.
That's the gift Samuels is desperately waiting for.