JaKarr Sampson on the Sac to Reno commute
This two-way system? The one that allows teams to sign two players who split their time between NBA clubs and their G League affiliates?
JaKarr Sampson describes it as an out-of-body experience, a dual existence. One night you’re a King, playing in a palace known as the Golden 1 Center, and the next evening you’re back with the Reno Bighorns, competing in a makeshift gym and packing for trips to Des Moines, Greensboro, Grand Rapids, Sioux Falls.
The commute isn’t for everyone. Neither are the modest salaries and accommodations. G League players sleep in five-star hotels only in their dreams.
And did we mention that Sampson still lives with his mother?
“We have a house in Fair Oaks,” said the Cleveland native, who earns a $75,000 salary. “She came out here two, three months ago to get out of the cold. It works out pretty good. She doesn’t cook for me – she stopped cooking for me when I went away to college – but she takes care of my dog when I’m in Reno, gets him to doggy daycare so he can run around, get some exercise. He’s crazy when he doesn’t get his exercise.”
Sampson, 24, whips out his cellphone and proudly displays a photo of his rambunctious husky, Ace. Like father, like son. The first-year Kings forward laughs and flashes a toothy grin, because he knows where the conversation is headed. If he doesn’t get his exercise, and a lot of exercise, he gets a little crazy, too.
During his rookie season with the Philadelphia 76ers, coach Brett Brown analyzed his skill set, noted his length and interior defensive presence, his high motor and perpetual motion, as well as his nonexistent 3-point shot – and that remains an Achilles' heel – and encouraged Sampson to identify his major asset and run with it.
“If somebody asks me what my best skill is,” said Sampson, “I tell them ‘Juice. Energy. Juice.’ Coach Brown saw how good I was defensively because I am so active, and he instilled that in me. I carry it everywhere. He said not a lot of people bring that energy. He said that’s what sets me apart.”
In 14 games this season with the Kings, the 6-foot-9 forward has emerged as a fan favorite largely because he plays so hard and with an infectious, irrepressible joy. His effort in Wednesday night’s loss to the New Orleans Pelicans is a snapshot of who he is, and he hopes, at least hints at what type of player he can become.
Sampson, who has a 7-foot wingspan, was a blur of activity. He raced downcourt and blocked a shot, grabbed four rebounds, stole a pass, converted his only 3-point attempt. But he also managed to somehow commit five fouls in a mere 18 minutes, a symptom of the virus common to many G League players: When you know you are receiving limited opportunities, you want to capitalize, and sometimes you overreach.
Kings general manager Vlade Divac nonetheless has seen enough to make him want to see more. With further roster shuffling anticipated during the offseason, he didn’t reject the notion of Sampson making the club next season.
“You always need a guy like that,” said Divac. “I like his energy, and I think he is improving. He can score a little bit better, especially on 3s from the corner. He gets offensive rebounds and is very aggressive, and he works hard. So we’ll see.”
Arguably the only thing Sampson hasn’t done with a sprinter’s speed is secure a full-time job in the NBA. His career arc includes experiences at three high schools, an extra year at a prep school to fulfill academic requirements and two seasons at St. John’s. After he declared for the 2014 NBA draft but was not selected, he impressed the 76ers during the summer league and was rewarded with a rookie contract.
The ensuing three years have been frequent road stops in Philadelphia, Denver, Memphis, Des Moines, Sacramento, Reno, and these past few months, in Fair Oaks.
Sampson and his mother are a hoot. They don’t talk so much as banter, their conversations punctuated by frequent laughter and loaded with one-liners and wisecracks, each trying to outdo the other.
Mom occasionally gets the last laugh: As JaKarr ran out of the locker room recently and followed his teammates down the tunnel leading to the court, he heard someone calling out his name, or singing his name, actually.
“JaKarr, JaKarr,” his mother crooned, altering her voice. “It’s me, Mommy!”
Sampson stopped in his tracks, turned, and stared. Then he reacted the way he so often does, with a wide grin and a knowing shake of the head. Though he was more than a little embarrassed, this was his mother, who also happens to be his roommate. Jokingly, he mentioned something about families that laugh together, stay together. And he wouldn’t mind the two of them sticking around Fair Oaks next season, either.