Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
Sampson, Obekpa Poised to Lead Johnnies on Upswing
UNION, N.J. — JaKarr Sampson is ready to win.
After St. John’s went 17-16 during an uneven year last season, Sampson opted to return for his sophomore year after flirting with the NBA Draft.
The Johnnies were picked No. 2 in the SNY Big East Preseason rankings, and Sampson feels his talented team can live up to the hype.
“We can be a lot better,” Sampson, the reigning Big East Rookie of the Year after averaging 14.9 points and 6.6 rebounds, told SNY.tv Wednesday at the Nike Skills Academy at Kean University.
“We’re all getting better, too. Phil [Greene] is getting better, he just came off surgery. Chris Obekpa’s offensive game is getting better. If you saw him out here, his hook shot is coming along. We’ve been working on that. I feel like we’re going to be a completely different team.”
Sampson seems anxious to move on from last year, when the team crashed and burned, losing nine of their final 12.
“Just being a freshman, I was so used to winning,” he said. “St. Vincent-St. Mary, we always won. Brewster Academy, we always won, so going to St. John’s and losing, that was kind of hard. I feel like I grew up a lot though.
Sampson has an unorthodox jump shot in which he holds the ball on the side as he releases it, and he’s been working on his jumper this off-season.
“Over the summer time [before freshman year], I just really went out and worked a lot on my jump shot because I feel like I already had the moves on the perimeter, but I needed people to respect my jump shot so it could open up my game,” he said. “I worked on that and I think it paid off.”
The Johnnies return their entire core from last season and add highly touted guard Rysheed Jordan as well as forward Orlando Sanchez, who missed last year due to an NCAA issue. Sampson returns, as does suspended guard D’Angelo Harrison. Both are on the SNY All-Big East Preseason Team.
St. John’s was the only college with two players at the Nike Skills Academy in the 6-7 1/2 Sampson and the 6-8 1/2 Obekpa, who averaged 4.0 blocks last season.
“The same way we’ve been playing together in St. John’s we come here and play against the best from other schools, so it’s been great,” Obekpa told SNY.tv.
Obekpa got to match wits with Anthony Davis, the No. 1 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and said he held his own.
“He got me on one block shot but I got him back though,” Obekpa said. “He broke a record when he was at Kentucky and I’m kind of looking up to him. It was good going up against him [Tuesday].”
A limited offensive player as a freshman, Obekpa averaged 3.9 points and 6.2 rebounds, but said he’s developing his offensive game.
“I keep working on that every day with the coaches back at school and here,” Obekpa said. “Just try to improve it every day. And also my defense, we gotta step that up, too.”
Obekpa knows a lot is expected of the Johnnies as they head into the new Big East and must help anchor the league after the departures of Syracuse, Louisville, Pittsburgh and others.
But he also knows nothing comes without hard work.
“You can say we’re good but if we don’t put the hard work it don’t mean nothing,” he said, “so we just gotta work hard.”
Photo: Daily News
Adam Zagoria is a Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. A contributor to The New York Times and SportsNet New York (SNY), he is also the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker. His articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.