UofL's 'Killer forward' still a student

LOUISVILLE — Samardo Samuels doesn't have O.J. Mayo's entourage, Kevin Durant's boyish face, Greg Oden's beard or Michael Beasley's SpongeBob SquarePants obsession.

What the Louisville freshman does have, though, is Rick Pitino. And in a freshman class without the megawatt star power of the last couple years, the Cardinals coach admits his hulking 6-foot-8 newcomer might be the closest thing to a sure thing.

Eventually, anyway.

Ask Pitino if he thinks Samuels has the potential to be a one-and-done guy who bolts for the NBA the first chance he gets, and the only coach to lead three different schools to a Final Four isn't so sure.

"I don't believe so," he said. "I think he's going to need at least two years."

That might be wishful thinking.

During Louisville's annual pre-season Red-White scrimmage, Pitino intentionally put Samuels on the more inexperienced squad. Playing against a White team featuring established star Earl Clark and returning starters Edgar Sosa and Jerry Smith, Samuels dominated, scoring 36 points and grabbing 16 rebounds to lead the Red team to victory.

Sure, it was an exhibition. Sure, the rigors of life in the brutal Big East are still two months away. But in 40 short minutes Samuels erased any doubts about his ability and affirmed why Louisville is a trendy pick to make the Final Four for the second time in five seasons.

"He's different than anybody I've coached; you can't really make a comparison," Pitino said. "I haven't had very many freshmen, 6-8, 255 with a long wingspan that are as strong as him. He's an extremely powerful player."

Mention to Pitino that on the surface Samuels is roughly the same size as former Kentucky star and longtime NBA fixture Antoine Walker — who helped Pitino win a national title with the Wildcats in 1996 — and he almost chuckles.

"Antoine was more of a point forward," he says. "Samardo is more of a killer forward."

For the Cardinals to make it to Detroit in April, Samuels will have to be.

Louisville made it to the regional final of the NCAA Tournament last spring relying on the heady play of center David Padgett, who made up for in smarts what a series of knee injuries robbed from his athleticism.

Samuels isn't nearly as basketball savvy as Padgett, at least not yet. Then again, he didn't pick up the game until he was 13 and outgrew the local soccer team in his hometown of Trelawny, Jamaica. Mention that his size would have made him a great goalkeeper, and Samuels shakes his head.

"I wanted to play up front," he said. "I wanted the ball, I wanted to score."

He still does.

Samuels came to the United States five years ago and quickly developed into a star at St. Benedict Prep in Newark, N.J. He started thinking about the NBA during his junior year, and allows that if the league hadn't instituted the minimum age requirement, he probably wouldn't be here right now.

"I know if I went pro, it would help out my family," said Samuels, whose father and sister live in Trelawny. "I think I was good enough to play in the NBA in high school."

Don't mistake Samuels' confidence for ego. Sometimes even he doesn't buy all the hype. He can't help but fight off a sheepish grin when talking about how he used to carry himself during his senior year at St. Benedict, when he won national player of the year honors after averaging 24.2 points and 10.7 rebounds.

"I thought I was the greatest player in the world," he said.

A quick trip across the Hudson River to the New York Athletic Club changed all that. Playing in pickup games against NBA veterans like Al Harrington, Richard Jefferson and Ryan Gomes, Samuels learned a lesson in humility and the importance of not taking your talent for granted.

"Sometimes, we'd be playing and Al would, in the middle of a play, stop and say 'Look, this is how you defend me,' " Samuels said.

The gesture wasn't lost on Samuels, and it's one of the reasons he chose Louisville over North Carolina, Florida and Georgetown. He knows there's plenty to learn. He might as well learn it from a guy who has produced eight NBA lottery picks and had two different stints in the league as head coach.

Samuels, who chose to wear No. 24 after reading Kobe Bryant took the number because it represents a 24-hour work ethic, hopes that tirelessness eventually leads to the NBA. It might take one year. It might take four. If it does, don't expect him to be disappointed.

"I don't think that's a bad thing," he said. "Then again sometimes if you're dominating every year, it'd be fitting to step up to a bigger challenge."