CLEVELAND — If you’re looking for an X-factor on the Cavaliers this season, a guy who could emerge out of nowhere and become a vital player on a potential playoff team, you may want to check out Samardo Samuels.
At least, that’s been the book on Samuels since the summer.
He showed up for NBA summer play in Las Vegas looking like a million bucks. He was slim, trim and full of muscle. On the court, he forced nothing, staying patient and focused, playing within himself and cutting way down on the mental errors.
These are all new notions when you’re talking about Samuels.
He spent his first two seasons, both with the Cavs, riding an up-and-down (usually down) wave of inconsistency. He looked out of shape. He rarely passed out of double-teams – or at all.
The talent was there, no doubt. But everyone wondered whether Samuels would ever get it.
Today, while still early in the preseason, it appears Samuels has a pretty good grasp of the pro game. He’s figured out a way to stay determined and active without giving the perception that perhaps he’s trying a bit too hard.
He sports six-pack abs. Yet he doesn’t seem to have lost any strength — the one real thing he had going for him in years Nos. 1 and 2.
“My first two years, it took me a while to learn everything,” Samuels said after the Cavs’ 91-85 preseason-opening win over Montepaschi Siena at Quicken Loans Arena on Monday.
“This year, I don’t think I have room to mess up. Coach (Byron) Scott and I had a serious talk at the end of last season. I just try to listen and try to lock in, whether it’s practice or games.”
Samuels is 6-foot-9 and around 245 pounds. That’s down from the 260 pounds he weighed in last year. And that was a conservative number.
He also says his body-fat is down to 6.5 percent. That alone is an extreme makeover.
More impressive, however, is how Samuels has looked on the floor. He says he’s more confident, more intelligent, more willing to do whatever it takes to become a relevant contributor.
Monday, he was perhaps the Cavs’ MVP, scoring 14 points on 6-for-8 shooting off the bench. He also grabbed seven rebounds. A few of his made baskets were from outside of 10 feet – and he looked good doing it.
Samuels is the former USA Today High School Player of the Year. He spent two seasons at Louisville before declaring for the NBA draft. No one took the bait.
Eventually, he wound up with the Cavs his rookie season. He looked like a guy with decent skills, but a guy who probably wasn’t draft-worthy. He was, in NBA dialect, a project.
That appears to have changed.
“He really listened what we had to say as far as what he had to do,” Scott said. “He did all those things this summer, and I think it’s all paying off right now. He’s seeing the benefits of listening and really applying some of those things we talked about when the season was over.”
Samuels spent part of his off-season training with former Cavs forward Antawn Jamison (now with the Lakers). Jamison pushed Samuels to keep believing in himself, to gain some confidence in his jump shot.
“Like I’ve been saying, working with Antawn Jamison really helped,” Samuels said. “That’s his game. Having the same type of game, taking guys off the dribble … it’s very important for me to add that to my game if I want to be successful.”
Samuels also benefited from a motivational speaker who visited the Cavs earlier in the week.
“The things he said kind of opened my eyes even more,” Samuels said. “Knowing that there’s a lot of guys who want to be in my position every time I go out there, whether it’s five minutes or two minutes, I just have to give it my all. Every game I play from now on, I want to have that same attitude.”
Scott has been hard on Samuels in the past, and just because Samuels has improved, it’s not likely to change. It’s just that now, the teacher can trust the student.
“I think tonight was just one of those games where, it was gonna happen, because he’s been playing so well all throughout training camp,” Scott said. “He’s been playing just like this. I’m very happy for him, because he’s a terrific young man.”
It’s pretty clear Samuels is grateful for Scott’s willingness to stick with him as well.
“At this point in my career, he’s been giving me so much,” Samuels said. “He’s been giving, giving, giving. Now it’s time to give back. It’s the least I can do.”
• Rookie guard Dion Waiters scored 11 points in just more than 15 minutes, including a couple of late drives and free throws to help seal the win. “I think his debut was successful,” Scott said.
• Meanwhile, rookie center Tyler Zeller scored seven points and tied Samuels with a bench-high seven boards. “I thought both of those guys (Waiters and Zeller), when they first got in, were a little nervous,” Scott said. “That’s understandable. But I thought both of them calmed down and at the end of the day, had pretty good games.”
• The Cavs return to preseason action Tuesday at the Canton Memorial Civic Center. Tip-off is 7 p.m. The game will be televised by FOX Sports Ohio, with Fred McLeod on play-by-play and Austin Carr providing color commentary.
• Kyrie Irving scored 10 points and had three assists in three quarters, but made just one (of seven) field goals. Tristan Thompson scored 12 points, while C.J Miles started at shooting guard and scored 10. Also, backup point guard Donald Sloan scored 13 and did a nice job of running the offense.