MINNEAPOLIS (AP) — Ralph Sampson III came to Minnesota more than three years ago with a 6-foot-11 frame — and a famous name — worth of potential.
Halfway through his senior season, frustrated Gophers fans are still quick to target him with their criticism. Coach Tubby Smith even joined the cacophony after the team’s loss at home to Iowa on Wednesday.
“I need Ralph to go to the rim, attack the basket, not settle for jump shots and be stronger with the ball,” Smith said. “I just think he needs to catch the ball closer to the basket where people can foul him and he can use his size. I mean, he is 6-11.”
Over the last two games, Sampson has attempted one free throw.
During the 64-62 defeat by the Hawkeyes, he committed a career-most six turnovers. After Iowa switched to a zone defense, Sampson was swarmed whenever he caught the ball in or near the paint, and he couldn’t create the escape lanes to turn those situations into assists to teammates or points against shorter players.
This was a clear step back after Sampson’s career-best 22 points and nine rebounds on Dec. 27 in a double-overtime loss at Illinois.
“In the zone you need to attack. We just didn’t do it well tonight,” Sampson said.
Attacking is not the first verb anyone would produce in a word-association game with Sampson, the slender, soft-spoken, serious-looking son of Ralph Sampson, who starred at Virginia, was the first pick in the 1983 draft and became a four-time NBA All-Star as the 7-foot-4 half of the Twin Towers duo with the Houston Rockets.
Sampson doesn’t have the wide-body bulk to muscle his way to a tough layup inside like Trevor Mbakwe, the fellow senior who tore up his knee and had season-ending surgery last month. Sampson has a soft touch on his jump shot and is a deft passer for his size, creating opportunities for him to succeed at the top of the key or on the baseline, rather than in the post where most players his height will camp. His post moves are slow and deliberate, which limits his chances to maneuver around the defense.
Plus, as Smith has pointed out often without prompting, Sampson has a passive personality that doesn’t naturally translate to plowing a path to the hoop, a get-two-or-get-fouled mentality that the Gophers (12-4, 0-3) could surely use.
“Ralph is pretty level-headed. What you see in Ralph is what you get. He is very unemotional and reserved. That’s him,” Smith said.
Casual observers often misinterpret such body language as a lack of passion, but nobody around the Gophers would ever accuse Sampson of not caring about helping Minnesota win as much as he possibly can.
“Ralph talks a lot with us. He’s a really good communicator out there on the court,” said power forward Rodney Williams.
Smith said he’s seen Sampson become more of a leader, particularly now that his confidence is back following an ankle sprain that kept him out of three games and hindered his mobility in others.
“I’m always yelling at somebody, telling them where to go or giving them a high five,” he said this week in an interview with The Associated Press. “I’m trying to lead by example so if I’m doing that, I know my team is more likely to do that.”
Sampson created a Twitter account — (at)RalphSampson3 — earlier this season, more evidence of his effort to not only give his best but share his own point of view.
One of his first posts was this: “Last time I checked, being emotional on the court doesn’t mean you are a better player,” followed by a hash-tag reference to famously expressionless NBA star Tim Duncan.
Sampson thanked a couple of his followers a little later for sharing his words: “I don’t wear my emotions on my sleeve but it doesn’t mean I don’t care.” The photo in the background of his page shows him pumping his fist, jumping up and letting out a primal scream on the court after a big play during a prior home game against Wisconsin.
He said has a better perspective about handling the negativity now and more comfortable with his own identity, rather than just the skinny kid with the notable name, despite his status as the most-complained-about player among the Williams Arena customers. Even Smith changed his tone after praising Sampson the day before following practice.
“I’ve said all along he’s been the most consistent player we’ve had in the program since I’ve been here,” Smith said on Tuesday. “I think he’s being more aggressive. His nature is to be very passive, and now I think he’s getting more opportunities without Trevor controlling the middle offensively as well as defensively.”
So Sampson will keep at his role as the team’s most experienced player, trying to help the Gophers climb out of their early hole in the Big Ten race. Perhaps Smith’s urging to go to the basket more will yield more free throws — and points down the stretch. But Sampson’s personality type isn’t going to suddenly change, no matter how many people who want him to look meaner on the court.
“I’ve matured a lot over the last few years,” he said. “I just kind of take the criticism with a grain of salt and remind myself the only expectations I have should be my own.”
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