When you mention this year’s recruiting class for Cal basketball, most fans think immediately of the ongoing drama of Julian Sensley’s eligibility. But regardless of whether Sensley ever plays for the Bears, there will definitely be an impact freshman in the Cal rotation.
Jamal Sampson was one of the best high school centers in the nation last year, leading his Mater Dei team to a California state championship and dominating the competition despite being hampered by bone spurs in his right ankle. With four of the best prep centers heading straight into the NBA Draft, he may be the most coveted big man in his class to actually attend college.
The 6-foot-11, 235-pound Sampson will see considerable time on the floor as a true freshman, although he may have a slow start due to his ankle. He had surgery this summer to remove the bone spurs, and Cal head coach Ben Braun estimates him at about half strength right now.
“Jamal’s coming along slowly because of his ankle, but he can produce for us at 50-60 percent,” Braun said. “He will be excellent once he gets to full health.”
The Bears will gladly endure Sampson’s rehab on the injury, because it may be the only thing that kept him from joining Eddy Curry, Kwame Brown, Tyson Chandler and DeSagana Diop as NBA players.
“I was real tempted, but surgery isn’t a good thing to have going into the draft,” Sampson said. “I played against all those guys, and I measured up well with all of them.”
Although Sampson is still confident of his abilities, his first practices with his new teammates has been a bit of a reality check for a player who admittedly coasted through portions of his senior year of high school.
“I didn’t always have to play hard. In high school I could dominate in every practice and most of the games, but now I’m playing against great players every day,” he said. “College will benefit me from playing against stronger dudes.”
Sampson will be competing for playing time with three other Bear big men. Senior center Solomon Hughes is the only sure starter in the frontcourt after leading the Pac-10 in shooting percentage last season and proving himself to be a solid shot-blocker. Hughes’ brother Gabriel will be looking to see more action after spending most of his freshman year on the bench, and Israeli import Amit Tamir is also in the mix, although he could miss as many as eight games due to NCAA regulations.
This year’s NBA Draft was a sign of the times, with just one college senior picked in the first 19 selections. Sampson still plans to head to the NBA at some point, but he’s hesitant to say how long he plans to stay at Cal.
“I’m like every other guy in that I want to get to the next level, but I’m not going to put a limit on it,” he said. “It could be one, two, three or four years.”
Braun and Cal fans should hope it’s one of the latter.