Jermaine Samuels just goes about his business on the basketball court for Villanova without much fanfare doing whatever he feels he needs to do — make the extra pass, grab rebounds, play strong defense, sink a three-point shot every now and then, basically let the game come to him.
He doesn’t seem to get rattled. He actually appears quite mellow, not only on the floor but in his dealings with the media. He agrees with that view, sort of.
“Yeah, you could say I’m mellow,” he told a reporter over the phone Tuesday from Indianapolis, where he and the Wildcats were preparing for Saturday’s Sweet 16 matchup against No. 1 seed Baylor.
“I would probably call myself … I seem mellow to you guys but I’m probably hyper around those guys. I like having a good time. I love smiling, cracking jokes, and just being around good people. That’s just everything to me.”
Wildcats coach Jay Wright takes it one step further.
“He’s the nicest, sweetest person in the world,” Wright said. “He’s one of those guys, you’d love him to date your daughter. That’s not always the best thing for a basketball player.”
The team’s only healthy senior, the 6-foot-7 Samuels doesn’t dominate any one statistical category but he can fill up a stat sheet as he did Sunday night — 15 points, nine rebounds, four assists — in Villanova’s 84-61 victory over North Texas. While he averages 11.9 points, fourth on the team, he owns the high score by a Wildcat, 32 points with six three-point baskets in a Feb. 7 win over Georgetown at Finneran Pavilion.
And after he completed his quarantine from testing positive in early January for COVID-19, he made sure the Cats’ return from a 27-day break was successful with 20 points and nine boards in a 77-75 win over Seton Hall on Jan. 19.
It’s all part of the development of Samuels over the past four years, from a four-star prospect who chose Villanova ahead of Duke and Kansas, among other schools, to a phase when he was a reluctant shooter seeking to find better shots for everyone instead of himself, to someone who learned how to make the right decision.
“It just came from getting reps in practice,” Samuels said. “Coach gave me the ability to go out and make mistakes during practice so I could get basically game reps. So when the game came, I didn’t have any type of indecision. So as I got better and better and more comfortable with it, it was just how my game came along.”
Wright admires the growth Samuels has shown in other areas besides his decision-making.
“I think where he’s really grown, his competitiveness throughout his career and also his skill level,” he said. “It’s really been enjoyable for our coaching staff to just watch his overall development on the court. Off the court, he came as a really good student, a really nice person, good person, good teammate. But on the court, his skill, competitiveness, and basketball IQ have really improved.”
Another aspect of improvement in Samuels is his leadership. With fellow senior captains Collin Gillespie and Dhamir Cosby-Roundtree sidelined by season-ending injuries, Samuels and sophomore Jeremiah Robinson-Earl have carried the load of responsibilities that Wright usually heaps on his seniors.
“There’s a lot on the table, and there’s a lot you’ve got to do, but it’s all worth it in the end,” Samuels said. “You carry that torch for the Villanova culture and it’s a honor to have. It’s definitely not easy but it’s definitely worth it.
“It’s a challenge but it’s a challenge that me, Collin, and [Dhamir] have always accepted. It’s about getting the guys to understand what our culture is about, what our mentality is supposed to be every time we walk into the gym. It starts with us and if we’re not doing that, then we’re not being the best Villanova basketball team we can be. It’s just keeping it that simple.”
Of course, the 2020-21 season hasn’t been easy for anyone in college basketball. Samuels got a too-close look at how things can go horribly wrong in a pandemic as one of two players who tested positive for the coronavirus.
The Wildcats, who had gone through one practice after returning from quarantine necessitated by Wright’s positive test on Dec. 26, closed down again on Jan. 4. Samuels stayed cool while in isolation.
“When it first happened, I was in shock because I didn’t understand how I could get it, or how I got it,” he said. “But once it happened, I wasn’t worried at all, honestly. I was ready to face whatever may happen. I just wanted to make sure everyone around me knew that I was OK, and that it wasn’t going to necessarily affect me in any way. That was my mentality throughout the whole time.”
It’s been a successful climb for Samuels, from Franklin, Mass., which is closer to the New England Patriots’ home at Gillette Stadium than it is to Boston. He grew up a Celtics fans and admired Rajon Rondo for his full-court passes.
As he wrapped up an excellent career at The Rivers School in Weston, Mass., his college recruiting took him to the Main Line. He led off his scheduled visits at Villanova, and ended his search right there.
“Once I got to the campus, I felt like I was already a part of the team,” he said. “That’s a huge shoutout to Phil Booth, who took me under his wing. I felt like I was his little brother. I looked up to all those guys and it just felt like home. So it was a no-brainer for me.”
A broken bone in his left hand sidelined Samuels for 10 games as a freshman. He got on the court for the late stages of four games in the Wildcats’ successful 2018 national championship quest.
Samuels’ breakthrough game came late in his sophomore year — 29 points on 10-of-19 shooting with five threes in a 67-61 home win over Marquette on Feb. 27 that helped propel the Cats to the Big East regular-season title. Prior to that, he never had scored more than 15 points or had taken more than nine shots in a game.
Samuels grew in consistency the next season, averaging 10.7 points and 5.5 rebounds. He made the game-winning play in two contests — a three-point basket in a 56-55 win over then-No. 1 Kansas, and a conventional three-point play that resulted in a 70-69 defeat of Georgetown.
This season, Samuels has improved in a number of statistical areas — scoring (10.7 to 11.9), rebounding (5.5 to 6.5), assists (2.0 to 2.5), three-point percentage (27.6 to 38.2), and free-throw shooting (72.7 to 81.2). But as the team’s elder statesman, he is enjoying his final run with his younger teammates, especially as part of a Sweet 16 team.
“It’s not even necessarily about winning the games,” he said. “It’s just seeing the guys around me who never have had the NCAA experience get a chance to be a part of it and embrace it, and be all dialed into it. So to see them get a chance to make their name in Villanova basketball, it warms my heart.”