|After slow start, Gophers' Sampson gains strength|
|Written by Admin|
|Tuesday, 03 February 2009 23:28|
Halfway into the Big Ten season, the lanky freshman and son of the former NBA standout has developed into a dangerous part of the 19th-ranked Gophers.
``I am a totally different player from the first time we played Michigan State,'' Sampson said Tuesday, before Minnesota traveled to meet the 13th-ranked Spartans.
Minnesota has the chance to avenge a decisive 70-58 defeat to the Spartans at home in the conference opener on New Year's Eve.
Sampson's last two games, both victories, have been his best. On Jan. 25 at Indiana, he had 13 points and a career-best eight rebounds and six blocks. Last Thursday in a 59-36 thumping of then-No. 19 Illinois, Sampson pitched in 10 points, seven rebounds and three assists in a season-high 31 minutes.
That left Fighting Illini coach Bruce Weber impressed.
``He battles. He's very competitive for a young guy. He's big, bulky, makes it tough,'' Weber said. ``You've got to fight your butt off on him. ... He's played better than I ever anticipated, and he's got a great future for them.''
Sampson came to Minnesota from Northview High School in Duluth, Ga., on the edge of the Atlanta metro area, with a high profile due to his dad's short-lived but notable NBA career. The elder Sampson was named rookie of the year and picked for three All-Star games while comprising half of the Twin Towers duo with Hakeem Olajuwon in Houston.
The son - who goes by Ralph Sampson III - bears a strong resemblance to his father, but he has shrugged off the perception of extra pressure to live up to his name.
``Dad's always been just 'Dad' to me,'' Sampson said. ``Him being an NBA player, it was just kind of a cool thing to have when I was growing up. I didn't really buy into it a whole lot.''
He followed with a smile and a chuckle, a glimpse at a relaxed demeanor Sampson has rarely shown in public during his freshman season. He comes across as quite shy, maintaining a stoic expression and clipped cadence throughout most of his interviews. On the court, there isn't much emotion apparent, either.
ew situation, though, and the Gophers (18-3, 6-3) have been quick to point out Sampson's progress. He's more patient and more poised, even from merely one month ago.
``Just to get the chemistry, get the flow,'' Smith said.
Fellow freshman Colton Iverson, who's listed at 6-foot-10, has been in the starting lineup alongside the 6-foot-11 Sampson since the Big Ten season began. Maybe Minnesota will wind up with the latest version of the Twin Towers.
``Our players are really recognizing where they can end up, and Ralph and Colton are recognizing where they can be in our offense,'' Smith said.
In the last game against Michigan State, Sampson played only 10 minutes. He took one shot. He had four fouls.
``It wasn't really intimidation. It was more of just anxiousness and nervousness,'' Sampson said. ``The first few minutes I was hyperventilating because of all the energy. It was the first Big Ten game. I'd never been in one.''
On Wednesday, the nerves shouldn't be as intense. With Sampson averaging 6.8 points, 4.3 rebounds and 1.7 blocks in 19.9 minutes per game, he's begun to build confidence.
mark from the free-throw line, and is unafraid to shoot from outside the paint.
``I think he's very aggressive. He's really taking it to the basket, getting to the free-throw line, finishing, dunking the ball,'' teammate Damian Johnson said. ``He's really a different player right now. I think it's part of the learning curve. You're just coming in out of high school. You're not as strong as everyone else. You've got to take time to learn things.''