Kevin Samuel masquerades as a gentle giant.
The only thing bigger than the 6’11” redshirt sophomore’s wingspan is his smile, but don’t let the looks fool you — Kevin Samuel will dunk on your mom and block your grandma into next week.
As a redshirt freshman, the native of Barbuda burst onto the college basketball scene, averaging 7.4 points, 6.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game while shooting 66% from the field. The interior force had more blocked shots (77) than missed field goals (61) in his rookie campaign, putting up numbers good enough to encourage him to get an NBA Draft evaluation at the end of the season.
Thankfully for TCU Basketball, he elected to return to Fort Worth for a second run, and has delivered in year two — he has seven double-doubles in the Frogs’ first 13 games and is averaging 11.7 points and 8.5 rebounds while swatting nearly three would-be baskets every time out, numbers that rank him amongst the conference’s leaders.
And while his performance on the court has been exceptional in almost every area (we will get to the kryptonite in a bit), it’s what he’s doing in the huddle and the locker room that has Jamie Dixon most excited. “What I’m thankful for and proud of is his leadership. His voice in the locker room and on the bench during time outs. Just tremendously positive and informative at the same time.”
Samuel wasn’t a big talker his first two years on campus; always enthusiastic, he didn’t take on much of a leadership role as a younger player. And he didn’t have to! His first season he learned from Kenrich Williams while redshirting; Hustle was a quieter player, one who led by example and let his play do the talking. His first year seeing action on the court, the then-freshman didn’t need to be vocal: guys like Alex Robinson and JD Miller were the coaches on the floor and the lead voices in the huddle. But as a redshirt sophomore, Samuel finds himself one of the most experienced players on the roster. One of just three returners from last season, and one of just two to start, Samuel hasn’t just been asked to take on more of a leadership role, it’s been required of him.
With nine new faces — even the seniors are transfers, outside of Desmond Bane — the onus has fallen on a pair of second year guys in RJ Nembhard and Big Kev to carry this team, not just on the floor, but on the bench and in the huddle. The way this island of misfit toys is going to win games is through belief, and that starts with the best players.
And Kevin Samuel is absolutely one of the best players.
After Saturday’s victory over Iowa State, one which seemed improbable in the waning moments, Dixon credited Samuel for being a big part of the winning formula. It was about believing, something he told his team before the conference opener and was still saying after. “Believe. That’s what I told them after the game. I don’t know that we played our best game, but simply put, they believed. They believed. I thought Kevin had a great voice in the huddle. I thought Desmond did too. I thought we had great leadership from those guys.”
Bane certainly remains the guy on this team; for the most part, as the senior shooting guard goes, so go the Frogs. But Desmond can’t cook without some help, and Samuel’s work in the off-season and continued improvement each day in practice has helped his teammate look the part of super star the last two games. It’s something Dixon has game planned for. “We’ve really worked on some things with our bigs setting screens and getting to the basket and seeing it and creating space. He’s just getting better and better at setting screens, rolling to the basket and you’ve seen his improvement in two years.”
Samuel had a couple of really critical moments Saturday night, and three plays that really stick out as positive signs for me. One was a really solid pick that he set that led to a massive dunk — the way he rolled HARD back to the basket ensured he wouldn’t be denied. His footwork was impeccable and it led to an easy two. Twice, he passed out of double teams cleanly and confidently (something not to be taken for granted), both leading to wide-open looks for Desmond Bane from three, helping him off to a fast start before foul trouble slowed him down. These are the kinds of plays that lead to winning basketball, the kinds of things TCU will need to win in conference play.
In addition to the offensive work, Samuel had six blocks Saturday against the Cyclones, including a potential game-saver at the end of regulation. For him, the big plays on defense were just another day at the office. Ever humble, Samuel simply said that he was doing his job in a tough matchup. “Every game is like this. Everybody is going to compete. So, just being there for my teammates on the block, stuff like that, we work on in practice.”
Of course, even the brightest stars have their dark moments, and the thing the Frogs’ big man has to correct is glaringly obvious. Samuel is shooting just 30.8% from the free throw line, a mark below even last year’s concerning 43.8% and something that could force Dixon to relegate him to the bench down the stretch in close games. Samuel can certainly make the shot; he went 4-5 against Xavier and seemed to have broken through the slump that has plagued him this season. But he was a concerning 0-5 against ISU and never once looked confident lining up at the charity stripe. It’s something he’s been working on and continues to work on, something that the coaching staff is well aware of. And while it’s not just Kevin struggling from the line (the team was just 7-17 Saturday and is shooting a below-average 61.9% on the season), his misses are some of the most worrisome because of the role he plays and how much different the Frogs are on both ends of the floor when he’s not on it. Dixon can’t explain it, but he hasn’t lost hope. “We’ve tried many different things. We’re going to have to figure it out. It’s a confidence thing at this point. One game he went four-for-five recently and we believe that’s coming in the next one.”
And even if the free throw line continues to be a place of grief and not charity, TCU Basketball is in good hands with their big man. Kevin has a bright NBA future, but for now, he’s got more work to do in Fort Worth. And he is the type of person, and player, who can take the Horned Frogs a long way.