LAS VEGAS — Every year, college players declare for the NBA draft before exhausting their college eligibility.
Maybe they had enjoyed a surprising breakout season, or maybe they believe their stock is at its highest point. In some cases, however, the decision to turn pro raises eyebrows and questions. That's where former LSU guard Brandon Sampson found himself when he left school early.
After a collegiate career that began as a member of LSU’s heralded 2015 recruiting class but ended with a junior season in which Sampson only started nine games, he decided to sign with an agent in April and enter the NBA draft, giving up his final year of eligibility.
Heading into the 2017-18 season, Sampson created some buzz among NBA personnel after his performance at Chris Paul’s camp. But after an ankle injury LSU coach Will Wade said Sampson had “mismanaged,” the junior averaged just 7.7 points per game.
Now with the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Summer League, Sampson is looking to flash the potential that earned him status as a top-50 high school prospect while at Madison Prep.
Sampson is aware his time at LSU didn’t end with a bang. Still, he is sure he made the right move.
“I don’t think this was as high as my stock could be,” Sampson said. “I just think I knew what I was capable of — just confidence in myself knowing I’m able to do it.”
In Atlanta’s three games in the Salt Lake City Summer League, Sampson averaged nine minutes and scored six total points, and he said those first few games were important in getting the jitters out of his system.
“It was my first time being in an environment and things like that,” Sampson said. “As I got things going, just getting the tempo and things like that, I got more comfortable.”
The Las Vegas Summer League, hosting all 30 NBA teams for the first time, is the biggest and most popular. It allows players to showcase their skills in front of NBA front-office personnel and international teams.
Sampson said he is focused on making Atlanta’s roster as he works through the rigors of transitioning to the pro game, which Sampson cited as much more physical than in college.
“We know what his talent level is, his skill set is, but he’s got to also be patient,” Atlanta Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce said.
Pierce said all the players on the Hawks’ summer roster are “in the same boat,” but he is happy with how the team is handling the learning process.
Sampson has some help in that department, with former LSU players like Antonio Blakeney and Jarell Martin a phone call away. Sampson said he trained in Miami with Blakeney and spent time with Martin as well, saying both ex-teammates are like brothers to him.
Blakeney, in particular, is a key resource for Sampson as he went undrafted last year, earning a two-way contract after a solid performance with the Chicago Bulls in the Summer League. He split time between Chicago and the Windy City Bulls, their G League affiliate, where he earned the NBA G League Rookie of the Year award.
“You've got to be ready to not play or be on the court for two minutes or getting in the last minute of the game because you’re the last man on the totem pole,” Blakeney said. “You've got to show you’re willing to do whatever it takes to make it, and then when the time comes, just be ready.”
Sampson is hoping he gets an opportunity to show off his versatility this summer, something he feels he didn’t get to show off as much while at LSU. Although he hasn’t received big minutes throughout his first few games with the Hawks, he remains optimistic that he’ll get his opportunity to shine.
“Everything is a learning experience,” Sampson said. “From camps on into the games, I’m just taking everything in.”