The NBA game is about mismatches. Good teams know how to exploit their advantages. Teams like the Sacramento Kings look for ways to hide their deficiencies.
Sacramento came out of the offseason knowing they had an issue in their roster make up. The team lacked a combo forward that could handle bigger wings and also slide over to the power spot to challenge stretch fours.
Rookie Justin Jackson was the only small forward on the roster listed above 6-foot-6 and he is slight of frame at 6-foot-8, 200 pounds. At the power spot, Skal Labissiere and Zach Randolph have plenty of skill, but guarding the perimeter is an issue.
Enter JaKarr Sampson.
Sampson signed a two-way contract with the Kings during the offseason, giving Sacramento the ability to call on the 24-year-old forward for up to 45 days during the season. Listed at 6-foot-9, 215 pounds, Sampson stepped up against 13-time All-Star and four-time league MVP LeBron James on Wednesday evening and made a tremendous contribution.
He finished the night with a modest six points, but his 16 rebounds and physical defense against James shined a light on the Kings' glaring hole in the roster.
“JaKarr had been playing me tough all game,” James said of Sampson following the game. “I know him, he knows me from our summertime workouts back at St. V. But you know, big brother’s always going to have the last laugh.”
James came away the win. His Cavs team is fresh off two straight NBA Finals trips and they were riding a 12-game winning streak. They came into the night favored by 12.5 over Sacramento and barely escaped with the 101-95 victory.
After playing for the Reno Bighorns earlier in the week, Sampson started and played 32 minutes for Dave Joerger. The argument could be made that the athletic forward didn’t play enough.
When Sampson went to the bench at the 3:29 mark of the third quarter, the Kings held a five-point lead. He returned to a tie game with 6:34 remaining in the fourth. James scored 10 of his game-high 32 during that stretch and he found his range from the perimeter.
“I’m just happy to see him back at this level,” James said. “Works extremely hard, is a great competitor. I’m happy Sacramento is giving him an opportunity.”
There is something to be said about knowing your role. Sampson came into the night knowing that he needed to bring energy and physicality when going against James. His incredible rebounding night was just icing on the cake.
“He was excited and he was up for the challenge,” Vince Carter said. “He’s aggressive, he has a high motor, he loves to play and he’s not really afraid.”
Sacramento doesn’t have another player like Sampson. He fits an immediate need for the ball club, but his contract status limits the way they can use him moving forward. With 15 players already on standard roster, the Kings would have to either trade or waive a player if they wanted to make a permanent spot for the St. John’s product.
With only five veterans on the roster and commitments to 10 young players, nine of which were first-round selections, the Kings are in a difficult position.
Expect Sacramento to pick and choose their spots with Sampson. They have plenty of time to make a decision on his future with the team. For one night, he was the designated LeBron James stopper.