- Joel Francisco
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Weeks away from his high school graduation, Samardo Samuels' résumé of achievements is one of lottery pick proportions.
The 6-foot-9 forward rates as the No. 2 recruit in the 2008 class, and USA Today recently named him its high school player of the year, putting him in elite company with the past four players to win -- Kevin Love, Greg Oden (twice), Dwight Howard and LeBron James (twice). In February he was selected to both the McDonald's All-American and Jordan Brand all-star games. And by summer's end he will be at the University of Louisville on a basketball scholarship, possibly a pit stop on his road to the NBA.
Louisville coach Rick Pitino thinks he has the antidote for any case of inflated ego syndrome Samuels may have contracted as a result of all the recent attention.
"He'll play for me," the notoriously hard-nosed coach said in a joking tone.
If things go according to plan, Samuels will indeed play for, and thrive under, the legendary coach.
He should fill the void on the Cardinals' roster left by the departures of frontcourt players David Padgett and Derrick Caracter. The combination of Samuels' arrival and the return of star players Earl Clark and Terrence Williams has translated to significant, albeit early, Final Four buzz in Louisville.
"Winning is a big thing to me," Samuels said. "Being [ranked] in the [preseason] top 10 when I go in there that's great. As a college freshman what else can you ask for?"
Samuels' situation seems similar to Derrick Rose who entered was a freshman at Memphis during 2007-2008. The highly-touted Rose joined a talented nucleus that almost put the Tigers over the top in their pursuit of a national title.
Waiting in the wings
Samuels isn't the only freshman who will be a major contributor on a team with championship aspirations. Here's a look at a few other first year player's with the ability to put contending teams over the top.
point guard, Arizona
Jennings has the skill set and personality to return this once proud program to national prominence. With Lute Olson's promise to return to the free-wheeling, up-tempo offense that earned Arizona the famed "Point Guard University" moniker, expect Jennings to have every opportunity to make a major impact at Arizona.
combo guard, UCLA
Holiday simply does anything and everything his team needs for victory. Rarely does a glue-guy rank as an elite prospect, but Holiday fits the bill here. He plays great pressure defense and rebounds the ball very well for a guard, all traits that will make him a great fit with UCLA coach Ben Howland's tough brand of basketball.
power forward, Georgetown
Monroe's diverse offensive game and passing skills should fit nicely with the modified Princeton motion offense that the Hoyas run. His ability to connect on the jump shot in addition to his polished post game should put the Hoyas in a position to finally win it all.
shooting guard, Tennessee
Coach Bruce Pearl got a great player in Hopson who has prototypical athleticism and size to play the 2-guard. If Hopson has nearly as much character and competitive zeal as the player he is replacing, Chris Lofton, the men in Knoxville will truly join the women's program as an elite national program.
-- Antonio Williams
Unlike Rose, Pitino doesn't envision Samuels as the centerpiece of the Cardinals' attack. Samuels will get plenty of opportunities to get shots in the post, but the bulk of the scoring will probably be done by Clark and Williams.
"If I had to guess he's got a very good chance of starting and playing major minutes," Pitino said. "But he's on a team with some serious talent. You're talking about Earl Clark, who's a potential lottery pick. Terrence Williams, who's a potential first-rounder. Edgar Sosa and Andre McGee, [and] Jerry Smith all have proven themselves at the collegiate level."
Samuels is fine with deferring; wins are the only metric he cares about.
"A lot of dudes ask me if I am going to be the next Mike Beasley," Samuels said. "My thing is, I am going to be a winner. I don't know which way, how I am going to do it cause I can do a lot of things on the court.. ... I can score. I can rebound. I can block shots. Whatever it takes, whatever my team needs me to do to win."
Although that answer is the politically correct one, the evidence backs up Samuels' claim -- it's safe to say that no other McDonald's All-American took an average of two charges per a game. In his three seasons playing for coach Danny Hurley at St. Benedict's Academy in Newark, N.J., his teams lost a total of four games.
"He's played on the AAU circuit and he's done very well in camps, but I think [the high school season is] where he's really carved his niche out has been the last couple of years," Hurley said of Samuels who average 24 points and 11 rebounds as a senior. "During the high school year he's been 24-1 twice and 30-2, so he wins. Winning is what matters to him. Really, up until this year, he hasn't been a huge statistic guy."
Samuels has all the physical tools to make an instant impact; he has been in a serious weight training program for two years and Pitino considers him one of the most physically developed freshmen he has ever coached. He also displays a hunger for victory that is a product of his humble upbringing.
Samuels grew up in Spanishtown, Jamaica, dreaming of staring on the soccer field. But as an adolescent, the towering Samuels realized his natural gifts were much more suited for basketball. He became obsessed with the sport, honing his skills on the cracked Caribbean concrete. There Samuels had to develop his game without the luxuries most American youth basketball players are accustomed to.
"Growing up in Jamaica it was tough at times for me," Samuels said. "Playing outside, sneakers and stuff tend to go faster. ... I had one court and I learned how to play on the streets. We would put up basketball crates [to practice on]."
In July 2004, Samuels came to New York. He was amazed at the relative red carpet treatment bestowed upon teenage basketball players in the U.S.
"I love basketball. In Jamaica I played every day, but I didn't have a lot of resources," Samuels said. "When I came over here I had more resources to work with. ... And it was like 'You have all of this around you, you have no reason but to get better. You have no excuse why you can't be the best player you would like to be.' I had to take advantage of it."
He says that everything-is-earned attitude was instilled in him by his father. Rohan Samuels -- the owner of a cab company in Jamaica -- was the disciplinarian in the household.
"My pops, I think he is one of the most influential people in my life," Samuels said.
"He always tells me whatever I am doing, if I am not going to go hard don't do it. I always take that with me, everyday when I go out onto the court."
Coming in as a top-rated recruit following two of the most-decorated freshman classes in college basketball history has inflated fan expectations. The past two classes were extraordinary in terms of talent and depth. Analysts believe the 2008 group of freshmen is more of the norm.
So, although Samuels is a skilled and talented player, Pitino doesn't see him -- or any member of the Class of 2008 -- garnering All-American honors as a freshman the way a few other first-year players have in recent seasons.
"I think [the 2008 group is] a good class," Pitino said. "I don't think there are any guys that are lock one-year and done players. I don't think there's one player that I could say boy he's a Durant, he's an Oden, he's a Rose, he's a Beasley. This is not that type of class. These are the type of guys that could develop in to very good NBA players some day, but they are going to have to prove they are very good college players first."
Instead of the inevitable comparisons to Love and Beasley that will surely be haunt any highly-rated big man in the coming years, former North Carolina forward Marvin Williams could be a better proxy for Samuels. As a freshman on the 2004-2005 North Carolina Tar Heels, Williams averaged 11.6 points and 6.6 rebounds for the eventual national champs.
"The nice thing about Samardo is he can come in and play major minutes and not have a whole lot of pressure on him," Pitino said. "That's generally when guys do well -- when they don't have a whole lot of pressure on them."
That's not to say Samuels will be relegated to role-player status.
"He just not going to have to be a star of stars," Pitino says. "He's on a team with two first-round draft choices. Earl Clark and Terrence Williams. So, he's gonna be an impact player. I definitely wouldn't call him a role player, he's going to have more of an impact than that."
Brendan Murphy is an associate editor at ESPN.com. He can be reached at Brendan.R.Murphy@espn3.com.