GETTING TO THE TOP

TSD's Ben Love explores how Brandon Sampson became the No. 1 basketball prospect in Louisiana.

Traditional Chinese zodiacs indicate 2015 is the Year of the Sheep. In Louisiana, at least when it comes to matters on the prep hardwood, it would be more appropriate to associate 2015 with a chicken or eagle because when college recruiters are scouring the state for talent, what they’re quickly finding is that it’s the Year of the Wings.

The Pelican State boasts a number of coveted off-the-ball perimeter players in this class, from St. Michael’s Jacob Evans to Higgins’ Melvin Frazier to Byrd’s Chad Lott.

But no star shines brighter at his position or in his state than Brandon Sampson.

Standing 6-foot-4 and recently up to 180 pounds, Sampson, a four-star prospect, is at the front of the line in Louisiana, a mantle he accepts while still retaining the edge that got him there.

“Yes sir, I do (consider myself the top player in the state),” Sampson told TSD matter-of-factly. “But everybody I’m going against, I know I have to put forth that effort to make sure I’m doing more than they are.”

This November, when Sampson’s Madison Prep squad travels to St. Michael to open the season, the talented shooting guard will have a chance to defend his crown against one of the highest risers in this country this summer.

“Just looking at our first game this year, and going against Jacob Evans, there’s been like a little thing going back and forth about who’s the best,” explained Sampson. “When the time comes I guess I’ll just have to prove that I’m the best player in Louisiana.”

Don’t get Sampson wrong, there’s still plenty of room for love. Just not on the court, not while the calm kid who prefers to play the background off the floor is transformed into full-on assassin mode on it.

“It’s all respect. Just when you’re on that court it’s all business. That’s it,” said Sampson. “We’re friends off it but we’re both trying to do the same thing on the court, so it can’t be all fluffy and stuff or just playing around. I have to show them that it’s strictly business. But that’s my guy off the court. I’m real cool with him.”

Asked who else from the Boot can challenge him atop the mountain, Sampson mulled one name in particular, a player with whom he hasn’t gotten the chance to make acquaintances. “I haven’t gotten to play Chad Lott, but it’ll probably happen someday. You never know, I’ll probably meet him in a tournament or something. That’s really about it for me in Louisiana.”

Before it was Sampson versus all comers in the state, though, it was just about basketball – and all the time – on a simpler and less business-like level.

Cocking her head back with memories flowing, a smiling Maude Sampson-Saunders recalled a child that had an obsession. Seldom if ever a troublemaker, her son lived the entirety of his childhood by a different mantra: have ball, will travel.

“He’s always had that love from a very little boy on. I think that was a God-given talent because mom did not play basketball nor dad,” she said laughing. “So I don’t know where he got that from, but he always walked around with that basketball.”

Even on the most routine or mundane of trips away from the house, it was hard to pry the rock from Sampson’s hands. Not that mama ever tried.

“I never took it away from him, but I did think it was funny that everywhere we went he wanted to bring his ball,” Sampson-Saunders continued. “I had to tell him ‘Brandon, you can’t play basketball.’ And he’d just say ‘Mama, wherever we go, they may have a goal.’ So he just started taking it with him everywhere he went.”

Further proof that the Pistol Pete approach of dribbling everywhere imaginable all day long still works, Sampson blossomed from that relentless boy into a young man leading a fledgling high school program in Baton Rouge to elite status in a hurry.

As a sophomore, playing next to current LSU standout Jarell Martin, Sampson notched first-team all-state honors in Class B, scoring 16.3 points per game as the Chargers claimed the state title. Madison Prep moved up to 1A in advance of Sampson’s junior campaign, but that didn’t impede his improvement or slow his offensive onslaught as he averaged 24.3 points, 6.1 rebounds and 4.3 assists en route to collecting another first-team all-state nod.

His team fell short of a second-straight championship, losing a 50-47 nail-biter to Country Day in the final, but the setback only fueled Sampson heading into summer.

Sampson’s wrath was soon felt by many across the country, mostly those on the West Coast. He tore through the Pangos All-American Camp in Long Beach, finishing as the second-leading scorer (16.5 ppg) at the prestigious camp, and averaged 21.6 points and 6.1 assists for Louisiana Elite on the Under Armour circuit. Sampson was in the process of giving similar treatment to participants in Steph Curry’s Select Camp in Oakland before suffering a scary concussion.

“It was the last day of the Steph Curry Camp,” Sampson remembered. “I got undercut going up to get an offensive rebound and landed on my head.”

After taking time off to recover and recalibrate, Sampson did what he normally does – he used the experience as a motivating tool and set out to prove himself once more and better than ever.

“Coming back after the concussion I knew there was a lot I had to prove,” said Sampson. “Not being able to go to those two tournaments I missed, I knew I had to play well at Fab 48 to make an even bigger name for myself.”

Now Sampson’s senior year has arrived. He stepped back onto the Madison Prep campus different but the same from how he left it as a junior. On one hand he’s tacked on almost 10 pounds, added offers from a number of new high-major programs and has seen his stock soar across virtually every recruiting service. On the other Sampson is still cut from the same cloth on the floor and intends to resume the role he first grew into last season.

“It’s not really that much more pressure or new pressure to me because I took on that leadership role last year,” he explained. “I know what I have to do more of this year pushing people to get better. Everyone is going to aim at me, but coming into this year we have better players. People are coming back bigger and stronger, so I think my teammates are going to help me more than they did last year.

“Especially with the new addition of our point guard, Christion [Thompson], he’s really going to help, so people can’t focus on me as much as they want to. We’ll have people at different positions who can score the ball.”

While advice pours in to Sampson from every angle, on matters from winning games to official visits to college selections to how to juggle it all, he’s intent on keep a small inner-circle. But he still absorbs the council of key people in his life, namely his mother, his coach Jeff Jones and close friends like Jarell Martin.

“I want him to have a good basketball season, but he has to make sure he hits the books first of all,” Sampson-Saunders said. “With the recruiting process I just want it to be fun for him, not stressful, because I know it can be a lot. We do have some good coaches on our side to fill us in on what we don’t know, but I want it to be fun for him.”

As for how Martin chimes in: “He just tells me to keep that motor and have a good attitude,” Sampson mentioned. “He reminds me that everybody doesn’t make it based off those rankings, so I take that to heart and try not to let any of that go to my head. Just have a good attitude and play hard. He said that’s the best thing people like about him, his attitude. Jarell always has a smile on his face and he’s not ever pouting.”

One final anecdote from Sampson-Saunders is perhaps most telling about her son, his will and the outlook that’s driven him to be Louisiana’s finest in 2015.

“Brandon and Christopher (his older brother) get along very well. The younger brother, they feud, but in the end they make up. Dino (in the ninth grade at Madison Prep) does look up to him a lot, though, because he also plays basketball,” she continued.

“So Brandon does take a lot of time out with him, but he pushes him hard. I always fuss at Brandon and tell him he’s being too hard on him, but he just says ‘No, mama, that’s what makes him stronger.’ So I guess if that makes him stronger and he can be the next Brandon, then okay, I’m for it.”

The ability to work hard and push others when it’s an option, not demanded, is part of Sampson’s formula for success, an element that’s separated him from many of his peers. His mother has seen it for years, but even she can’t believe where it’s taken him.

“I never expected all this would happen, but I knew he loved his basketball,” concluded Sampson-Saunders. “I figured he would probably play basketball somewhere and then he did play in middle school and started getting all these MVPs and such. It’s just kept going on and on and on. I’m so proud of him. Very proud of him.”


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