Newly confident Ralph Sampson III shines

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- Ralph Sampson III was getting the ball in the post, spinning with a soft hook from the left and then the right and then straight up the middle.

The moves were so fundamentally sound that it almost made you pause for a moment and disregard his full name. He was no longer just Ralph Sampson’s son. He had created his own identity, a player who could score in the post like his famous father, but on his own terms.

For three years, Sampson III has attempted to find his role with Minnesota and in the sport, without being known simply as his father’s son. But Sampson III failed to distinguish himself enough and his introverted personality made it even harder to get to know him.

He’s still a bit shy. And he’s hardly a star. But he certainly showed he has the potential to be a dominant presence at his position this season with his 22-point, 8-rebound performance in Minnesota’s impressive 95-77 win over Western Kentucky in Thursday’s first round of the Honda Puerto Rico Tip-Off.

“Everything is clicking right now,’’ said the soft-spoken Sampson III. “I’m consistently knocking down a hook shot with both hands. I hit a few jumpers and had a high free throw percentage. Everything is coming together right now. It’s a good feeling. It’s been a long time.’’

Sampson III came to Minnesota with hype out of Duluth, Ga., mainly because of his name, not his game. He had some rather pedestrian seasons as a freshman and sophomore, averaging 6.3 points and then 8.2. Following his freshman year, Sampson III was humbled when he tried out for the Under-19 US national team and got cut. The team eventually won the gold medal in New Zealand.

“He worked hard this summer,’’ said Minnesota assistant coach Vince Taylor. “Now he’s taking his time. He’s not in a hurry. He looks, he checks and then went middle, went left and went right. He’s become better and better and is maturing. We’re trying to get him to become more of a leader, but it’s not his personality. He’s giving all he has and we’re happy with that.’’

The Western Kentucky game was hardly a fluke. Sampson III has strung together three straight strong performances together to start this season against Wofford (20 points, 13 rebounds), Siena (13 and 6) and now Western Kentucky.

North Carolina and the lengthy frontline of Tyler Zeller, John Henson and the beefy Justin Knox is up next for the Gophers in Friday night’s semifinal.

“This has greatly improved my confidence,’’ Sampson III said. “I’m doing things I couldn’t do in the past. I’m being consistent. In the past, my confidence would go up and down between games. I would have a good game, then a not so good game, then vice versa. Now everything is clicking for me.’’

Sampson III said his mindset is right. He said the entire Gopher team is clicking well, which says something about the toughness of this squad considering they are playing without their top creator on offense (suspended wing Devoe Joseph). Joseph has to go through a checklist of things to get back in head coach Tubby Smith’s good graces after the violation of team rules. While he’s out, Sampson III is providing the lift that might help this team for the whole season, even when Joseph is reinstated.

But Sampson III's toughness and ability to score in the low post will be tested against UNC. He said he’ll have to deal with potentially getting the ball stolen or a shot blocked and go right back at the Tar Heels. He can’t lose his newly found confidence or ability to be an aggressor.

“If you do that then you’ll be in a funk the whole game,’’ Sampson III said.

Taylor said the Tar Heels would be a better matchup then the Hilltoppers because it will be more of a traditional frontcourt, rather than 6-6 to 6-7 athletic wings, which can be difficult for the 6-11 Sampson III.

“It will be more tactical,’’ Taylor said. “We’ve got enough bigs with Ralph and {Trevor Mbakwe, Colton Iverson and Maurice Walker]. We can rebound and shoot the ball with them. We’ll just have to cut down on our turnovers [19 against WKU].’’

For the Gophers to have a chance to take down Carolina, they’ll need confidence out of Sampson III. They’ll have that from point guard Al Nolen, wings like Rodney Williams and a big like Mbakwe. But if Sampson III is playing with this newfound self-esteem, the dark horse Gophers are even more of a threat to win big this season.