Culture / Sporting Life

Kelvin Sampson Takes Ja’Vier Francis to Duke School — Houston’s Coach Pulls His Young Center Aside For a Special Film Session

Sensing Exactly What His Team Needs Is a Sampson Specialty

BY // 03.29.24

DALLAS — Kelvin Sampson knew Ja’Vier Francis needed a boost this week, maybe even a new direction. So University of Houston’s coach brought his still young center in to watch film with him personally, to help Francis look at these NCAA Tournament games a little differently.

“He sat me down, we watched film together and he showed me all my fouls the past couple of games,” Francis tells PaperCity. “He showed me like, ‘Could have done this here. Could have done that there. Probably shouldn’t have done this. Could have did this instead. . .’

“It helped a lot for sure.”

One of Kelvin Sampson’s most underrated coaching skills is his ability to sense exactly what each guy on his team needs. UH’s 68-year-0ld basketball lifer of a coach also knows that the Cougars need Francis at his defensive best against a Duke frontline that includes unconventional center Kyle Filipowski, a 7 foot projected NBA lottery pick who averages 8.2 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game while shooting 35 percent from three, and Mark Mitchell, a 6-foot-9 power forward who shoots 53 percent from the field. Sampson pulling Francis aside for a one-on-one film session this week is purposeful.

This is Francis’ first real run in the NCAA Tournament (he played a total of two minutes in Houston’s three NCAA Tournament games last season) and he’s still adjusting to the Madness. This 6-fo0t-8 disrupter is a light-on-his-feet defensive game changer at his best. But Francis managed to stay on the court only 19 minutes in that second round overtime win over Texas A&M, fouling out with zero points, zero rebounds and only one shot attempt. Francis still has six blocks and four steals in two tournament games, a testament to what he can do in a little amount of time.

University of Houston center Ja'Vier Francis is shot blocking game changer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)
University of Houston center Ja’Vier Francis is shot blocking game changer. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

This 32-4 Houston team could use much more Francis against Duke in Friday night’s 8:50 pm CBS showcase Sweet 16 game at American Airlines Arena though. Few big men in college basketball can recover to the three point line to challenge a shooter like Francis can.

“He’s so active,” UH guard Damian Dunn says of Francis and his effect on opposing offenses. “And he can make up so much ground. Because of his activity — and he’s long. Usually bigs aren’t as effective because they don’t really use their arms.

“Ja will get in a stance and he’ll make himself look way bigger than what he is. And his speed. He recovers so fast. He’ll take four steps to recover to the 3-point line.”

Against a 7-foot 3-point shooter like Filipowski that could help flip Duke’s offense upside down. If Ja’Vier Francis can stay on the court.

“He’s just got to be smarter about his fouls,” Kelvin Sampson says when I ask about Francis. “We’ve been working with him a lot around the rim with being vertical. . . You got to remember this is his first year. Don’t compare him to seniors. . . This is Ja’Vier’s first year. Sometimes we want to compare him to 28-year-olds. That dude just turned 20.

“He’s young. He’s inexperienced still. All these moments are new for him. . . Experience is his greatest teacher. Failure is a great teacher. But every time he’s had those moments, he’s always bounced back.”

Sampson is doing everything he can to help Francis play big in his first NCAA Tournament. Houston point guard Jamal Shead, who watches film with Sampson regularly, describes these one-on-one sessions as next level basketball teaching. Like suddenly being dropped into a hoops masters class.

“He sees things that no one else does,” Shead says.

“He’s finally accrued enough basketball experience to do hooper stuff. And that might be the greatest compliment I can give anybody. You’re a hooper. Ja’s turning into a hooper.” — UH assistant Kellen Sampson on Ja’Vier Francis

Ja’Vier Francis Finds Sampson Hooper Level Confidence

Now Ja’Vier Francis is getting a taste of Kelvin Sampson’s individual film school. Sampson uses the session to make sure Francis stays upbeat too. Kelvin Sampson the practice screamer with uncompromising demands is real. But the Sampson in these one-on-one film sessions is different. The teaching is quieter, if no less focused. These quieter one on one moments is where Sampson does some of his best teaching. Where he makes a player like Ja’Vier Francis believe.

“He shows a lot of confidence in me,” Francis tells PaperCity of Sampson. “That’s what makes me know I can do it.”

Francis looks forward to playing against Filipowski, to seeing what he can do against an NBA big man. One who can shoot from distance. “It’s for sure exciting to see how we can stand up to them,” Francis says.

This is another area where this 20-year-0ld whose best friend is his grandfather has grown. Francis got a late start in basketball and some of trash talk and posturing used to catch him off guard. Not anymore. Now Ja’Vier Francis will stand his ground — and even give some of it back.

“I’ve been so proud of him that he’s starting to do things like hoopers do,” UH assistant coach Kellen Sampson tells PaperCity. “One of the things with Ja is because he was so late to basketball, he didn’t play on the playground. He didn’t grow up going against older guys where you just kind of learn how to move.

“. . . You learn to stand up for yourself. When you’re nine or 10, you learn how to play with 12-year-olds. When you’re 12, you learn to play with 14-year-olds. And so on and so forth. Ja never did that. When Ja first started playing, he was just straight to workouts.

“. . . Ja’s getting it. There’s been a couple of times this year when somebody’s tried to get a little physical, tried to punk Ja — and Ja punks right back now. Where is, he used to not. . . He’s finally accrued enough basketball experience to do hooper stuff. And that might be the greatest compliment I can give anybody.

“You’re a hooper. Ja’s turning into a hooper.”

“He sat me down, we watched film together and he showed me all my fouls the past couple of games.” — UH center Ja’Vier on his film session with Kelvin Sampson

This Duke game will be another gauge of Ja’Vier Francis’ hooper progression. How he responds to the Texas A&M game when foul trouble prevented from making as big of an impact as he wanted. With blue blood Duke and its expected NBA lottery pick darling of a big man shooter trying to do his thing in Dirk Nowitzki’s house.

Kelvin Sampson’s already made sure Francis has a heck of a head start, a special extra film session with arguably college basketball’s best teacher.

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