During a playful moment in pregame warmups last weekend, Sam Dekker caught a long pass, looked down to make sure his feet were inbounds and smiled at those watching from press row at the United Center in Chicago.
“Just like Jordy Nelson,” said the junior forward for the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, who happens to be a diehard Green Bay Packers fan. “Only better.”
Then Dekker went back to work getting ready for a game against Michigan in a Big Ten tournament quarterfinal. A few hours later, he had finished off a masterpiece — 17 points, six rebounds, six assists and three steals — that helped the No. 6 Badgers advance with a 71-60 victory over the Wolverines.
It was a glimpse of the dominance fans expected from Dekker when he arrived at UW as a highly touted recruit from Sheboygan, an in-state hero who was going to take the Badgers to the next level.
Dekker has been more of a complementary piece throughout his career, though games like the one in Chicago have become more frequent during the second half of Dekker’s third season under coach Bo Ryan.
The bell cow for the Badgers is senior center Frank Kaminsky, the likely national player of the year. But the next most important piece of the puzzle for the Badgers is Dekker, particularly as UW gets deeper in the NCAA tournament and opponents are better equipped to slow Kaminsky.
“Whenever he’s aggressive and confident, it comes out,” UW senior guard Josh Gasser said of Dekker’s potential. “We have a lot of talent on this team … but when he’s aggressive and looking for his shot and attacking the offensive glass, you see how special of a player he is. At this time of the year, there’s nothing to hold back. So I hope he stays that way.”
Whether what some consider Ryan’s best team at UW can go from very good to great could very well depend on whether Dekker can do the same with his game. Big Ten Network analyst Jim Jackson, the father of Badgers senior point guard Traevon Jackson, said as much during the All-Big Ten Conference awards show earlier this month.
“Sam Dekker, to me, is the key for Wisconsin if they want to win a national championship,” Jim Jackson said. “He can present so many different problems. Yes, Frank is the guy, Nigel (Hayes) is another person that can give you points. But if Sam is at the top of the game — and I’m saying anywhere between 14 to 17 points a game, four (or) five rebounds, gets out and runs, he’s a game-changer for Wisconsin.”
Room to grow
A game-changer. That’s what Dekker was being called when he stepped foot on campus in 2012, and the label only became bigger and bolder during a highly productive offseason last summer.
Dekker was coming off a sophomore season in which he was a second-team All-Big Ten selection who averaged 12.4 points per game in his first season as a starter and helped the Badgers reach the Final Four for the first time under Ryan.
After his profile exploded after great performances at elite camps run by NBA stars LeBron James and Kevin Durant, Dekker was brimming with confidence and returned to Madison looking like a different player.
“He was making plays and hitting some ridiculous shots,” Gasser said. “He was really playing well — then the injury happened.”
Dekker injured his left ankle in practice on Oct. 24, three weeks before the regular-season opener. Reporters and a high school team were watching from the stands and Dekker tried to downplay the injury, limping off the court on his right foot.
But when he had reached the hallway and was out of sight, Dekker’s emotions took over because he knew the injury was bad. He made it back in time for the start of the season but admits he rushed his return, leaving him at less than 100 percent for an important non-conference stretch that included a trip to the Battle 4 Atlantis, where NBA scouts were lined up on press row, and a loss to Duke in the ACC/Big Ten Challenge in which he finished with only five points.
Once Dekker’s health improved, so did his production. He averaged 13.8 points during the Big Ten regular season, up from 12.1 during non-conference play, and his energy and effort on the offensive glass have been noticeable during the stretch run.
Still, the Badgers coaching staff knows Dekker has more to give.
As the Badgers were getting ready for their Final Four appearance last season, UW associate head coach Greg Gard had this description of Dekker: “Potential out of this world.”
A year later, Gard was asked if Dekker is realizing that potential. “Closer,” Gard said, “but it’s still not as consistently as it can be.”
So what needs to happen, Gard was asked.
“Consistent focus, consistently trying to do all the little things that make you a better player, not just scoring,” Gard said. “He’s starting to get better at that. He’s gotten better at moving away from the ball. He’s become a much better defender. His decision-making his better.
“It’s a process with him. He’s a 20-year-old kid, just trying to take it game by game and can work on getting better. I think shooting has got to become more consistent. I think he can become a much better shooter. So there’s a lot of areas he needs to improve upon, but his size and as athletic as he is, when he’s dialed in, things are going well, he’s a really good player and helps this team.”
One criticism of Dekker is his play in UW’s three defeats this season. The ankle was an issue against Duke, but Dekker wasn’t able to give the Badgers a much-needed lift when they needed it most during Big Ten losses at Rutgers and Maryland.
Dekker scored 15 points against Rutgers on Jan. 11 — a game Kaminsky missed due to a concussion — but was held scoreless over the final 10 minutes, 40 seconds, when UW watched a three-point lead turn into a 67-62 loss.
He had 14 points during a 59-53 loss at Maryland on Feb. 24 but didn’t score over the final 9:02.
“I think he can become a much more dominant player,” Gard said. “Right now, he makes plays in the flash and it’s kind of here and there. I’d like to see him take the step that Frank has taken, where he’s become a consistently dominant player.”
Part of the reason the hype meter for Dekker was off the charts entering the season was his new look: He had grown two inches to a 6-foot-9 frame and added strength and muscle, putting him at a chiseled 230 pounds.
But those closest to Dekker believe his biggest growth has been in the maturity process.
So does Dekker.
“I wasn’t really letting things go last year,” he said. “If I had a game where I didn’t think I played as well as I could, I was getting down on myself and kind of thinking about it for a couple days instead of letting go and realizing I don’t need to get up X many of shots, I just have to play hard.
“The coaches know I’m a player; my teammates know I’m a player. I listened a little too much to the outside noise in the past.”
Dekker still listens. He says he’s kept his Twitter account active despite being constantly attacked by trolls looking to pick a fight because he wants to know what’s being said about him, good or bad.
But Dekker is better equipped to handle that criticism. That’s particularly true when it comes to his relationship with Ryan, who has a shorter leash with Dekker than other UW regulars.
Dekker said former teammate Zach Bohannon — the two roomed on the road last season — has been a big help when it comes to how he accepts Ryan’s harsh assessments. Bohannon was just passing along advice he had received from his brother Jason, who had played for Ryan at UW.
“It’s not necessarily how Coach says it, you’ve just got to peel away that hard shell of the peanut and get to the kernel of truth that he’s trying to get to,” Zach Bohannon said. “That’s what Sam finally started to realize late last year: ‘Coach isn’t trying to hurt me, he’s trying to help me.’ ”
Bohannon served as a sounding board last season for Dekker, who long ago realized the importance of not letting frustration get bottled up inside of him.
Anytime the anger starts to build, Dekker thinks back to some dark days as he was growing up in Sheboygan.
Some of what Dekker was going through as a seventh- and eighth-grader was typical teenage hormones, but there was more to it than that. He was struggling to cope with the loss of his godmother, Kathy Rosenfeldt, and his grandfather, John Dekker.
His older brother John — “the guy I turned to for everything,” Sam said — was away at college.
“It was a weird time for me,” he said. “I put on a face and everyone thought I was this happy kid, but deep down I was pretty miserable for a while.”
Looking back, Dekker knows holing himself up in his room and keeping his emotions inside was a bad move that made the episode last longer than it should have. He eventually talked to a pastor and once again became a happy-go-lucky kid.
Dekker began feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders early last season, when basketball was becoming more of a chore than being fun like it was supposed to be, so he turned to Bohannon and UW athletic trainer Henry Perez-Guerra.
After an afternoon shootaround during UW’s appearance at the Cancun Challenge, Dekker went to Perez-Guerra’s room at the Hard Rock Hotel Riviera Maya and, as he put it, “let it all out.” That night, Dekker had 21 points and 12 rebounds to help UW beat West Virginia in the title game of the tournament.
“Sometimes just letting those emotions out is the best thing,” Dekker said. “Most people know if they watch us a lot, I’m a pretty emotional guy when it comes to certain things — not in terms of breaking down into tears, but I have a lot of energy and get into it on the court. I’m emotional in that aspect. Sometimes I’ll suppress those too much. Sometimes you’ve got to get it out and that’s why you’ve got to turn to people you trust.”
Not looking ahead
A year after exhausting his eligibility, Bohannon still follows the team closely and also participates in a podcast devoted to the Badgers.
When asked for his take on Dekker’s role and whether he was an X-factor of sorts for UW, Bohannon offered a strong opinion.
“My take on the team: Frank Kaminsky is not Frank Kaminsky without Sam Dekker. Period. End of story,” Bohannon said. “Frank Kaminsky is going to be the national player of the year because of Sam out there on the court.
“I hate to take anything away from Frank, but Sam has a higher ceiling and higher potential than Frank does.”
Bohannon looks at Dekker as “a special kid with a bright future.”
How bright? Dekker’s name has showed up on NBA mock drafts for two years, and there’s a legitimate chance this season will be his final one with the Badgers.
“It’s a decision I’m going to have to make,” Dekker said. “I’m not going to make that decision now because that’s not my spot to worry about at the moment. I’m focused on wining here.
“I know that the opportunity is going to be there. People say things about where you’re projected and send you this and that. It’s cool. You appreciate it; it’s a blessing. Right now, I can’t worry about that. I just have to worry about playing here and getting wins here.”
As for the notion that winning games against elite opponents — read: Kentucky — will be possible for UW only if he is at the top of his game, Dekker agrees to some degree.
“I think so. I think that way for a lot of guys,” Dekker said. “For us to do well, I have to play well. Does that mean that if I don’t play well we won’t win? No, but if I’m playing well, that makes us tougher to stop.”