He took the ball down the floor, abruptly planted his feet from the right wing and tossed up a Hail Mary three-point attempt. The ball fell through the bottom of the net and a Wisconsin sports hero had stamped his legacy with his first signature moment on a national scale.
Every Wisconsin basketball fan has seen the miraculous clip of Sam Dekker sinking the game-winning shot to earn his Sheboygan Lutheran team the Division 5 State Championship. The play — which landed the top spot on SportsCenter’s daily Top 10 — was enough for Dekker to earn recognition as one of the best high school players from the state in recent memory.
Had it all ended at the Kohl Center floor that day, his teammates mobbing him and a group of yellow-clad fans wearing out their vocal cords in celebration, people would still be talking about him for decades.
But with three years ahead of him (assuming he doesn’t duck out early), Dekker has the chance to add more than a few extra lines to his personal history book before he departs Madison.
Rare is it for Wisconsin to reel in a top national recruit and rarer still is it for him to become a serious contributor as a freshman on a Bo Ryan-coached team. And here is Dekker, netting 8.8 points per game in the 22 minutes he averages on the floor. Such immediate impact has only one cause — immense talent.
And what do fans love talking about even more than talent? Speculation: Way too much time thinking and reading about the player they could become by their senior year.
Dekker certainly claims enough talent to spark one of those conversations, so let me be the first to indulge you.
Based on my own research, Dekker’s current numbers alone are the fourth-best season for a freshman in Ryan’s 12-year tenure. Two of the names on the list are two of the more memorable players to call the Kohl Center home in the last decade — Devin Harris and Alando Tucker. The third, forward Mike Wilkinson, posted numbers very similar to Dekker’s as a freshman.
The first two turned into two of the best players in Wisconsin history, with Tucker departing as the program’s all-time scoring leader. Wilkinson went on to a steady, productive career, with 14.3 points and 7.4 rebounds per game in his 2004-05 senior campaign.
Anyone who has watched Dekker play for an extended period can see he has all the makings to become an elite player. It starts with his tremendous athleticism, a skill Wisconsin teams are often short on and one that has made the freshman such a high-energy player off the bench.
He has launched roughly 50 percent of his shots this season from beyond the three-point arc while the other half have come closer to the hoop, which speaks to his versatility on the floor. He’s shooting a respectable 41.3 percent on those three-point attempts and nearly 47 percent overall, promising numbers for his first year on a collegiate floor.
Suiting up for a squad that is criticized (and rightfully so) for being way to anxious to let the three-balls fly, the 6-foot-7 freshman has shown a refreshing aggression to attack the basket. With controlled but forceful dribble-drives, Dekker can create his own shot thanks to a steady hand and a long (if wiry) frame.
The major question surrounding him coming into this season was how he would adjust from a lower-tier high school basketball league to what currently claims the title of the best conference in all of college basketball, but Dekker has shown remarkable composure for such a young player. If he were starting on a different team with a more fast-paced system, Dekker would likely be averaging closer to 15 points on a nightly basis.
His shortcomings are most apparent on the defensive end, earning him criticism from Ryan. And he has fallen victim to the typical freshman mistakes, like when he collected two quick, bone-headed fouls against Michigan State or when he threw an inbound pass the length of the court and out of bounds to let Minnesota tie it up before halftime.
Dekker’s game remains so intriguing because he has shown such tremendous growth so quickly. He is miles ahead of where Jared Berggren, Ryan Evans and Ben Brust — the team’s three leading scorers — were as freshman, making speculation all the more appetizing.
The next step for Dekker is packing more muscle onto his frame. This is the Big Ten, and to truly reach his potential in the guard-forward hybrid role he has to get more physical. There is minimal doubt his offensive game will continue to evolve, with his pump fakes more convincing and his mid-range game more consistent.
As early as next season this will be Dekker’s team. Brust and Gasser will certainly share the offensive load, but he will be able to fall into his natural mold next year: that of a pure scorer. This is not to say Wisconsin will turn into the one-man scoring show that he was at Sheboygan, but expect big jumps from a player who will be a year smarter after having an entire offseason to tailor his game for the college ranks.
Just how good could Sam Dekker be? After 22 games of action, the ceiling has only climbed higher. The only question now is if he will become the unstoppable force every Wisconsin fan is already envisioning.
Maybe good things truly do come to those who wait.
Ian is a senior just months away from entering the “real world.” Have your own thoughts on Dekker and his legacy at Wisconsin? Let him know by email at [email protected] or on Twitter @imccue.