The moment Sam Dekker walks into the Nicholas Johnson Practice Pavilion’s court, a member of the UW Athletics Communication department asks how long The Badger Herald’s photo shoot will take.
It only took five seconds to understand the reason for his inquiry.
It was two weeks ago on Sunday and the gym was inhabited by about 20 kids of various ages, preparing and practicing their halftime routine for the men’s basketball game against Nebraska that Tuesday.
Suddenly, the group and some of their parents flocked to the spot where we had our photographer snapping away pictures of a posing Dekker, pulling out whatever devices they had on them to capture an image of the freshman, ogling and staring in the process.
Yes, Dekker has arrived onto the scene. But, you already knew that. And guess what? So does he.
He’s heard the cheers when he checks in, he’s heard the explosions in the Kohl Center when he knocks down one of his timely threes and he’s definitely heard the love on campus for his performance on the court.
So, how did we get here, where a freshman is the center of attention on a Bo Ryan team?
The Prep Hero
First, let’s go back to this time last year when Dekker was leading his team at the Kohl Center not as a Badger, but as a Crusader: a high school senior for the Sheboygan Lutheran High School basketball team.
When the opening tip went up for the start of the Division 5 Semifinal game pitting Dekker’s team against McDonell Central, there was a noticeable buzz in the building. And why not? Dekker had been the state’s most fascinating in-state commit to Wisconsin in several years.
After bursting onto the scene as a sophomore and averaging over 20 points, Dekker began to make his name on the AAU circuit. It was enough for Wisconsin head coach Bo Ryan to secure Dekker’s commitment early, offering a scholarship at the Badgers’ varsity team camp way back in June 2010 once again, just after Dekker’s sophomore season.
Following the verbal commitment to Wisconsin, the crescendo of Dekker’s prep career continued. His senior year he noticed the mail and phone calls were increasing and that his following on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter were growing as well. And that was before Dekker’s signature moment in the state tournament.
“I didn’t really know the extent of [the popularity] until around state time,” Dekker said. “Gyms were packed.”
This was surprising to the youngster, considering Dekker’s team was playing in the lowest division in Wisconsin high school basketball. Yet the Kohl Center was filled to get a glimpse of the future Badger. And, after the weekend, the fans who showed up weren’t disappointed with what they had paid to see.
Besides showing off his talents on the largest stage of his career with a variety of moves that left many shaking their heads in disbelief, the two games Dekker played at state may have been the single greatest individual effort of any player in the history of the tournament.
After scoring 35 points on Thursday in the semifinal, Dekker enjoyed a whirlwind weekend. Named Wisconsin’s Mr. Basketball the following day, Dekker proceeded to score 40 points and the game-winning buzzer beater to win his team the state championship that Saturday against rival Racine Lutheran.
Soon after, the buzzer beater ended up as the No. 1 play on SportsCenter and “The Best of the Best” on the program, sealing Dekker as a prep legend and a fan favorite on the Badgers before he even played a minute of his collegiate career.
“After the state championship, it really blew up. People started just barraging me with stuff,” Dekker said.
And that popularity has taken off since. One of the most recognizable faces on campus, the young man is getting his fair share of attention at present day. Recently named Big Ten Freshman of the Week for the second time this season and a leading contender for the conference’s Sixth Man of the Year Award, Dekker says he loves that Badgers have such friendly fans.
“You’ll walk by random people and they’ll say hey ‘good game the other day’ or ‘good luck Sunday,’” Dekker said. “You can’t be more thankful for people like that. It’s been awesome, you can’t get annoyed by it because they want to be there for you. They want to support you.”
One thing that makes Dekker so much fun to watch is his personality on the court.
The youngest sibling in a self-described “happy-go-lucky, fun-loving” family, Dekker’s grin and high energy level of play provide a spark every time he checks in. After hitting a three, he’ll hold his follow through just like he did after hitting the game-winner in the state championship game. Maybe he’ll hold out three fingers on his follow-through hand to let everybody know the value of the bucket he just made. Or there’s always the chance he’ll turn around and pump up the crowd, much to the Kohl Center’s delight.
That’s one thing the freshman knows how to do. Like Russell Crowe learns in “Gladiator,” the favorite in the arena is the one who can win the crowd. And Dekker’s fearless, fun personality has already won him the admiration of his home crowd. Confident, unrelenting and not the least bit intimidated, his dad — coincidentally his high school coach — helped shape his fearless play, but he credits his mom for giving him that signature strut on the court.
And, surprisingly, she wasn’t an athlete.
“She always talked to my brother about it,” Dekker said about the walk. “Especially because he always slouched a little bit. She would always tell him to stand straight up and I would always take that seriously.
“People would say it’s more of a proud walk, but it’s more of an ‘I Know I Belong’ walk. That’s just my body language, I’m never going to get down on myself no matter how the game goes, I’m just doing what I do out there.”
And don’t mistake that confidence for cockiness. Off the court, Dekker is as humble and level-headed as it gets.
“He’s the same Sam Dekker from the first day I met him,” Zak Showalter, Dekker’s teammate, roommate and a freshman guard, said. “The success doesn’t get to him. He’s a goofy kid, he doesn’t change at all, that’s why I like him. We spend 22 hours a day together and we’re still not sick of each other.”
In fact, Dekker’s thinks his unique attitude on the court is his greatest strength.
“Like I said, I’m always going to be me,” Dekker said. “I’m never going to get too up or down, and that’s going to help me as a player and as a teammate. My teammates can feed off of that stuff too. I think that’s something I’ve always had in my life and I think that really translates into my game and makes me a better player.”
“Sam, what were you thinking?”
Dekker’s offensive production has been admirable this season for the Badgers — the statistical figures speak for themselves. Dekker tied his career-high at Wisconsin this past Tuesday by scoring 19 points against Nebraska. He ranks fourth in the conference with a three-point percentage of 44 and his 9.6 points per game is the best of all Big Ten sixth man candidates.
The freshman is also one of just four to ever start in his first year for Bo Ryan, with the others being Josh Gasser, Alando Tucker and Devin Harris. And, like the latter two mentioned, Dekker offers the same offensive spark when he plays as the former Badger greats did in their freshman season.
But, there’s a reason why his name hasn’t been a mainstay in the starting five. Defensively, Dekker has lagged behind what is expected of a player who earns a starting job. Mainly, to perform with the defensive consistency that Ryan demands from his player, sometimes prompting the coach to ask, “Sam, what were you thinking?” when watching film of the freshman’s struggles after games.
“The team knows I can score,” Dekker said. “The team knows I can contribute offensively in many ways but they don’t know yet how good I could be defensively and I don’t even know that about myself. I have to get to that point where they trust in me and I trust in myself to be able to stop someone and match up against another good player.”
That’s been a tough obstacle for Dekker, a player who never sat the bench in his life until this year. He admits there was frustration and a learning curve when it came to understanding Ryan’s expectations for what his role on the team was going to be.
“At first, I didn’t understand everything, but now [Ryan’s] really matured me and helped me realize what my purpose is for this team and what he expects from me,” he said. “I don’t see it as me coming off the bench, I just see myself as another weapon we have and I think coach really likes that.
“I think he really enjoys having someone like that he can turn to and I’m going to take that role and run with it. I’ve learned a ton from it and I enjoy it now, I really do. I’m comfortable right now.”
Dekker also understands the reason why his head coach thinks he’s not yet up-to-par on the defensive end. He’s watched the film clips with the team after the games and seen the mistakes himself, struggling to understand what he was thinking during the situations.
It’s the reason why he’s watching film of his teammates like senior forward Mike Bruesewitz and other players who are considered the best defenders in the conference. Whether it’s with his roommate in their dorm room or elsewhere, Dekker hopes that learning to be more instinctual in anticipating his man’s moves and first step.
But there are still moments like when the team played at Northwestern, where he went under a screen and allowed his man to cut backdoor, leading to a three-point basket, that still lead people to hound the young man with questions about his defense.
“It might have been the quickest substitution in the history of basketball,” Ryan said of pulling Dekker. “But it was just to tell him look, this is what you have to do. After he got back in he was fine. We have a rule if you get beat backdoor you’re out.”
He might not be perfect, but he’s come a long way. Lately, Dekker has done a better job using his length to give him more of a space to react on initial closeouts and of cutting down his mental mistakes.
That’s why, after being asked what he considered his biggest weakness, he paused only briefly and quickly responded, “Consistency on the defensive end.”
“I do know it’s a weakness but I do feel like I’m much better, that’s why I said consistency,” Dekker said. “I’ll have a string of five possessions where I play really good and then I’ll have one mishap and it’ll cost my team a bucket. That’s why I’m putting consistency in there, because I don’t think I’m good yet but I’m getting better. If I can smooth that out and get more consistent I’ll be much better.”
Dekker has Wisconsin fans thinking big. Logging historic numbers as a freshman are enough to show what this kid’s future can hold for the Badgers. It’s been a long time since there was a player that brought what Dekker does to the table offensively.
“There’s nothing he really can’t do, especially on offense,” Showalter said. “His offensive game is ridiculous. And his defense is getting a lot better because of his length. Against Nebraska he had a steal just from his length. His defense is coming around.”
If that truly is the case, that’s a scary fact for the rest of college basketball. And Dekker’s star probably won’t be dimming any time in the near future. With a hunger and a desire for excellence, it has become apparent Dekker has the opportunity to be something truly special during his playing career at Wisconsin.
“I feel like I’ve grown up so much since I’ve been here on campus,” Dekker explained. “As a freshman it’s tough because this is your first go-around with everything and you don’t know how exactly everything works. A lot of things take you by surprise and a lot of things hit you head on, but you have to take the highs and the lows and balance them out.
“I don’t think I’m good yet, but I’m getting better.”