Sam Dekker will always be a student of the game, learning from and watching those around him and those better than him to try and soak up all the basketball knowledge they present.
Over the past six months, Dekker has had some pretty good teachers, playing in elite basketball camps around the country and spending time around his teammates in the Wisconsin weight room.
The results are noticeable, especially his five o’clock shadow.
“I feel more mature, physically and mentally,” said Dekker. “I’m shaving more now, which is exciting. I’m a late bloomer compared to others in my class.”
Dekker, one of three Wisconsin players representing the Badgers today at Big Ten Media Day in Chicago, is the one of the key pieces of a program already hyped to do big things. In a preseason media poll conducted by the Columbus Dispatch, Wisconsin was the unanimous pick by all 27 writers to win the Big Ten.
This morning, the Big Ten put Wisconsin in the exact same spot, as well as putting Dekker on the five-man preseason All-Big Ten team along with preseason player of the year Frank Kaminsky, who joined him at the meetings along with Josh Gasser.
Dekker certainly earned it, a second-team All-Big Ten selection last season after averaging 12.4 points per game, and so do the Badgers by returning seven of their top eight scorers from last year’s Final Four team.
“High expectations are good expectations,” said Dekker. “That’s obvious. We have a great fan base in Madison, and across the country there’s a Badger fan everywhere. They have a lot of pride in us and we take a lot of pride in making them happy and giving them something to cheer about. They’re so invested in it they are going to have those expectations, especially after a year like last year.”
“But we expect big things out of ourselves as well. We are not content with what we did. Although it was a great year that we had, we feel like we can do more.”
That drive for success is what led Dekker on his offseason journeys, learning from some the great current players in the NBA. He spent time in Washington D.C. playing and learning at the Kevin Durant Skills Academy and parlayed that into a standout performance at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas.
The two camps Dekker attended are meant to bring the top talent from either high school or college. Dekker was one of 28 college players invited to the Durant camp, and one of 32 invited to Las Vegas, and he took away a new appreciation of ball handling, defense and holding his position on the court.
“I definitely learned a lot from both guys and all the other players there,” Dekker said. “There’s a lot of one-on-one scenarios in there, just free-flowing play, and realizing when you play at your own pace and play at your own speed and not let guys speed you up mentally and physically, you can be a lot better.”
“I am not always going to be a banger,” he added. “I’m going to go end to end and be all over the court. That part of my game is not changing, but it’s going to help in the post and the perimeter. Any progress mentally and physically is wanted and can be used to my advantage.”
When he wasn’t guarding a NBA most valuable player, he spent his time in Madison getting stronger physically. Dekker watched the national semifinals game against Kentucky a handful of times in the spring and acknowledged two things: the Badgers stuck with a group of future pros until the final buzzer but were out muscled the last 10 minutes.
Believing that Wisconsin is one of the “big boy” programs in the country, Dekker backed it up by attacking the weight room to add strength to his upper body and lower body. He also said he hit another growth spurt, pushing his height up an inch-and-a-half from last season, checking in at 6-9.
“Our strength staff does such a great job,” said Dekker, who added 15 pounds in the offseason and now weighs 230. “(Strength and conditioning coach) Erik (Helland) is so in tuned with our bodies, what we do and what we put into it. It’s just a blessing to have him working with us every day and pushing us to not waste any moments and get our body back into shape.”
Dekker is considered one of the top juniors in the nation and is a constant presence on many analyst’s 2015 NBA draft boards. Dekker was committed to returning for his junior season, but had a front-row seat to Kaminsky going through his draft evaluation process before ultimately returned to Madison for his senior season.
“I think everyone handles it differently and goes about his business their own way, but I talked to Frank after the season as he weighed his options, and he had a chance,” said Dekker. “He has a great season and really carried our team. He had that opportunity but wanted to stay in school and help our team, and I appreciate that from him. He saw what we had coming back, and he was excited about that. It was really mature of him to not waver and make the decision. I admire him for that.”
Projected to be ranked in the Associated Press preseason top 10 for the third time in school history, Wisconsin is expected to be in the spotlight throughout the season, as will Dekker if he plays at the level he expects of himself. With that will inevitably come the questions about Dekker’s 2015 season and if he’ll be spending it in Madison or in a NBA camp.
He maintains the decision is on the backburner, where he hopes it will remain as he chases a conference and national championship for his program.
“It is cool to see that stuff because it’s everyone’s dream as a basketball player growing up to go to the NBA, but that’s something I can’t worry about during the season or right now,” said Dekker. “That stuff will take care of itself. If I do what I need to do for our team and for this University, all that stuff will fall into place. It’s out of my control. I haven’t given it a ton of thought, I’m just worried about what we are doing right now and that stuff will adjust itself down the line whenever it happens.”