MILWAUKEE - Sam Dekker's rookie season has certainly been frustrating; the Sheboygan native and former Wisconsin standout, suffered a back injury three games into his professional career and required surgery that sidelined him for nearly three months.
But Dekker's road back to the Houston Rockets is complete and the reunion couldn't have come at a better time, nor could it have come at a better place.
Dekker was recalled from Rio Grande of the D-League by the Rockets on Sunday, and was able to rejoin the team as it traveled to face the Milwaukee Bucks.
"It's kind of funny that this worked out so well," Dekker said before the game Monday. "The timetable worked perfectly. My time in the D-League allowed me to kind of get my feet wet and lo and behold, the Milwaukee game is the one where I'm 100 percent ready to go. So, yeah, selfishly, I was happy that they said I was ready for this trip. It'll be good to see some people and have fun with it."
The 18th overall pick in last June's draft, Dekker appeared in just three games - for a total of six minutes - before he was assigned to the Rio Grande Vipers of the D-League. But back problems which had been bothering him already during his junior year in Madison resulted in surgery in November, with a three-month recovery period.
He returned to action earlier this month, joining Rio Grande on Feb. 19. In three games, Dekker averaged 13 points in 24 minutes of work and hit a game-winning 3-pointer Saturday night.
"It felt good to get my timing back," Dekker said. "Getting my rhythm and balance back and getting that feel back. I'm feeling good with where I'm at right now.
"We're lucky we caught something early on and got it out of the way early in my career. I'll be good to go hopefully for the rest of my career now. Obviously, there are some growing pains that come with it, and I wasn't always happy about where I was, but now it's come full-circle and I'm just glad to be healthy again."
Dekker didn't see any action in the Rockets' 128-121 loss to the Bucks, which featured a triple-double from Giannis Antetokounmpo and a career-high 36 points from Jabari Parker. As he moves forward, his playing time will come in spurts; Dekker is currently the third forward on Houston's depth chart, with James Harden and Trevor Ariza taking up a majority of the minutes in the front court while Corey Brewer has seen time at the small forward spot off the bench as well.
"We’re pretty heavy at the wing spot with the guys that we have," Houston coach J.B. Bickerstaff said. "So there’s limited opportunity there. But again, he needs to be prepared to play."
It's a big difference from Dekker's time at Wisconsin, where he was part of the starting five on back-to-back Final Four Teams, but it’s an adjustment he's taking in stride.
"It's going to be tough," said Dekker, who averaged 19.2 points in last year’s N.C.A.A. tournament and entered the draft. "They're so far into the year. But I have to stay ready. If they need energy or a spark, I have to be ready to do whatever I need to do for my teammates.
"As a rookie, there will be times you have to go without playing but then there will be times when he says 'get in there' and I have to be ready. Stay poised and go play hard."
Bickerstaff said a return trip to the D-League wasn't out of the question.
"We’re going to keep him around, we’re going to work with him," Bickerstaff said. "We’d like to have our staff have our hands on him and get some time with him to show him some of the things we need him to do. Then just see how the rotation goes.
"But if the schedule falls where he can go play a D-League game without missing one of our games, we may send him down there so he can go and play some, too."
Of course, not everything timed out perfectly. With a snowstorm moving into the area Monday night into Tuesday morning, Dekker was eager to get back on the team charter quickly lest he end up shoveling for his mother, who many will recall had him mowing the lawn the day after the draft last summer.
"I heard it's going to snow so we better get on the plane and get out of here," he said.