MADISON, Wis. — Bo Ryan rattled off a list of areas for Sam Dekker to improve — quicker feet, better defense, better finisher at the rim, more consistent shooter — when he stopped himself Friday afternoon. Every player on his team, he said, had room for growth.
Then Ryan, Wisconsin’s 13th-year basketball coach, did something he rarely does during the team’s annual preseason media day: He offered effusive praise for an individual player.
“He’s in the process of really tinkering with being pretty special,” Ryan said. “It’s going to be on him how far he wants to take it.”
With a player as dynamic as Dekker, it’s easy to see why expectations are so great — even for his head coach.
Dekker begins his sophomore season at Wisconsin in position to be the Badgers’ go-to scorer and an unquestioned leader of the team. All this from someone who served as the Badgers’ sixth man a year ago and started only three games.
“He’s definitely more comfortable,” Badgers sophomore guard Zak Showalter said. “Last year, he was trying to figure out his role, I think. He did great at the role he had, but he knows now that this is basically his team. He’s going to have to do everything for us. I think he knows that, but he’s ready to take on that responsibility, which is good for him and good for our team. We need a leader like that, so hopefully he can do that.”
Dekker, a 6-foot-7, 220-pound forward, came to Wisconsin as the most highly touted in-state recruit in years out of Sheboygan Lutheran. He didn’t disappoint in his first season, averaging 9.6 points per game and earning Big Ten All-Freshman honors. He ranked seventh in the Big Ten in 3-point field goal accuracy (39.1 percent) and was the leading scorer in conference play among all Big Ten reserves.
Still, there were moments when Dekker looked his age, particularly on defense. He acknowledged last season occasions when coaches would instruct him to play a certain way against a player and he would let his mind drift anyway, find himself out of position and give up a basket. There won’t be any excuse for those lapses this season if he is to truly be a team leader.
In order to achieve his goals, Dekker intends to be more in tune with everything on the court.
“Everyone knows last year there were times where I would wander on the defensive end mentally, not being totally with it,” Dekker said. “My guy would beat me and get a bucket, and I can’t let that happen this year. I’ve got to eliminate that as much as possible and really key in.
“With my length, I feel like I can be a very good defender. In my head, I’ve got to have the confidence on the defensive end to know I could be a good defender in this league. I feel like the coaches know that and they expect a lot out of me this year.”
If Dekker progresses the way Ryan and teammates believe, he could be in line to become one of the best players in the Big Ten, and even the country.
Most figure Dekker’s scoring will take a significant leap as his minutes increase. He averaged 22.3 minutes per game last season, but that number should creep into at least the low 30s given the relative lack of experience from the Badgers’ frontcourt and the departures of Jared Berggren, Mike Bruesewitz and Ryan Evans.
Dekker and center Frank Kaminsky have established their spots in the rotation, while a battle for backup frontcourt minutes continues with junior Duje Dukan and freshman Nigel Hayes.
“Sam’s a pretty vocal person in practices,” Kaminsky said. “He’s yelling at people and stuff, which is good. Sam obviously can back up his play with the things he’s trying to tell everybody else. Sam is a heck of a player. He’s going to do a lot of things. I really have high expectations for him this season.”
Dekker offered glimpses of what may come this season during Wisconsin’s five-game Canadian exhibition tour in August. Though the pace of play, with a 24-second shot clock, was considerably faster than Wisconsin’s traditional offensive style, Dekker starred. He led the Badgers in scoring three times and was the team’s leading overall scorer (19.4 points), rebounder (8.2) and assist man (3.6).
The fact Dekker has become a more aggressive player on the boards should be a welcome sight for Wisconsin, which could play smaller this season with a three-guard lineup. A year ago, Dekker was fifth on the team in rebounds at 3.4 per game.
“He’s hitting the glass more,” Badgers guard Josh Gasser said. “He’s doing all the little things more than last year, which just makes him that much better of a player. He can score at will any way he wants, and he’s going to be recognized that way. But he’s really improved the other aspects of his game, which is really going to help us out.”
The hype train has picked up steam this offseason to the point that Dekker’s name has begun popping up on early NBA mock drafts for 2014. The website Draftexpress.com even lists Dekker as going No. 24 in the first round.
Despite the growing accolades, Dekker has tried to block out what he cannot control.
“I can’t pay attention to that stuff,” Dekker said. “The media puts that stuff out there for people to read, and that’s not for us to look into. That’s going to put games in your mind. Mentally, that won’t put you in a good spot. As much as you can keep it out of your system, the better. You’ve just got to focus on what’s going on in the locker room and on the court.”
Before Dekker has to even consider making a jump to the pros, he’ll be expected to help Wisconsin compete for a Big Ten championship and make a much deeper run in the NCAA tournament than last season’s early-round exit to Ole Miss.
Coaches and teammates are counting on it. And Dekker appears ready for the challenge.
“I don’t feel added pressures,” Dekker said. “I felt like I was a leader last year. The guys took me in as a leader last year. I was a key cog to what we do. That’s something I’m going to do this year as well. I’m just going to be a key figure for our team, try to be a good leader and lead by example with my play.”