MADISON, Wis. — The Sam Dekker of last season would look over his shoulder down the Wisconsin bench, waiting for coach and teammate reactions after he’d made a mistake. He would wonder if a turnover or a series of missed shots might find him watching the next possession from the bench. He would sometimes measure his on-court play by crowd response.
In short, Dekker was a talented player whose mind often obstructed his performance.
"I’d hear the ho-hums if I did something wrong," Dekker told FOXSportsWisconsin.com. "That stuff, you can’t do that as a player because you’re hurting yourself, but you’re also hurting your team. The guys expect a lot out of me, and I expect a lot out of myself and I know that I can help our team. I think I let them down at times not being as confident.
"Thank goodness a lot of the guys stepped up in a couple of those games down the stretch when I wasn’t playing as well. I take full responsibility for things that I did and didn’t do. I’m not going to hide behind it. I can just build on it and improve. By no means did I have a terrible year. I just always want to get better and improve."
As Dekker prepares for his junior season at Wisconsin, he certainly has become more of a complete player. He recently measured in at 6-foot-9 and 229 pounds — up two inches and nine pounds from his listed height and weight last season. And many media members declared Dekker as the star of the show earlier this summer at the LeBron James Skills Academy in Las Vegas, which featured several of the top college basketball players in the country.
But the area in which Dekker has truly grown, he said, was in mental maturity.
"I just think it all starts in my mind," Dekker said. "It all starts in my head. I’ll be the first to tell you that I have a lot of physical tools I can go with. I’ll be the first to say that. But I’ll also be the first to tell you that there’s a lot of things mentally that I lacked last season and the season before that. I think I grew a lot as a person during the season last year, but I think I can grow even more. One thing is just being confident in that moment, not just when things are going well. That’s a big thing for players."
Dekker, who only turned 20 in May, recognizes there is more in his arsenal to improve on — defense, shooting, aggression toward the basket. He noted he had already polished specific areas, including his ability to handle the ball better under pressure or gain position on the wing against a defender. And he does not expect lack of confidence to stand in his way this season.
"Some people mature at different rates, but I think I definitely hit a point where now I’m there in terms of being confident at all times," he said. "If I don’t play well one day, hey, who cares? You can get back in the gym. The floor is open any time you need. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t think, ‘Hey am I going to lose this, lose that? Who’s watching?’ You’ve got to put that stuff behind you and not pay attention to it. Just go out and play your game and be you, and things will take care of itself."
Dekker came to the Badgers as a five-star recruit and was one of the most coveted players in any class since coach Bo Ryan arrived at Wisconsin in 2001. He averaged 9.6 points per game as a freshman and became a full-time starter as a sophomore.
Last season, Dekker ranked third on the team in scoring (12.4 points) and second in rebounds (6.1 per game) and helped the Badgers reach their first Final Four in 14 years. But his shooting percentage also took a dip. He made only 32.6 percent of his 3-point attempts, which was the lowest percentage, by far, among the team’s starters. He also shot 68.6 percent from the foul line — no other starter was worse than 76.5 percent.
When Dekker’s confidence began to waver, it was outwardly noticeable. He did not reach double figures in scoring in five of his last 10 games while Wisconsin made its postseason run. To that point, he had not reached double figures in scoring in just four of the team’s first 28 contests.
Dekker was considered by some pundits to be a potential first-round pick in the 2014 NBA Draft at midseason. But his struggles made his choice to return not much of a decision at all.
When asked if he considered leaving for the NBA, Dekker replied, "not really."
"I’d lie to you if I said that I was happy with how I played in the latter stages of the season," Dekker said. "It’s definitely true I wasn’t as happy with myself and felt like I needed to get better and needed to get stronger and tougher. So, no. When it got to that point, I didn’t really think about that at all. I knew what I wanted to do, and that was get better and get more mature and more polished. If that time comes, it comes. All I’ve got to worry about is the here and now and getting better for our team."
So, where does Dekker take his game from here?
I’ll be the first to tell you that I have a lot of physical tools I can go with. But I’ll also be the first to tell you that there’s a lot of things mentally that I lacked last season and the season before that.
ESPN college basketball analyst Jay Bilas, who was present at James’ Skills Academy, wrote Dekker needed to become "more effective in the low post, holding position and initiating contact." But Bilas, writing for ESPN.com, also praised Dekker as the best player at the camp and noted he would have been the first player selected if the camp held a draft.
"From the first day, he was aggressive and versatile and showed a skill level that few could match," Bilas wrote. "He played very effectively on the perimeter, moved without the ball and did a great job."
Badgers guard Josh Gasser continues to see Dekker’s development as the two battle during summer pick-up games on campus. And Gasser expects the growth from Dekker as an upperclassman to be immense.
"He’s really, really good," Gasser said. "I cover him every day. I try to cover him as much as I can playing open gym. I always try to match up with him in practice. He likes when I guard him, too, because we go at it. It’s really hard to stop him.
"I’ve guarded some really good players in my day, but he’s one of the hardest ones. I’m really excited for him to kind of take the next step. Not really with his physical game. Just mentally being more confident in himself. Just letting things come to him because he’s such a good talent that he can just go up there and do it."
That’s exactly what Dekker is counting on as his junior year approaches.
"There were a lot of up and downs in my individual game last season," Dekker said. "That really helped me grow up. I think I’m playing at my own pace again, which is really good for me."