Wisconsin star Dekker silencing critics with each March outing

How Sam Dekker has handled immense attention in Wisconsin, including negative feedback, speaks to his maturation. It's an attitude he'll need to continue when No. 1 seed Wisconsin plays No. 2 seed Arizona on Saturday with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

Jerry Lai/Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

LOS ANGELES — Wisconsin assistant coach Lamont Paris was shopping in the grocery store this summer, when a Badgers basketball fan approached and began making small talk about the team. The topic of conversation, as is wont to happen, quickly shifted to forward Sam Dekker.

That’s when Paris heard a refrain he has not escaped since Dekker arrived on campus nearly three years ago, about the ways in which Dekker had somehow not performed up to the level many had anticipated. This coming after a Final Four season in which Dekker finished third in scoring and second in rebounding as a sophomore.

Paris, in his fifth season with the program, should have seen the exchange coming. Because no matter his location — grocery store, golf course, restaurant — folks around the state want to talk all things Dekker, particularly all the things they perceive he hasn’t achieved.

"Everywhere," Paris said. "All over the place. Expectations are astronomical. There’s no doubt about it. We can’t change what everyone expects of him. Everyone had very lofty expectations. Like people talked about Sam after last year, ‘Well, Sam was OK.’ I said, ‘What do you mean by OK?’

"Look at his points per game. Look at how he scored his points. He was a pretty consistent scorer. Didn’t score 29 ever. Rarely scored four. He just didn’t. You could count on him to score. So that really let me know where people’s expectations for this guy really were. We as coaches are quick to put people back in check when they say something like that."

Dekker, the Badgers’ 6-foot-9 junior, has been one of the hot-button topics of sports talk in the state, a five-star recruit in every circle who was ranked among the top 15 players in the country out of Sheboygan Lutheran (Wis.) High School. He was a known commodity years before actually suiting up for the Badgers, and his game-winning 3-pointer over two defenders in the 2012 state championship game at the Kohl Center has been replayed more than 564,000 times on one YouTube channel alone.

Few in-state players in recent memory have come to Wisconsin with the hype level of Dekker, who averaged 35.2 points per game as a senior and finished as the state’s fourth-leading scorer all-time. In fact, perhaps only Brian Butch and Sam Okey have matched that fervor in the last 20 years.

"He’s the most heralded player I’ve been around," said Badgers forward Duje Dukan, a fifth-year senior. "Even before he stepped foot on campus, people were saying, ‘Oh, he’s going to start. He’s going to play 40 minutes, he’s going to be your best player.’ I’ve never seen anything to this day that really had that amount of attention. So it’s definitely been different."

The admiration from fans for Dekker has represented both a gift and a curse of sorts during his college career. Yes, people invariably know who he is. Those people also expect a seemingly impossible and unreasonable level of play from their home-state hero. Because what is considered good enough? Fifteen points per game? Seventeen? Twenty every night? All despite playing in an offensive system that emphasizes more team play than most programs?

In Pictures: Sam Dekker

How Dekker has handled all the attention, including negative feedback, speaks to his maturation as a player and person. It’s an attitude he’ll need to continue when No. 1 seed Wisconsin (34-3) plays No. 2 seed Arizona (34-3) at 5:09 p.m. CT Saturday at Staples Center in a rematch of last year’s Elite Eight game, with a berth in the Final Four on the line.

"Maybe early in my career, I may have thought about that stuff more," Dekker said. "But then the more I realized how ridiculous some things are, then I kind of just let it go on the back burner and not really worry about it. . . .

"If you overthink about that stuff or think about what people are saying, in the media or on Twitter, that type of thing, that’s just going to drive you insane, especially with the spotlight we get."

During the lowest moments this season, Dekker recalls someone walking up to him on campus and asking flat-out what was wrong with him. He had sprained his left ankle in a late-October practice, and the injury lingered into December. Dekker wanted so badly to play with his teammates that he returned earlier than he should have, which only aggravated the ailment.

He scored four points against Boise State, five against UAB and five against Duke. Three days later, on Dec. 6, he tallied just two points on 1-of-5 shooting against in-state rival Marquette. Those performances triggered alarm bells for a fan base that expected Dekker to challenge for all-American honors, particularly after he earned rave offseason reviews at the LeBron James Skills Academy as the best player in the camp.

"I heard a lot of stuff," Dekker said. "What’s wrong with Sam? Why isn’t he the player we thought? He’s gotten worse. That type of stuff. . . . You’ve just got to go on with a smile and plug through it. That stuff happens. They don’t understand everything, and they don’t need to understand everything."

Sam’s father, Todd, said people did not recognize the work he put in behind the scenes to return. He recalled the family driving to Madison to console Sam, who would arrive to the Kohl Center at 8 a.m. on a game day, rehab his ankle, go through team meetings and return to rehab all before tipoff. Still, the ankle injury altered his rhythm, made him a step slow and tentative as a scorer.

"I think that was the toughest on Sam," said Todd Dekker, who coached his son in high school. "Not being able to work on his game when he was injured, keep up with the rhythm. And then people look at it a little bit different. ‘What’s wrong with Sam? He’s not doing this. Not doing that.’ Not being able to do all the things you can, I think that was real tough, and then that wears on you mentally, too. It’s a fine line with that confidence."

This season, Sam Dekker has tried to better block out criticism directed his way. He has more than 58,500 followers on Twitter — a place where snark and cynicism thrives — and decided to stop logging on during road trips.

"I know he’s gone off and on Twitter a couple times just taking it off his phone completely to not hear some stuff," Badgers guard Zak Showalter said. "People can be harsh. But he’s been pretty good at staying level-headed."

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Added Dekker: "It’s not all bad. But just some things you’d rather avoid and stay out of your mind."

The ability to allow poor performances and the subsequent blowback from fans to roll off his back has helped lead to a more consistent player the second half of this season. In previous years, Dekker acknowledged he would allow fan reaction from a bad sequence to affect his play in the middle of games. Now, he is confident enough in himself to persevere.

"It was tough at times to not try to answer some stuff, but you’ve just got to realize that you’re going to get through it, it’s going to be fine," Dekker said. "You’ve just got to go on with a smile and realize that the sun comes up and you get better the next day."

Despite being under a constant microscope, Dekker has progressed every season at Wisconsin. He became only the fourth true freshman under Badgers coach Bo Ryan to start a game, and he averaged 9.6 points that season in a reserve role. Last year, he raised his scoring average to 12.4 points and shot 46.9 percent from the field as a full-time starter. This season, he is the team’s second-leading scorer (13.5 points), behind only national player of the year candidate Frank Kaminsky, and he is shooting 52.0 percent from the field.

Dekker has been exceptional in three NCAA tournament games thus far, averaging 20 points and 5.7 rebounds while hitting 24 of 42 shots (57.1 percent). He was the best player on the floor Thursday night during Wisconsin’s 79-72 Sweet 16 victory against North Carolina, single-handedly willing the Badgers through the first half.

"We need that kind of Sam Dekker all the time," Kaminsky said, "and I’m sure he’s ready to step up and be that person for us."

Dekker scored 15 of his career-high 23 points in the first half on 6-of-8 shooting from the field and made several athletic drives to the hoop. The rest of the team scored 16 points and made only 5 of 22 field-goal attempts. His final points of the game occurred on a crucial baseline drive to the basket in which he spun back to his right and rolled a left-handed shot over the hoop to give Wisconsin a 71-67 lead with 1:09 remaining.

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"It might have been his best game," Paris said. "The thing about it to me that makes it one of his top games was not that he scored a career high. It was that he made some plays when plays needed to be made. The last drive spin baseline back to the middle and he scored with his left hand, we needed that. Had to have it. Had to have a bucket right there. That makes it really good."

The performance on Thursday showcased the very best Dekker has to offer. He was aggressive from the outset and recorded his first double-double all season, adding 10 rebounds. Dekker has been on the radar of NBA personnel since his freshman season, and his stock is rising. Most mock drafts list him as a mid- to late-first round pick if he opts to leave school a year early. And Todd Dekker said agents have been trying to ingratiate themselves with Dekker’s family as he mulls his next move.

"My phone’s been really ringing and I’ve gotten texts this morning," Todd Dekker said. "Last night there were some at the arena, at the Staples Center. I just kind of asked them politely that this isn’t the time that I want to do that."

In a matter of weeks, that time could arrive because Sam Dekker will find himself faced with a difficult decision. Does he return for his senior year at a school he loves so much? Or does he declare for the NBA Draft because the opportunity of being a first-round selection and an instant millionaire is too good to pass up?

"I know he doesn’t like answering those types of questions," Todd Dekker said. "That stuff’s going to be on hold. This year’s going to end either tomorrow night or next weekend, and then we’ll sit down as a family and talk about that. It’s ultimately Sam’s decision, and we’ll be in on that decision. He’s the one who has to be comfortable with it. He loves his players, his teammates. He loves Madison. He does love college life. I don’t think this is anything new. I think the NBA has fit Sam’s style a lot more than the system here. He’s learned a lot to be a better basketball player in this system."

What will happen next is only a matter of conjecture now. Sam Dekker certainly won’t say. But he has earned the right to decide what’s best for him. And though fans may not always appreciate Dekker perhaps the way they should, teammates and coaches insist his play this season should speak for itself.

"He’s got to weigh those options," Todd Dekker said. "We’ve done a little bit of homework both ways, so I want to help Sam out that way. It’s going to be a tough decision, I think. And maybe not. Maybe Sam has a plan already, and then we’ll support whatever he wants. I’ll give him my advice, and then we’ll go from there."

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