MADISON, Wis. -- Suspicions arose when some new-but-oddly-familiar aches and pains invaded Sam Dekker’s hips and knees last spring. This was before and during Wisconsin’s run to the Final Four, and when Dekker commenced offseason conditioning, he’d finish a set of squats and wonder about this strangely persistent soreness. All along, the training staff figured some tendinitis had flared up. Dekker arrived at a different diagnosis.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I’m growing,’” he says now.
As he lingered in Wisconsin’s practice gym after a recent workout, Dekker was a 6-foot-9, 230-pound junior forward recalling life at 6-foot-7, which unexpectedly ended only a few months ago. So, yes, this is the part with the growth-spurt metaphor: At 20 years old, Dekker’s physical stature is enhanced just as his basketball skills have. If he builds on a confidence-stoking summer to become a nationally elite performer, if his body has caught up enough to allow his production to do likewise, he can be a matchup nightmare who helps the second-ranked Badgers make another championship run.
A Big Ten/ACC Challenge showdown against No. 4 Duke on Wednesday will be another test of that. Even while he recovers from a preseason ankle injury, Dekker’s numbers (12.7 points per game, 53.2 percent shooting) have not sagged. In fact, the only awkward fit has been sartorial: Before a recent dinner with his girlfriend, Dekker threw on a Gap shirt and noted a very obvious shortage of sleeve. This fit me last March, he thought. Extra-long wasn’t long enough, but he expects little else this winter to come up short.
“It gives me an added sense of confidence,” Dekker says. “You can kind of impose your will a little more than I could in the past. I’m not getting bumped off cuts and driving lines. There were times last year I’d get a step on a guy, and they’d bump me and I’d kind of go off the way. Already this year, I feel if I get a step on a guy, I’m getting by him more comfortably, more smoothly. That definitely feels good.”
Though he had been listed at 6-foot-7 from the time he arrived in Madison as the nation’s No. 13 recruit in 2012, per Rivals.com, those inside the program guess that Dekker’s growth was more gradual than it appears. Which would align with his on-court development.
Walking to the locker room after practice, Dekker notes that he always has been a late bloomer. For example: He didn’t start shaving regularly until last year. (And he still only does it once or twice a week.) He also averaged 9.6 points as a freshman and then 12.2 during the Badgers’ 30-win season last year. This didn’t quite jibe with expectations heaped upon a kid from Sheboygan, Wis., who has been exalted within state lines since his mid-teens. “He’s had so much pressure,” says fifth-year guard Josh Gasser, also a Wisconsin native. “I was a junior when he came in as a freshman, and everyone was talking about him. He hadn’t played a second at Wisconsin.”
Badgers assistant Lamont Paris says this unfairly put Dekker on a pedestal -- “He’s been right on track to do what, physically and from a basketball standpoint, he should be doing,” Paris says -- but for a variety of reasons Dekker finds himself unburdened at last. For one, teammate Frank Kaminsky’s breakout 2013-14 season assured that he’d absorb most of the attention entering this year as a preseason All-America.
But Dekker’s own summertime surge, combined with stretching out and bulking up physically, recharged his assertiveness.
At the Kevin Durant and LeBron James skills academies, surrounded by peers and two of the best players in the universe, the epiphany wasn’t that Dekker could play at that level. It was that he realized the best way to get there. Wisconsin has its well-choreographed, deeply ingrained system, but these venues offered a release. “It’s just free,” Dekker says. “It’s how you grew up playing. You get that swagger back. Sometimes I wear a little bit too much of my emotions on my sleeve and have a little bit of a swagger. To get that back was kind of nice.”
Assuming the attacking mentality was fine, but he also had the physical capability to implement it. At 6-foot-9, Dekker hasn’t lost the ball-handling skill or mid-to-long-range touch of a perimeter player. But he won’t often get jostled off balance, and he feels more explosive both to the rim and at it; per Synergy Sports data, he’s scored 15 points in six isolation possessions. On the block, he’s now a pain to deal with. The added inches give him a better vantage point to find open teammates -- “One of my favorite things is finding skips,” he says -- and he’s strong enough to power through defenders if necessary. Dekker is averaging an “excellent” 1.083 points per post-up (13 points off 12 posts), according to Synergy data.
“[His size] has changed his whole outlook about what he’s capable of doing offensively,” Paris says. “There are some situations that probable he shied away from last year, and in his first two years. Maybe he wasn’t cognizant of it but he just would. Now he goes in there in traffic and pump fakes and gathers himself and makes stronger moves. Before, everything was finesse, and those were hard finishes, and you’re not getting rewarded with foul calls when you’re trying to do finesse ... He uses finesse as a weapon now, as opposed to the only thing he had to do when he was going inside.”
It all makes Dekker a very difficult cover. Consider this early first-half sequence from a Battle 4 Atlantis semifinal win over Georgetown last week: In the post, Dekker took a hit from the Hoyas’ Jabril Trawick and scored anyway with his off hand on a power move to the lane; two possessions later, he curled to the top of the key and drained a 3-pointer; one possession after that, he drove strong from the wing to the rim and drew a foul. “You have to put a guy on him who’s quick enough to be able to stop him, because he plays on the perimeter,” Gasser says, “but then you also need a guy who’s big enough who can guard him in the post and when he’s driving, contest his shot.”
Indeed, in a Nov. 19 blowout win over Green Bay, Dekker logged minutes at shooting guard in a Badgers’ “Redwoods” lineup that featured one player, point guard Traevon Jackson, shorter than 6-foot-7.
That is terrifying for opponents. (And, frankly, a possible recipe to upend No. 1 Kentucky and its parade of giants, but that’s for another time.) Even more unsettling for foes is that Dekker feels emboldened to try just about anything.
“I’ve asked coach [Bo Ryan], ‘Can I play the one?’” Dekker says. “He always ignores me."
Dekker's production, like his height, has grown gradually. Dekker's scoring average from last year to this year is up just a half a point, but that translates into 19.9 points per 40 minutes, up from 16.6 a year ago. His effective field-goal percentage (58.1) and points per possession (1.06) are career-bests, up from 52.8 and 1.01 last year, respectively. Can he continue to mature into a take-charge role as well?
Aggressiveness and confidence come gradually, incremental changes that are almost imperceptible to those in close proximity. When some of Gasser’s friends from his hometown of Port Washington, Wis., attended a game earlier this season, their postgame report to their buddy was Man, Sam looks so much bigger. Gasser told them Dekker looked the same to him.
But then it’s not about the views of the people who see Dekker every day. It’s about how he sees himself.
“I’m just myself out there,” Dekker says. “In the past I was a little more immature and let things get to me, and I shied away from stuff. I don’t see myself as that type of guy anymore. I see myself as a confident guy who’s going to be the aggressor and attack first, and have the utmost confidence that you want to dominate.”