MADISON, Wis. For as long as Sam Dekker has been playing basketball, he's been a scorer. Pull-ups over smaller players, dribble drives to the rim against bigger players, the results have all been the same: ball through hoop.
Dekker, Wisconsin's standout freshman forward, has created a simple formula, really. If you have the confidence to take the shot, there's a good chance you'll make the shot. So perhaps we shouldn't be surprised by the tremendous impact Dekker has made on the Badgers in just six games.
"It's been something I've been able to do my whole life," Dekker said. "Just put the ball in the hoop. It's just something that comes naturally to me."
Dekker, the 6-foot-7 Sheboygan native, is third on the team in scoring (11.5 points per game) despite coming off the bench and playing the seventh-most minutes on the team. He leads the Badgers among players in the regular rotation in 3-point shooting percentage at 50 percent (10 for 20), and he is shooting 53.2 percent from the field (25 for 47).
With each passing game, it appears Dekker gains a greater level of comfort within Wisconsin's swing offense. He scored a season-best 19 points in 26 minutes Friday against Arkansas during Wisconsin's 77-70 comeback victory in the Las Vegas Invitational.
Dekker's scoring prowess in high school was obvious when he averaged 32.5 points per game as a senior. But just how well those skills would translate to the college level remained to be seen, even for someone regarded as one of the best high school seniors in the country.
Dekker simply shrugs off the notion that he has surpassed any expectations this early in the season because his own expectations are already high. The level of play might be better, but the hoop is the same height off the floor -- picture the measuring-tape scene from Hoosiers at the state championship game site.
"My teammates put me in good positions to score," Dekker said. "They're getting doubled and stuff, so that opens up opportunities for me to get stuff going to the rim, which is what I'm comfortable doing. When you take an outside shot, you have to do it with confidence. I feel like I'm very confident in what I'm doing right now."
What makes Dekker special are the innate qualities he possesses that can't be taught. Badgers associate head coach Greg Gard said Dekker's knowledge of the game helps him make up for mistakes on offense.
"Sometimes he's scoring by accident," Gard said. "It hasn't been maybe by design, but he understands how to play. If somebody gets trapped, he knows to cut to the rim. How many times have we seen him make a play at the rim just by making a hard basket cut? Those are instincts."
The early-season scoring spree has even impressed Dekker's father, Todd, who coached his son during high school at Sheboygan Area Lutheran. Todd Dekker said Sam's shot looks cleaner this year than at any point in his high school career.
"His follow-through kind of had a hitch," Todd said when reached by phone Monday night. "I don't think he has it that much. That's working with their coaching staff and what they want him to do. Sam is going to listen to them. I just think that he's got to work within the system.
"We kind of had an open concept in high school. He got the ball. He'd work pick-and-roll and be able to go to the basket. I think that's been helping him. The past couple games in Vegas, he went to the basket pretty hard."
Although Dekker has played well offensively in the first month of the season, he recognizes there are still improvements to be made in his game.
"There's obviously stuff I could get away with in high school as far as the competition factor," he said. "There's moves in high school I will never try here, just because the quality of teams I play. But playing against these guys, it's just going to make me a better basketball player."
Dekker admits his biggest weakness at this stage is understanding the team's defensive concepts, which have always been a staple to staying on the floor under head coach Bo Ryan. Dekker's quickness and recovery time following a defender around a curl or helping on the weak side are specific points of emphasis.
Todd Dekker noted that freshmen at any high-major program experience their share of growing pains. But his son's skill set will continue to progress the longer he plays in Wisconsin's scheme and faces top-level competition.
"How he's handled the speed, I think he's really done well," Todd said. "I think if he gets more comfortable with that, the game slows down for him. I think the sky's the limit. But he'll have to work within the system. His time will come. He's got to blend in."
Perhaps the biggest challenge for Dekker to emerge from this season has been adjusting to coming off the bench for the first time in his career. Dekker, for his part, says he has learned to accept his role and is simply embracing the opportunity to play for his home school.
"I'm just going to go out there and play as hard as I can, whether it's 10 minutes, 20 minutes or 40 minutes," Dekker said. "I'm going to go out there and do what I have to do."
Just a guess, but that probably includes plenty more scoring.
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