Sam Dekker has enjoyed success at every step of his basketball career.
In high school, he led Sheboygan Area Lutheran to the WIAA Division 5 state championship, hitting a game-winning 3-pointer with two seconds remaining.
In college, he played a major role in leading the University of Wisconsin to the 2015 NCAA Championship game against Duke.
Now, in his second season in the NBA, the 20-year-old Dekker is a key contributor for the Houston Rockets, one of the best teams in the NBA.
Dekker, who made his pro starting debut a memorable one with 30 points on Saturday night against the Memphis Grizzlies, returned “home’’ on Monday to play the Milwaukee Bucks.
After the game, I caught up with Dekker and chatted about his young and promising pro career and what it’s like being a teammate of James Harden, who is having a monstrous season and a certifiable MVP candidate:
You had your rookie season in the NBA sabotaged by a back injury that necessitated surgery and you wound up playing a mere three games. Do you have any lingering back issues?
SAM DEKKER: “None at all. My back feels great. That’s over and done with. I’m looking ahead. It feels great to be healthy again and feeling strong.’’
You are just one of four Rockets to have played in every game this season which shows you’re not only healthy but you have gained the confidence of your coach Mike D’Antoni. It must be comforting to know your coach believes in you.
SD: “Yeah. Coach has a lot of faith in me and he’ll continue to have faith in me. I just got to keep doing what I do and that’s playing with energy, playing hard and staying physically ready and that’s means extra time on the training table and in the ice tubs and make sure my body is ready because they’ll need my energy down the stretch.’’
It seems like D’Antoni’s free-wheeling, shoot-the-3 early-and-often system is almost tailor-made for your game. Is that a fair assessment?
SD: “Absolutely. Uptempo style of play. Getting up and down the court, shooting open shots and getting to the rim. That’s what I like to do. That’s what I thrive in.’’
You are in enviable position of not only playing for a coach like D’Antoni, but also playing with James Harden, maybe the MVP of the league. What is it like playing with him?
SD: “You can learn things from him every day. He’s so good, so talented. Guys like him don’t come around too often. So, every time I have a chance to play with him, it’s great. He makes me so much better. I just try to make his job as easy in any way possible because he picks up so much slack for us. He’s a guy you want to learn from and listen to on the court and try to take things from his game and incorporate it into yours.’’
Is there anything in particular you have taken from Harden’s game and, as you say, incorporated it into yours?
SD: “Just playing at his own pace. That’s a big thing in this league; guys who play at their own speed have longevity and they don’t get spit up. He is the No. 1 guy who plays at his pace. He never gets too rushed. And, for me, that’s a big thing for me. When I’m slowed down and not rushed, I’m much better, much smoother. So I’ve tried to take that from his game and put it into mine.’’
The Rockets have played the Bucks twice this season. The Rockets won the first meeting (111-92) and lost the second one (127-114). What’s your take on the Bucks?
SD: “They’re a very talented team. They’re athletic; they cause problems with their athleticism and their length. When they play like they did tonight, they can beat anyone in the league. So, I respect them for playing well tonight. But these are ones that we think we should get.’’
You are obviously having a solid season and have contributed nicely to the Rockets, who have the third-best record in the league (34-14). I would expect you’ll get a hard look by the NBA to be a part of the Rising Stars Challenge at the upcoming All-Star Game in New Orleans. What would being chosen to that game mean to you?
SD: “I would hope I get selected for that. If my name is called for that, it would be an honor. But if not, it just means I have more work to do. But, yeah, I feel I have put together a good body of work to get there and play in New Orleans.’’