Shaka Smart has gotten to know Sam Dekker — both the player and the person — since training camp for the USA Basketball Men's U18 National Team began earlier this month in Colorado Springs, Colo.
It didn't take long for Smart, an Oregon native who is serving as an assistant coach for Team USA, to form a favorable impression of the incoming recruit for the University of Wisconsin men's basketball team.
"I really like him," said Smart, the head coach at Virginia Commonwealth. "I think he's going to be terrific for the Badgers."
Smart is also confident Dekker will be terrific in the FIBA Americas U18 Championship in Sao Sebastiao do Paraiso, Brazil. Team USA opens group play in the tournament Saturday with a game against the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Dekker earned a spot on the 12-man roster by doing the same things that caught the eye of UW coach Bo Ryan and his staff: The 6-foot-8 swingman scored in a variety of ways, got his teammates involved and showed a willingness to defend.
"He's got a lot of different components to his game," said Smart, who led Virginia Commonwealth on a shocking run to the NCAA tournament's Final Four in 2011. "The first thing that jumps out is his versatility and basketball IQ. He understands what he's doing out there.
"And he's really a gamer. He gets in a game and just makes plays. Sometimes, he's got an unorthodox style, but he gets things done. We've been playing with the (24-second) shot clock since he got out here and he's probably made six or seven buzzer-beating shots, just making the right play at the end of the clock."
Playing through pain
Dekker was slowed this spring by an ankle injury he suffered during a pickup game about a month after leading Sheboygan Lutheran to the WIAA Division 5 state title at the Kohl Center in March.
The ankle still isn't 100 percent, but Dekker battled through it during training camp at the U.S. Olympic Training Center.
"The whole time, I was pretty confident in my chances to be on the team," Dekker said this week before the team left for Brazil. "All I had to do was hustle, play hard and do what I need to do.
"They don't really look at the scoring, they don't look at what shots you're taking. They're looking at who makes the right basketball plays and who's the smart player, so I tried to show those key aspects of my game and it paid off."
Dekker has been playing at the 3 (small forward) position the most, though Smart said he's versatile enough to play shooting guard and could even play some power forward if Team USA goes with a smaller lineup.
"At 6-8, I can pass like a guard and put it on the floor," said Dekker, who was named Wisconsin's Mr. Basketball as a senior. "I feel like it's something I bring to the table that is a tough matchup (for opponents) because I like getting my teammates involved. I don't always have to post big numbers, and that's pretty much one of the reasons I made the team was just because I know how to play as a true basketball player and play my role and accept it and go out and play hard."
'Counting the days'
Dekker said it was a different feeling when he put on the Team USA practice gear for the first time.
"It's bigger than anything I've done and anyone else on our team has done," he said. "To play for your country is something that you're going to remember forever. It's special. Kids are going to look up to you with that jersey on. We've got to know that going out to Brazil, we mean business and every country is going to try to knock us off."
Dekker is eager to put on a UW uniform for the first time as well. He says he's "been counting the days for a long time" since orally committed to Ryan after attending UW's camp for advanced players in June 2010.
"It's been so long since I committed, and to finally get down there is something I've been waiting for," said Dekker, who was scheduled to begin summer classes at UW next week but will arrive about a week late. "I'm excited, and I hope they're excited, too."
Ryan and his staff are, and so are UW fans. Smart can see why.
"Great kid," said Smart, who is assisting Team USA head coach Billy Donovan of Florida. "He's the type of guy that you can really get on and coach hard and he doesn't respond negatively. I think he likes that. I think he likes to be coached, and that's the mark of a good player. He wants to be coached, he wants to get better."