SIOUX FALLS, S.D. — The one-on-one games were intense and sometimes left Sam Dekker in tears.
But Dekker, now a sophomore forward on the University of Wisconsin men’s basketball team, learned something from getting beat over and over by his brother John on those days they were waiting for their father to finish his teaching day at Urban Middle School in Sheboygan.
And when John would get mercilessly heckled by opposing fans while playing for his dad for four seasons at Sheboygan Lutheran High School, there was Sam in the stands, an impressionable pre-teenager who couldn’t help but notice how calm his older brother remained in the middle of the storm.
Those lessons — keep plugging away, and block out the noise — helped Sam get where he is today. And they should serve him well while dealing with the enormous expectations that have been placed on him entering his second season with the No. 20 Badgers, who play St. John’s at 6 tonight in a non-conference opener at the Sanford Pentagon.
“He’s an even-keeled kid,” said John, who played at Lawrence, a Division III program in Appleton, and is six years older than Sam. “As an older brother, I always worry that he has the weight of the world on him sometimes. But I’m more impressed with how he handles that stuff than the stuff he does on the court.”
John, for his part, feels uncomfortable talking about his role in his brother’s rise to stardom. He credits the upbringing of their parents, Todd and Carol, and he points to Sam’s relentless pursuit of his dream.
“I’ve never seen a kid work as hard as he can, to see the leaps he makes every offseason,” John said. “He’s in the gym when most kids are sleeping in, he’s in the gym when most kids are out hanging out with their friends at night. He’s sacrificed a lot to get where he is.”
Room to improve
Ask Dekker where he is as a player and he’ll offer an honest assessment.
“I really don’t think I’m anywhere near where I can be as a basketball player,” he said. “I’m not content with where I’m at and I’m not happy with where I’m at with my progress right now. I’m real hungry to get better.”
Dekker hopes to show off an expanded game on offense after averaging 9.6 points per game en route to Big Ten All-Freshman honors a year ago. More than half of Dekker’s shot attempts were from 3-point range, but he anticipates a significant decrease in that percentage this season.
He has been posting up more often in practice and is eager to draw bigger defenders outside the paint and then drive past them. It’s reasonable to expect a substantial increase in the number of free throws Dekker attempts — he averaged about two a game as a freshman — and his overall scoring average.
“As much as I played on the 3-point line last year, I see myself as a slasher,” Dekker said. “I think you’ll see more of that. I’m more comfortable when I’m slashing and taking guys off the bounce.”
But where Dekker knows he needs to improve the most is on the defensive end.
His biggest issue, he says, is stayed focused for 35 seconds when the opponent has the ball. Whether it’s thinking about what just happened on the offensive end or what Dekker calls “zoning out,” his momentary lapses are a problem he’s trying to correct.
“A lot of times I get too offensive-oriented and worry too much about scoring and I’ve got to realize that defense is where it’s going to happen with this team,” Dekker said. “That’s what matters if you want to win.”
So Dekker will do what he’s always done — he’ll stand up to the challenge and keep plugging away.
“It’s something I have to get better at and something I have to correct,” Dekker said. “I have a lot of expectations of myself about how I want to play and what I want to do. I have to help the team by being a better defender.”
And there’s the challenge of blocking out the noise, which won’t be easy.
Dekker’s name began appearing on NBA mock drafts during the offseason. ESPN’s Chad Ford has Dekker at No. 18 in his ranking of players eligible for what is projected to be a loaded 2014 draft.
Although he’s flattered by the praise, Dekker is doing his best to shrug it off.
“That’s just stuff you’ve got to ignore, but also stuff that you’ve also got to use as extra incentive to get in the gym and keep working,” Dekker said. “I can’t listen to the outside stuff and I can’t let that be a distraction in my head because it’s going to make my attitude worse and that’s going to affect how I play and it’s going to make me think about myself too much.”
It’s easy to stay grounded around UW coach Bo Ryan, who reminds Dekker on a daily basis of all the areas he needs to improve.
“He just needs to listen to the right voices, on the court and around the game,” Ryan said, “and take care of the precious present and he’ll be fine.”
For John Dekker, the NBA talk is the latest in what has been a surreal few years. The scoreboard of the brothers’ one-on-one matchups is still one-sided, only the roles have been flipped. “If we play 10 times,” John said, “I might beat him once.”
And now it’s John sitting in the stands marveling at how well his little brother handles being the center of attention.
“I pinch myself,” John said. “I see it and I’m like, ‘Holy cow, this is my little brother Sam.’ I don’t see him as ‘Sam Dekker’ when we’re out in public and people run up to him. He’s just this big dork, that’s how I see it. But I think he’ll handle it well.”