The Sam Dekker Dilemma: Will Wisconsin Star Be a Steal or Bust in NBA Draft?

C.J. Moore@@CJMooreBRCollege Basketball National Lead WriterJune 22, 2015

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The 2015 NBA Finals were a glimpse toward the future wave of positionless basketball. If you're a forward with size who can guard both bigger and smaller guys, can shoot well enough to keep the defense honest and can make plays in space, well, you're pretty darn valuable.

And if you can do it all on a rookie contract, that's gold.

The player in the upcoming NBA draft who fits the above description best is former Wisconsin wing Sam Dekker. Dekker is 6'9" and athletic, has shown flashes of a jumper (15-of-30 from three over the first five games of the NCAA tournament), played both the 3 and 4 at Wisconsin, and he thrives in space.

So why isn't he a top-five consensus pick?

"He's a hard player to gauge. He's probably been the most inconsistent player to track in the country over the last several years," a Western Conference scout told Bleacher Report, adding Dekker's stock has been everywhere from the top 10 to in the 20s.

Dekker's NCAA Tournament Game by Game
Pts.2PM-A3PM-AReb.
vs. Coastal Carolina204-of-74-of-82
vs. Oregon173-of-43-of-85
vs. North Carolina239-of-101-of-510
vs. Arizona273-of-55-of-65
vs. Kentucky164-of-62-of-33
vs. Duke126-of-90-of-68
Kenpom.com

Last summer, Dekker was probably trending toward top half of the lottery after showing well at the LeBron James Skills Academy. Then in October, he injured his ankle and didn't look like himself to start the season—the lowlight was a 2-of-5 performance in a loss to Duke.

But by March, Dekker had regained his stride and his confidence, and he was tremendous through the first five games of the NCAA tournament.

Dekker is a case study in why it is so difficult to evaluate draft prospects, even with three years of data and performance to judge. Let's take a look at what to like, what to question and whether Dekker could be the steal of the draft or a bust candidate.

 

The Good

The "upside" tag is usually reserved for underclassmen. And Dekker spent three years in school, but he only spent one year as a 6'9" wing. As a sophomore, Dekker played most of his minutes at the 4, and he was only 6'7"—he grew two inches between his sophomore and junior year. 

What was so promising with Dekker was that he didn't lose any of his quickness or agility with the growth spurt, and he seemed to only improve as a defender and scorer. 

The move to small forward was a risky one that seemed to pay off. The challenge as a 6'9" small forward in college is that you're essentially defending guards. The average height of the starting 3-man in the Big Ten was between 6'5" and 6'6", and Dekker proved to be solid defending smaller players off the dribble. 

"I think he has a chance to be a guy who can defend multiple positions, and he has a pretty good awareness of how he's going to get into the league—as a defender first and become more and more of an offensive player," an Eastern Conference scout said. "I think he gets it, and he's athletic enough to do it." 

On the offensive end, Dekker's growth spurt helped him become one of the best finishers in college basketball. He made 75 percent of his attempts at the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com, and an impressive 63.9 percent of his two-point attempts, also improving from the mid-range. 

Dekker's Shooting Numbers Year to Year
FG% at rimFG% 2-point jumpers2-point FG%
2012-1371.132.657.1
2013-1469.930.255.0
2014-1575.037.863.9
Hoop-Math.com

Some believe that Dekker was not able to show off his athleticism in Bo Ryan's swing offense because the Badgers played at a slow tempo, but Ryan's offense helped Dekker prepare for the jump to the league. 

The swing offense is closer to the Spursian offenses many teams are shifting to in today's NBA. Wisconsin's ball movement and spacing allow for opportunistic drives and the ability to attack mismatches. That allowed Dekker to show off his quick first step. He is a very good straight-line driver off ball reversals when his defender is in a vulnerable spot. He also showed the ability to play out of ball screens and score from the post. 

That's more than expected out of most NBA role players. Few are asked to simply go one-on-one off the dribble. That's not Dekker and isn't something a smart coach would ask him to do. What's valuable is a guy who understands how to run an efficient offense and when to take good shots, and those are skills that are endlessly drilled at Wisconsin. 

"I think Coach [Ryan] puts you on the floor because you're unselfish," Dekker said at the Final Four. "That's something he looks for. If you're willing to pass up some looks for better looks, that's obviously going to raise your level of play on the offensive end and make you more efficient."

The fact Dekker, who came in as one of the most heralded recruits Wisconsin ever had, was willing to play the Robin to Frank Kaminsky's Batman was a plus in the eyes of scouts. He learned to play off Kaminsky and benefited from the attention paid to the National Player of the Year. 

"I think Sam was a little bit of an atypical player that they've recruited there over the last couple of years," the Eastern Conference scout said. "His ability to conform to what they dictate is admirable."

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28:  Frank Kaminsky #44 and Sam Dekker #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers celebrate the Badgers 85-78 win against the Arizona Wildcats during the West Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on March
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

Dekker's ability to show up in the big moments is also attractive. He got all the attention at the LeBron camp because he knocked down several threes when James was on the floor. And after averaging 13.0 points in the regular season this past year, he bumped his average up to 19.2 points per game in the NCAA tournament.

"You're never going to worry about him stepping up in a big moment and competing," the Western Conference scout said. "LeBron steps on the court, he wants to go at him. Against Kentucky and Arizona, he's going to come to play, and you know you're going to be able to call on him. He's going to be ready for the moment and he's not going to be scared.

"What you worry about with him is consistency. What you worry about is night in and night out is there a baseline that you know can help you win games. Everyone knows he likes to compete and he likes to play when the lights are on, and he's got the confidence to compete at that level. What he hasn't proven is he can do it consistently and over the course of an 82-game season, that's an issue. But he's a gamer. That's for sure. He'll rise to the occasion in big games or at least try."

 

The Questionable

The recency bias of the NCAA tournament tends to affect the overall perception of a prospect. With Dekker, the tournament gave hope that he can be a shooter.

It's not just that he made 50 percent of his threes over the course of five games; he was taking enough shots (30) to give some legitimacy to that small sample size.

The question becomes: Should that be viewed as proof he can become a shooter? Or, is he what his numbers overall say he is—a below-average (33.1 percent) three-point shooter?

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 28:  Sam Dekker #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers makes a three-pointer over Elliott Pitts #24 of the Arizona Wildcats in the second half during the West Regional Final of the 2015 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Staples Center on M
Stephen Dunn/Getty Images

"He has potential, but it's really dangerous to fall into any conclusions on a small sample size. I think you have to look at the whole picture," the Eastern Conference scout said. "You have to take everything with a grain of salt, being able to look at a small sample and then be able to apply it to what you've seen overall."

The other side of this, the Western Conference scout points out, is that Dekker has totally reconstructed his shot since he got to Wisconsin.

"His form has really changed, and it's gotten better, but there's still a lot going on with his shot," he said. "In terms of shooting, some guys you look at, they have good mechanics, they're young, they improve a little bit every year, you can figure they'll become better shooters when they get to the NBA. In Dekker's case, he has the good mechanics down and he's been working on his shot."

Dekker's Three-Point Numbers Year to Year
3PM-A3-pt FG%
2012-1350-of-12839.1
2013-1442-of-12932.6
2014-1550-of-15133.1
Wisconsin athletics

But as Mike Schmitz of Draft Express does a solid job illustrating, Dekker has some bad habits and inconsistencies with his release. Those are correctable, but Wisconsin's coaches are some of the best in the country at honing the fundamentals. And other than that five-game spree in the tourney, his final two years at Wisconsin weren't stellar from deep.  

 

The Final Verdict

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 04: Sam Dekker #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers reacts late in the game against the Kentucky Wildcats during the NCAA Men's Final Four Semifinal at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 4, 2015 in Indianapolis, Indiana.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Get
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

The questionable jumper is the gamble when it comes to picking Dekker. Do you buy that he'll become at the very least a serviceable shooter? If so, he could be a starter in the league.

But the better question might be, if he's a below-average shooter, can he still be a valuable piece?

"You're not looking at him as just a shooter," the Western Conference scout said. "You're looking at him as shooting is one of the things he does. He might be a small 4. He's got versatility, he's tough, he competes, so shooting is only part of it with him."

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 06: Sam Dekker #15 of the Wisconsin Badgers goes for a loose ball against Matt Jones #13 of the Duke Blue Devils in the second half during the NCAA Men's Final Four National Championship at Lucas Oil Stadium on April 6, 2015 in In
Andy Lyons/Getty Images

That brings us back to the size and versatility. That's becoming more and more valuable with the direction the league is going, especially when you can bring a guy like Dekker off the bench in small or big lineups. That's how the Golden State Warriors have built an elite defense. Guys like Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green can guard multiple positions and allow the Warriors to switch almost every ball screen. 

As with most any draft pick, where Dekker ends up and how that team uses him could play a big role in his success. Something that Wisconsin's coaches learned this year with Dekker was that his comfort and confidence in his role were more important for him than most. 

Dekker was dominant in preseason practices, but when he returned from the ankle injury, he wasn't able to get back in a rhythm right away. Ryan also had a quick hook with Dekker when he would take a questionable shot, and he seemed to give him more freedom in the NCAA tournament. That led to him playing with more confidence. 

"Sam's kind of like a track athlete," Wisconsin assistant coach Greg Gard said at the Final Four. "Everything's got to feel good."

In the national championship game against Duke, the jumper didn't look or feel good. Dekker air-balled his first attempt, and after that, it was apparent the next time he released it that he wasn't the same guy who had been a 50 percent three-point shooter for the tournament. He missed all six threes he took that day. 

But he still managed to score 12 points, grab eight rebounds, dish out two assists and help hold his cross-match, Matt Jones, scoreless. 

That one game was enough to scare some teams away and intrigue others. Is there enough there to look past the jumper?

It's one of the toughest questions of the draft, but if he falls into the middle of the first round, Dekker's size, winning background, athleticism and versatility make him a gamble well worth the risk. 

 

C.J. Moore covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @CJMooreBR

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