Sam Dekker’s 2015-16 rookie season with the Houston Rockets didn’t amount to much — back surgery and a grand total of six minutes stretched over three games. You could be forgiven for forgetting he was in the NBA because, in a functional sense, he really wasn’t.
Dekker, a bright and cherubic combo forward, was a huge part of the University of Wisconsin’s run to the 2015 National Championship game. As a draft prospect, his appeal was mostly as an athletic lump of clay. Dekker stands 6-foot-9 and has the size and quickness to defend both wings and frontcourt players. His offensive game at Wisconsin was a little bit of everything, not outstanding in any one area but with enough blank check versatility to imply that he could eventually be pretty good at a few different things.
His six minutes as a rookie didn’t do much to advance our understanding of what he could be as an NBA player but this season he has been a (minor) revelation. Dekker has played 287 minutes, a 4633 percent increase if you’re keeping track at home, and has been sneakily impressive for the resurgent Rockets.
Per 36 minutes, Dekker is averaging 11.7 points, 7.0 rebounds, 2.4 assists, and 1.1 steals. The most impressive part has been his efficiency — 50.0 percent from the field, 40.0 percent on 5.1 3-point attempts per 36 minutes, a turnover rate of just 11.3 percent. Dekker is an extremely low-usage player but he’s moving the ball on offense, running his defender ragged with cuts in the halfcourt, and hitting open jumpers.
Everything Dekker has shown thus far makes him a perfect complement to the system Mike D’Antoni has implemented, the one James Harden is breathing fire into. About a quarter of Dekker’s points have come in transition and he has already revealed himself to be more than capable as a fastbreak finisher. His rebounding, steal, and block numbers have all been respectable as well and his defense has been extremely important for a team that is short on good wing defenders — small sample size, but the Rockets are allowing 3.7 fewer points per 100 possessions with Dekker on the floor.
Both Box Plus-Minus and Real Plus-Minus rate Dekker as essentially an average player so far this season but, given the context, average is pretty darn good. Most rookies are terrible, even the ones who are destined for stardom. To be providing average production at just 22-years old is a very good sign for Dekker’s future. Obviously, the small sample size cuts both ways — he may not be as good as he’s looked but he could also improve on what has been an impressive first 300 minutes or so of his career.
Sam Dekker has a lot of basketball left to be played but what he’s shown thus far is really everything he and the Rockets could have asked for. For a young player whose most obvious basketball skills are athleticism and a sort of vague versatility, the beginning of a career can be rough. A strongly defined skill set often sets a player’s niche — shooters shoot, defenders defend, shot-blockers block shots. When the path is a little less obvious, it can be hard to figure out how to leverage a diverse set of possibilities into meaningful production.
With bounce, energy, and the willingness to stay in just a handful of important lanes, Dekker seems to have a handle on it right now.