Sam Dekker was raised with a basketball in his crib and trips to the gym as soon as he could walk. His dad, Todd, was the varsity coach at Sheboygan (Wisconsin) Lutheran High School for seventeen years, retiring when Sam graduated in 2012, and he knew his youngest child had special skills when he practiced with the team in eighth grade. By his junior year, they both believed the NBA was a realistic goal. After three standout seasons at the University of Wisconsin, it’s no shock he’s been invited to New York for the June 25 draft.
First Time in the Big Apple
Dekker begins the day with an 11 a.m. meeting at his hotel with the eighteen other invited prospects, during which current and former players talk about off-court responsibilities. Isaiah Austin, who would have been drafted last year if not for a diagnosis of Marfan syndrome, tells the players, “Smile at a kid from a distance if you have a chance. Sign autographs. You never know whose heart you can touch.” Dekker later concurs with this advice, saying, “There’s more to being a professional basketball player than just playing ball.”
Shortly after, the players and their families have lunch with Silver, though Dekker, like many of the prospects, hasn’t had much of an appetite since coming to New York. He wishes the draft had been earlier that morning. He’s a bit jittery, though he says he’s not nervous. “Just uncertain, excited. I want to get it going. I’m just ready.”
This is Dekker’s first time in New York City. He’d arrived three days before the draft to an itinerary packed with appearances and media sessions. His upbeat, fun-loving nature, which has allowed him to make friends easily, shines through. The public doesn’t see his other side, although perhaps they’ve caught glimpses, as Dekker enjoys bantering with opposing fans. He shows his human side off the court, too. “He can flip that switch in any conversation or argument and get a little edgy with you,” Wisconsin teammate Frank Kaminsky says. “I just laugh and it makes him more mad.” More often than not, though, Dekker is a playful prankster. His Wisconsin roommate, guard Zak Showalter, recalls Dekker putting a friend’s mattress in the bathtub after losing to him in a videogame.
“College is tough to pass up… but I’m ready for this.”
By the night before the draft, friends and family have arrived, and he doesn’t get to sleep in his Times Square hotel until 4 a.m. He hasn’t been sleeping well for weeks as the impending draft and his future have weighed on his mind, and even adjoining the two beds in his room to make a giant sleeping space doesn’t help.
After lunch, he has a couple of hours of precious free time and hangs out in his hotel room with Showalter and two Sheboygan friends. The television is off and basketball is not on the agenda. They listen to music — hip-hop and country — including Thomas Rhett’s “Crash and Burn.” Guess I’ve turned myself into a solitary man, Rhett sings. Ain’t like I’m the only one that’s in the shoes that I am.
“I need you to be a Badger.”
Like the other prospects, Dekker gets dressed with the help of a stylist. His navy blue suit includes his late godmother’s initials embroidered on the cuffs. The players take a bus to the Barclays Center, home of the Brooklyn Nets, a couple of hours before the draft will begin, and pose for group photos on the stage. It is 2015, after all, so a selfie stick is involved. Before his family arrives, Dekker hangs close to Kaminsky. “I know he’s always going to be there when I need him,” Dekker says, and this exciting yet stressful day certainly qualifies.
While Kaminsky exhausted his four years of college eligibility, Dekker still had one remaining but decided to declare for the draft after the NCAA Tournament, the apex of a standout college career. Dekker arrived in Madison as one of the school’s highest-rated recruits ever, a 6’7” wing who could shoot from the outside and get to the basket. In the summer before his junior year at Sheboygan Lutheran, Dekker impressed at a Wisconsin basketball camp. Towards the end of a pick-up game, head coach Bo Ryan saw Dekker score a basket, grab a rebound at the other end, and throw a one-bounce pass nearly the length of the floor to a running teammate for a layup. The only other player Ryan had seen make a pass like that was Larry Bird.
When the game ended minutes later, Ryan approached Dekker and said, “I need you to be a Badger.” “That would be cool,” Dekker said, but Ryan realized the youngster hadn’t quite grasped the message. “No, Sam, I’m offering you a scholarship.” Dekker was floored — it was his first big-time Division I offer — and kept repeating “thank you.” Ryan talked up the players who had committed already — Kaminsky, Traevon Jackson, Josh Gasser — but Dekker didn’t really need to be sold. Playing for the state university had been a long-time dream. He committed the next day and never visited another campus.
Dekker made a few starts as a freshman, just the fourth Wisconsin player under Ryan to do so. He was the leading scorer in the team’s lone NCAA Tournament game and was named to the Big Ten All-Freshman team. Reflecting on that year, Dekker says, “I was goofy and needed to be a sponge to learn as much as I could. I realized I didn’t have all the answers.” As a sophomore, he started every game, upped his production, and helped Wisconsin reach the Final Four.
The following summer, he was reportedly the best college player at camps hosted by LeBron James and Kevin Durant. He also grew two inches to 6’9”. The bigger, better Dekker didn’t reveal himself at the start of his junior season, as he was hampered by a sprained ankle and inconsistent shooting. Come tournament time, he took his game to a new level, scoring a career-high 23 points against North Carolina in the Sweet 16 and topping it in the next round with 27 points against Arizona. “I remember one shot,” says Arizona’s Stanley Johnson, another draft invitee. “He was probably 28 feet out. He faded away, couldn’t see the rim, threw it to the top of the gym, and hit nothing but the bottom of the net. I said, ‘This game’s over.’ We couldn’t do anything about it.” Dekker was named the West Region’s Most Outstanding Player.
In the 2015 Final Four rematch against undefeated Kentucky, Dekker had another terrific performance. He hit a step-back three with 1:44 left to give Wisconsin the lead for good, then took a charge on the other end. He struggled to find his shooting touch in a close loss to Duke in the championship, but he’d done enough to prove he could make the leap to the NBA. After weighing the decision with his family, Dekker declared for the draft, just four days after the national championship defeat. “College is tough to pass up,” he says. “Madison is awesome. But I’m ready for this.”
Waiting to be Called
Inside Barclays, Dekker is joined at his circular table by parents Todd and Carol, older siblings John and Hannah, and his agent, Mark Bartelstein. At 7:37, Silver begins naming names. There are officially five minutes between selections, and draftees and their families describe the wait as “nerve-wracking” and “excruciating.” The intensity at Dekker’s table picks up when Detroit, a possible destination, goes on the clock at number eight, but the Pistons take a different small forward. Dekker remains stoic as most of the selections are announced, but when the Charlotte Hornets draft Kaminsky with the next pick, he stands to give him a congratulatory hug.
Dekker’s agent, seated across from him, is unable to get definitive information. He tells Dekker, “This could be us” before the announcement of six or seven teams’ selections, but so far it hasn’t been. Oklahoma City concludes the “lottery” — the selections among the teams that did not make the playoffs the previous season — by drafting someone else at number fourteen. There’s cachet associated with being a lottery pick, but also cash, as the contracts—albeit all multi-million dollar figures—get smaller with each pick. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers, whom Dekker first met at an awards banquet in high school, texts Dekker to remind him to smile. “Be patient,” he advises. “You’re going to a playoff team.”
It’s not Atlanta, though, meaning none of the nine teams that invited Dekker to work out has a first-round pick remaining. Now the uncertainty has shifted to concern.
ESPN analysts opine that the Boston Celtics should take Dekker with the 16th pick, but Boston passes on him. Milwaukee also makes a surprising selection, ensuring that Dekker will be leaving Wisconsin to continue his basketball career. “Am I going to get picked tonight?” Dekker wonders. The Houston Rockets are on the clock.
Throughout the night, there was commotion around a particular prospect’s table a minute or two before each pick was announced. Television cameras would creep closer. A woman carrying a stack of hats would hover nearby. That isn’t the case as the clock ticks down for Houston’s pick, probably because, according to Bartelstein, the Rockets are trying to trade their pick.
John checks Twitter and sees a report that Houston is going to select a different player. His phone starts vibrating wildly. He checks again, reads a revised report, and tells his brother, “You’re going to be a Rocket.” There’s not enough time to process it before Silver makes it official, exactly two long hours after he announced the draft’s first pick. “With the eighteenth pick in the 2015 NBA draft, the Houston Rockets select Sam Dekker from the University of Wisconsin.” The wait is over.
“I can’t wait to get going.”
Dekker hugs his family members, collects his Rockets hat, and makes his way towards the stage. Silver tells him it was worth the wait and that he’s headed to a great organization.
From there, it’s a whirlwind of media requests that last two hours. On his way into the arena’s underbelly, he signs autographs for young fans as his friends chant “Dek-ker!” from the stands. Before his first professional press conference, he takes a call from Rockets management. “I can’t wait to get going,” he says, a huge smile on his face.
He tells the assembled media that getting picked by Houston is “the biggest blessing” and the “best-case scenario” because they’re a winning franchise (coming off a second place finish in the Western Conference) with an up-tempo offense and talented roster.
On his way to more interviews, Dekker bumps into Kaminsky in a narrow hallway. Dekker playfully pats Kaminsky’s cheek and says, “Look at you, all grown up.” NBA staffers shuffle them along in opposite directions, and Kaminsky adds, “We’ll catch up later when the cameras aren’t around so I can tell you how I really feel.”
Just before midnight, Dekker’s responsibilities have ended, and he leaves the arena to celebrate in Manhattan for a few hours with, among others, Rodgers. “We were trying to act normal,” John Dekker says, “But it’s kind of hard when your favorite athlete comes to hang out with you.”
Dekker continues his string of nights without much sleep, as he has an early flight to Houston the next morning to meet the Rockets general manager, tour the team’s facilities, and get introduced to the local media. He’ll eventually sign a two-year contract worth around $3.3 million. But his first purchase won’t be a car or a house. “I’m going to get off my mom’s phone bill,” he says. “I keep running up her data.”
Andrew Kahn is a freelance writer who has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Newsday, and ESPN the Magazine. He writes about basketball and other sports at andrewjkahn.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter at @AndrewKahn.