ORLANDO– Sam Dekker is restless in the moments before tip-off. He assembles a sandwich, taking wolfish mouthfuls as he cracks jokes with trainers and teammates…anyone who will listen, really. He moves confidently around the locker room, a man clearly comfortable in his surroundings.
And yet less than a year ago, comfort was virtually impossible from the pain that wracked his 21-year-old body, one that should have been in its prime. Back surgery for a herniated disk had reduced him to a shell of what he was supposed to be. The simple act of getting out of bed, much less playing basketball, was a daily challenge.
The Houston Rockets weren’t counting on Dekker to provide much of an impact in 2015 when he was selected 16th overall in that year’s NBA Draft. But the pain began almost as soon as the season did and Dekker appeared in just three games before undergoing surgery in November. He wouldn’t play for the Rockets again until almost a year later.
To his credit, Dekker never lost faith, even during those painful moments that kept him immobile. “I knew I was still young and had a long road ahead of me,” Dekker told FanRag Sports in early January. “ I had — have — a lot of skill and it was just a matter of me being diligent and getting healthy.”
What a difference a year can make. The Rockets were a disappointing, underachieving group during Dekker’s season. There was talent there, but it seemed buried beneath the surface, with only the occasional glimpse to remind one it’s there. Changes were clearly needed and so the roster was overhauled during the offseason. Perhaps more importantly, new head coach Mike D’Antoni has managed to revitalize the franchise, capitalizing on the team’s strengths while mitigating its weaknesses.
The Rockets are built around James Harden, whose skills as a high-usage playmaker and scorer are unique and unstoppable. Veteran shooters like Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson help space the floor for Harden to do what he does best. The rest of the roster each has as a very specific, complementary role to play and Dekker is no different, as he explained:
“The energy I bring can be contagious. I come in, try and run the floor, get stops, makes some scrappy plays. When you have guys on your team like James [Harden] and Eric [Gordon] that can get hot at any moment, they don’t need me to particularly put up a lot of shots. With the way I play, those points will come, open shots will come, it’s just a matter of me knocking them down and being ready. They want me to play good defense, bring energy and be a spark for us and I think I’ve done a pretty good job of that.”
Dekker does seem to be thriving in a multi-purposed role while playing just over 18 minutes a game. He’s usually good for a steal or block as well as around four rebounds per game. And those shots, while limited (he’s averaging just 5.5 field goal attempts per contest), have been falling at a better than expected rate. He’s shooting 32.6 percent on 3-point attempts and has an overall effective field-goal rate of 55.3 percent.
Occasionally, there’s even an explosion of athleticism that reminds one of his collegiate prowess and why Houston selected him in 2015.
Despite the unwavering confidence in his ability to recover from injury, Dekker admits the hardest part was wondering if the Rockets would have the patience to groom him slowly during what is, technically, his first year in the league. “I had some doubts about if everything was going to work out in the sense of, ‘Are they going to believe in me when I get back?’, ‘Are they going to be ready to take me in and look at me as someone who can contribute or did me losing a year even put me more behind?’”
Dekker’s – and Houston’s – faith has been rewarded. “They’ve been surprised at some things [I’ve done],” says Dekker.
Still, despite the unexpected growth, there have been teachable moments throughout this season and D’Antoni and his staff have helped Dekker immeasurably. Just as he had to have a long view during his recovery from surgery, getting Dekker to see the season in a similar fashion hasn’t always been easy.
“I’ve also had a game or two, when I haven’t played well and beaten myself up,” explains Dekker. “And then they say, ‘Sam, you’re a rookie. We’re surprised that you’ve had 30-some odd great games and you’re going to have a few bad ones. You’ve gotta understand that.’ But that’s just me expecting a lot of myself and I don’t look at myself as a rookie even though on paper I kinda am. I expect myself to play well and be a big contributor for our team.”
The Rockets and Dekker himself have growing left to do, despite early returns that have been more encouraging than expected. Houston has a record of 31-9 thus far into the season and currently sits at third in the Western Conference standings. But there’s room for improvement as Dekker observes. “Oh, I don’t think we’re very close to where we want to be. We have lapses defensively; we have times where we’re sloppy with the ball. I think we’ve yet to put together a complete 48 minutes of basketball. To see where we’re at and to see that we can get so much better, is good for us and can be scary for other people.”
The Golden State Warriors have their star-studded lineup and the San Antonio Spurs their consistent greatness. The Rockets–despite their recent success–remain a relative unknown. Dekker, however, contends that they have something that sets them apart. “We’ve got a lot of work to do, but we’ve got a bunch of hungry guys, guys that aren’t settling and are ready to go.”
A year of waiting and watching from the sidelines can build up quite an appetite, and Dekker is finally ready to feast.