LAS VEGAS — Sam Dekker said he returned to Wisconsin for his junior year to get better. He never realized he’d get bigger, too.
Dekker was listed at 6’7” during his first two seasons with the Badgers. But in the past month, he’s been measured at 6’9” on multiple occasions. The two-inch increase in Dekker’s height is noticeable at this week’s LeBron James Skills Academy, where Dekker is going through daily drills and scrimmages with a cast of college all-stars.
“The (extra) two inches feels good,” Dekker said. “I feel comfortable at this height.”
Dekker has been the biggest standout in Las Vegas thus far, excelling on both ends of the court in drills and scrimmages—oftentimes while being guarded by King James himself.
While the rest of the sports world awaited a decision on his NBA future, James spent two hours Thursday working out with the high school and college players at the Cashman Center.
“I wanted to match up with him,” Dekker said, “so I went over there and talked to him and tried to play hard against him. He’s the best player in the world for a reason. To get better, you’ve got to play against the best players.”
Asked if James had any advice, Dekker said: “He was just saying. ‘Keep working. Stay hungry and stay humble.'"
That’s never been a problem for Dekker, who draws as much praise for his work ethic and selflessness as he does his on-court skill.
Dekker ranked second on the team in points (12.4) and rebounds (6.1) last season while leading the Badgers to the Final Four for the first time since 2000. Pleased as he was with the team’s accomplishment, Dekker was unhappy with how he performed personally.
“I wasn’t necessarily happy with how things ended up for me as a player,” Dekker said. “I don’t think I lived up to my expectations of myself.”
The biggest disappointment for Dekker was that he shot just 32.6 percent from three-point range. Dekker said improving in that area is one of the main reasons he returned to school instead of entering the NBA draft, where he was viewed as a fringe first-round pick.
“I see myself as a good shooter,” Dekker said, “but I didn’t shoot it as well as I wanted to last year. I was streaky. I’d go five or six games shooting it really well, and then have three or four games where I couldn’t hit an outside shot.
“I want to get better shooting and I want to get stronger so I can bang inside, getting boards and finishing around the rim. The more complete I can become as a player, the more it will help us fill some voids for our team.”
A significantly improved Dekker could pay huge dividends for a Wisconsin squad that is already downright scary. Guard Ben Brust (12.8 points) is the only significant loss from a unit that went 30-8 and ended the year on college basketball’s biggest stage.
The Badgers reeled off impressive NCAA tournament wins against Oregon, Baylor and No. 1 seed Arizona before falling to Kentucky, 74-73, in the NCAA semifinals. Wisconsin led 73-71 in the waning seconds before Wildcats guard Aaron Harrison swished a three-pointer with five ticks remaining that proved to be the game-winner.
Three months later, Dekker said, “it still sucks.”
“I’ve watched the game probably nine or 10 times now, going over what could’ve been,” he said. “Not just the last shot Harrison hit, but little things over the course of the game. That type of stuff is what players need to learn. Everyone says you learn more from the losses than you do from the wins.
“It gets you going. It gets you hungry again.”
Guards Traevon Jackson and Josh Gasser return in the backcourt, and 7-footer Frank Kaminsky, who averaged 20.5 points in the NCAA tournament, is back in the paint. Dekker said he’s particularly excited about the improvement of forward Nigel Hayes, a bruising 250-pounder who averaged 7.7 points off the bench last season as a freshman.
“He’s going to give us some big, big minutes this year,” Dekker said. “His body is looking great and he’s playing confidently. When you’ve got a young guy like that who is going to work and raise the level of everyone around him, you’re lucky to have guys like that on your team.
“I see it as a blessing, going up against him everyday. He’s stronger than me and more physical than me. He gets me better and I hope I do the same with him.”
Kentucky will likely open the 2014-15 season as the country’s No. 1-ranked team thanks to the somewhat unexpected return of Andrew and Aaron Harrison, Willie Cauley-Stein, Alex Poythress and Dakari Johnson.
Wisconsin, though, could make a legitimate case for No. 2 because of the personnel it returns. Still, Dekker and his teammates have noticed that most analysts are listing the Badgers in the No. 3-6 range, behind schools such as Arizona, Duke and Kansas—all of whom suffered significant losses.
“I think coach (Bo Ryan) likes that,” Dekker said. “It’s something that can motivate us. But at the same time, we can’t get too caught up in that stuff. We just need to focus on what we can control on the court.
“People are excited. There’s a different buzz about Wisconsin basketball now.”
And a different buzz about Dekker.
Jason King covers college basketball for Bleacher Report. You can follow him on Twitter @JasonKingBR.