Being a rookie in the NBA is a challenge that differs in nature from team to team. In the case of a young savior of a lottery team, it can be immense pressure and a steep learning curve while getting thrown in the fire. In the case of Sam Dekker, the first-round pick of the Houston Rockets, it’s as simple as getting on the floor for a team who made it to last season’s Western Conference Finals. And that’s beyond the basic problem of adjusting to a new city, and for Dekker, a new life away from Wisconsin, where he spent his first 21 years.
Dekker spoke with DIME over the phone about his involvement with Call of Duty: Black Ops 3, and his new life on the Rockets.
DIME: What did you think of the Call of Duty: Black Ops 3 trailer? It looked completely chaotic.
SAM DEKKER: Yeah, I was the best at Call of Duty: Black Ops, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 — those were a little slower. This is like, with the wall jumps and the sliding, it’s a whole new thing. So, as I got used to it, I got better at it, but it’s definitely a transition.
So, what were your favorite Call of Duty games?
Well, my favorite of all-time is Call of Duty: Black Ops, the first one… then Modern Warfare 2, I would say. Those would probably be my top two ever. I’ve actually gone back recently and still play them.
So, being away from your family — I saw from your Player’s Tribune interview that you grew up all your life in Wisconsin, went to University of Wisconsin. So, how’s it been living in Houston?
It’s been a little transition. I grew up as the youngest in my family, so I was kind of more independent, kind of learning on my own, so being able to be down here, you know — I’ve transitioned well. I’m a pretty personable guy, so I meet people and enjoy doing that. But I definitely miss — being away, my family’s got to come down a few times, and those times are very fun. But I’m doing well right now, being with the team, and the people I’ve met have been awesome down here.
Which of the Rockets have you bonded with the quickest? Are you staying with any of them? Rookies sometimes bunk up with veterans just to help get adjusted.
Well, I’m living alone right now, but I’ve actually got a really good relationship with most of the guys off the court. I hang out with Dwight Howard, he’s a big Call of Duty guy. Donatas Motiejunas, he’s another fellow — I don’t know if he plays Call of Duty, but he’s a guy I’ve been getting along with. But we have a lot of good veterans, like Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry, those guys have all brought me in really well. They’ve all made the process pretty easy.
With Trevor Ariza, you said in that Player’s Tribune interview before you even knew where you were going-
You said you kind of modeled yourself after him. What’s it been like playing with him and learning from him?
Yeah, it’s been cool. It’s funny how I said that and all of a sudden I end up in Houston. He’s a great guy, he works hard and does things the right way. He’s a true pro, and that’s what you want to be, especially as a rookie. So, I’ve kind of tried to be under his wing a little bit and learn from him, ask him questions, watch his work ethic. He’s a guy I can definitely look up to and he’s been very supportive of me. So, I’m glad to have a guy like him on our team, a guy I really look up to.
He also kind of plays your position, and it’s been pretty notoriously tough for rookies to get on the court with the Rockets under Kevin McHale. The Rockets like to put their rookies in the D-League; do you see yourself spending some time in Rio Grande Valley this year?
You know, that’s obviously a possibility. But right now, I’m just focused on the present moment, and right now, I’m just trying to help this team in whatever way I can. You know, if they send me down for a little bit, and it’s a chance for me to get better and play more, then so be it, I’ll do that happily. But right now, my intention’s to help the Rockets, and I know I’ll be asked to do different things.
The Rockets are a little thin at power forward right now, and lots of people saw you as potentially one of the smaller power forwards of the new NBA that’s been moving towards positionless basketball. Have you been working on that?
Yeah, you know, naturally, I’m more of a guard-forward, so that’s where I’m comfortable. When I got here, with the depth we have, it kind of makes sense with some of the things we do to sometimes go a little smaller, so they’ve tried to work me out a little bit at the power forward, and that’s definitely a transition. You know, instead of being the one to be screened for, I’m the guy setting the screen, and defensively, instead of guarding guys, I’m banging in the post. So, it’s definitely a transition that took a little bit for me, but I’m getting more comfortable every day, and that just comes from learning, having an open mind and trying to absorb as much as you can.
What’s the absorption process been like? The Rockets do play very differently from Wisconsin, there’s a lot more emphasis on speed, but that seems to suit where your talents are. Has it been more fun, or more just hard work?
Well, obviously when you get in a new system, there’s going to be growing pains no matter who you are. So, having to learn a new system, a new offense and defense, is always a little tough at first. Your mind races around at a mile a minute, so that took a little bit, but as you get more comfortable and learn it more, you start playing much more freely and much more naturally. So, right now, I’m happy where I’m at. I’ve learned everything I need to learn in terms of our system, so right now, it comes down to getting more comfortable and learning how to play with all the guys. I think I’m doing a good job and getting way more confident and way more comfortable, so I like where I’m at right now.
You’ve probably been practicing in different positions, trying to get adjusted. Are you matching up with any specific guys in practice who are putting you through your paces?
With the way we play defense, at some point, you’re going to end up guarding everybody, but I’m trying to defend the best players I possibly can. So, I’m trying to guard Ariza, trying to guard James Harden a lot, anyone that gives me a good challenge to help me get better. I know a lot of those times I’m going to get beat, but as long as I keep competing and showing that I’m not afraid — that I’m not going to back down from anyone — that’s going to earn me respect, and that’s also going to get me better as a player and help this team. So, I’m trying to have as many challenges as possible. And with me, if I’m not getting as many minutes in the games, all those practices are very important for me to show what I can do and that I can help this team. So, I’m trying to compete as much as possible and help the team any way I can.
Though you were drafted the same year as your buddy Frank Kaminsky, you’re only scheduled to play him a couple of times this year (Dec. 21 and March 12). Do you think you’ll get to see him on the court, or just to give him a handshake before and after the game?
Hopefully I get a chance to see him on the court, that’s the plan. But it’ll be different going against Frank — we did a lot of great things together and had a lot of fun. But I’m excited for him, we’ve kept in touch. He’s doing well down in Charlotte, and it’s nice having a friend going through the same stuff as you; you can bounce things off of him. And he’s been very supportive my whole career going back to Wisconsin, so it’s great to have a friend and I hope I can see him soon.
Are there any other rookies across the league you’ve grown close with? People you’ve grown close with through the draft process that you’re excited to see when you travel?
I’m close with a lot of guys — a lot of the guys in this draft class I’ve known since high school, so that’s pretty fun. Justise Winslow is a guy I’m very close with, and he’s from Houston, so when he comes back, I see him, and I know his family pretty well. Stanley Johnson, R.J. Hunter — across the board, there’s a lot of guys I get along with really well. It’s nice to be able to go head-to-head with people, and nearly every night, I know someone on the other team.