Sam Dekker learning, improving

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In his first NBA preseason game, Sam Dekker looked tentative. He bypassed shots and pump faked for no reason. He was lost.

He didn’t look like the player who veteran Trevor Ariza said played with confidence during training camp with the Houston Rockets.

That was the first game.

Dekker has improved since then, and he is no longer tentative; if anything, it seems as if he’s having fun running in a free-flowing offense that thrives on ball movement, spacing and running. In three preseason games, Dekker is averaging 7.3 points in 23 minutes per game.

He isn't playing like the man who wore a Wisconsin jersey for three college seasons, including two trips to the Final Four and a 13.9 points per game average his junior season. Instead Dekker is participating like a rookie battling for a roster spot, despite being a first-round pick, or a starting role with the Rockets' D-League team.

In the last two preseason games, Dekker smiled on the court, running and finishing plays that showcased his athletic abilities.

“I felt like I was finally immersed into everything that we’re doing,” Dekker said last week before the Rockets headed on a road trip. “The comfortability is going to be big.”

In the Rockets' second preseason game, Dekker scored on an alley-oop dunk courtesy of a K.J. McDaniels pass among his highlights in a 12-point outing. Two nights later in South Texas, Dekker ran the floor and took a fastbreak bounce pass from Denzel Livingston for a one-handed dunk during his seven-point game. Yet, Dekker registered a minus-13 on the plus/minus chart.

“For Sam, it’s just going to take a little while, which isn’t unusual,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. “If you’re coming to a team that wants to win and planning on winning a lot of games, as a rookie, it’s hard to play. The guys that do it are very, very special, and they’re probably a handful a year. I think Sam can have a chance for us to do different things. He just has to get his feet wet and figure the NBA out and he’ll be all right.”

The Rockets are pleased with their core group of veterans -- players like Dekker, who provide McHale with versatility to play multiple positions.

McHale said Dekker has to improve on closing offensive players out on the defensive end and just finding his game within the offense.

With the Rockets quest to take 3-pointers and push the pace, Dekker is someone who must hit his outside shots with consistency. Through three games, Dekker is shooting 40.9 percent from the field but just 25 percent from 3-point range.

He’s also missed four of five foul shots.

Veteran players take advantage of rookie players with subtle moves and their overall experience. Dekker has seen vets such as Vince Carter and Charlie Villanueva in the opening portions of the preseason take advantage at times.

Dekker is athletic and smart enough to make plays on the offensive end but defensively is the challenge when he has to take on bigger players.

“It’s good to go up against [veterans], and these guys know more than you and you can pick up little things in their game,” Dekker said. “It gives me a good test when I’m in the league. As a rookie, you’re going to get your butt kicked sometimes and you’re going to feel like you’re behind a little bit. But we got a great group of guys who’ve really helped me along the way.”