It’s not uncommon to hear that the NBA preseason doesn’t matter. That’s certainly true of the outcomes of the games — the wins and losses don’t count for anything. But if ever you want a case study on why the preseason does matter in the NBA, look no further than last week’s tilt between the Toronto Raptors and the Washington Wizards.
Toronto won the game, but again, that’s not relevant. What was relevant was that Raptors camp invitee Sam Dekker was given a good chunk of minutes, wherein he found his stroke and settled into the offense and made a huge impression, scoring 18 points (12 in the fourth quarter) and hitting 4-of-5 shots from downtown.
It’s not the sole reason Dekker is on the roster today, but it certainly helped. He hadn’t made much of an impression before that; had Dekker not gone off in that game, there’s a very good chance Ish Wainwright, who had also played quite well in the team’s last two games, would have gotten that final roster spot.
So Dekker’s on the team — for now. In a last-minute update, ESPN’s Bobby Marks has reported that Dekker and Isaac Bonga have moved their guarantee dates back by a few weeks.
FYI on Toronto— Bobby Marks (@BobbyMarks42) October 19, 2021
The contracts for Sam Dekker and Isaac Bonga were set to become guaranteed on the first day of the regular season.
Both players moved their guaranteed date to Nov. 6.
I would expect Toronto to be under the tax at the end of the season. https://t.co/njp7qpmESH
Basically the team has the flexibility to waive one of the two players, without eating their fully salary, after a brief start-the-season trial. As Marks notes, Toronto will likely do everything it can to avoid being in the luxury tax at the end of the season, and waiving one more player will help.
But for now, Dekker’s here, so let’s dig into who he is, and his role on the team.
Dekker has bounced around a fair amount since being drafted by the Houston Rockets with the 18th pick in 2015. He didn’t play much in 2015-16, but had a successful 16-17 campaign where he averaged 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds in 18 minutes a night. He then went to the Los Angeles Clippers as part of the Chris Paul trade in 2017, got dealt to Cleveland the next summer, then finally was traded to Washington in December 2018. When his contract option wasn’t picked up he spent two season playing overseas. He signed with the Raptors this past summer on a camp invite deal.
If you’ve been paying attention to the roster the Raptors are building this season, it’s no surprise that Dekker is 6’8” and 230 lbs. — just like almost everyone else on the team! Beyond that, though, there are questions as to whether Dekker fits the Nick Nurse mold.
Traditionally, Dekker hasn’t played as a stretch-the-floor forward — his career NBA three-point field goal percentage is just 29%. But, he did shoot 45% (!) from downtown on 4.5 attempts per game over 28 games in the Turkish League last season. Combined with his performance in that final preseason game, that might be an indication of where Dekker will best fit in on this squad. And the Raptors are generally very confident that they can transform suspect shooters into at least solid ones.
Of course, this is a Nick Nurse Raptors team, so players will have to make an impact defensively, regardless of how they shoot the ball. Dekker is fairly athletic for his size, but I wouldn’t say he has the foot speed to handle guards; he won’t be switching one through five like some of his teammates can. But with effort and intensity he should be able to acquit himself well enough in deep bench lineups and minutes.
Ultimately, unless injuries or the health and safety protocols derail the season, Dekker probably won’t see a lot of action outside of garbage time. But he has enough of the tools to not be a negative on the floor should he be pressed into action.
Attitude-wise, Dekker seems to be a good fit for the Raptors culture. He’s said and done all the right things during his time with the team, including that the players he’s playing with in Toronto, including and perhaps especially those he was fighting with for a roster spot, were high-character people and “the coolest group of guys that I’ve been around with in the NBA.” He also talked about how they’ve been cheering for each other, because “it’s the weakness of a man to root for someone to fail.”
That speaks to a certain kind of maturity, and it sounds like Dekker did some growing up when he played in Europe. He said he had to swallow his pride in Europe, where he realized a) that there’s an extremely high level of competition in basketball, not just in the United States but around the world, and b) that he didn’t have it all figured out.
That maturity does ease some of the concerns around Dekker from a culture fit standpoint. Former Cavs teammate JR Smith once said that Dekker was the only guy he played with that he didn’t like, accusing Dekker of “some Trump shit.” Dekker has flatly denied being a Trump supporter, and Smith... well, the guy who once threw a bowl of soup at a coach may not be the best judge of locker room character. But regardless! Dekker’s gone on a journey since his Cleveland days and, whatever it was between him and Smith, we can give him the benefit of the doubt that it’s behind him now.
Dekker might not have a huge role on this Raptors team, but I’m willing to bet that he’ll give it his all and try and make the most of his second NBA chance.