April 20, 2014

Summer League Thoughts: On Dion Waiters, His Struggles, and More

There’s always plenty of debate when it comes to the NBA Summer League. Every year we see certain mid-to-low first round picks who shine and several top draft picks who really struggle. And there’s always debate as to what it all means.

In general, I would argue that for top draft picks, the Summer League doesn’t tell us a whole lot. It provides us with our first glimpse and you know what they say about first impressions, but when it’s all said and done, these are glorified practices/scrimmages. There’s not a lot of structure, full offensive and defensive sets aren’t installed. It’s a lot of isolation and one-on-one.

Now, if you’re an elite basketball player, you should thrive on this. This freestyle form of basketball should play to your strengths. It’s why we saw Michael Kidd-Gilchrist come out and dominate the game until his injury. It’s why Bradley Beal looked solid in averaging 17.5 points per game for Washington. It reaffirms why so many Cavalier fans were hoping one of those guys would fall to Cleveland.

So as the Cavaliers are now halfway through their Summer League season, it’s only natural to want to talk about what we’ve seen so far. But everything needs to be taken with a grain of salt. Both positives and negatives. But especially the negatives. The way I look at it is, the Summer League shows us who can shine and excel in individual basketball. So the positives matter perhaps more than the negatives. All the negatives tell us are what the struggling players will need to work on in training camp.

None of this is to make excuses, but obviously I am setting this up to start with Dion Waiters. Look, Waiters is struggling and has not looked good at all. You want to know how bad he has been? A lot of people were raving over how he played in Tuesday night’s victory over Phoenix. They were raving about his play on a night in which he scored 16 points on 5-15 shooting.

Now, to be fair, this was without question his best Summer League performance by a mile. He was 6-7 from the FT line, he was +14 in the game, only turned the ball over twice despite handling PG duties for much of the game. He was aggressive in attacking the rim and he had some really nice passes coming out of his drives to the lane. You could start to see why the Cavaliers liked him so much.

But still, he was 5-15 from the floor, he looks completely disinterested in rebounding, doesn’t work when the ball is not in his hands, and on defense he looks like he’s still trying to play zone as his man routinely gets away from him. These are all things that Byron Scott can fix. So please don’t take this as saying the Cavaliers made a mistake drafting him. I’m just saying, right now, Dion Waiters does not look like a good NBA player to me. Samardo Samuels and Donald Sloan are averaging more points than Waiters in the Summer League. He has work to do.

So let’s talk about some positives with Waiters. To begin with, I want to make a point about shooting guards drafted in the top 5 of the NBA draft in recent years. I went back and looked at the previous 5 drafts, and examined the positional breakdowns and the average efficiency ratings of those taken in the top 5 in their rookie seasons. The results:

  • Position (# of players drafted in top 5 in last 5 years): Average Efficiency Rating
  • PG (7): 16.30
  • SG (4): 12.34
  • SF (2): 16.58
  • PF (7): 15.02
  • C (4): 15.10

So in the last 5 years, only four SGs have been taken in the top 5 of the draft, and all four of them have struggled mightily in their rookie seasons. In fact, not a single one had an efficiency rating of 14.30 or above. Bear in mind, an efficiency rating of 15.0 means you are an average player. So not a single SG taken in the top 5 of the draft in the last 5 years has been even an average NBA player in their rookie year. Every other position has seen their rookies average an efficiency rating above average. The disparity for SGs is enormous.

So obviously it would appear that SGs taken at the top of the draft seem to struggle to adapt to the NBA more than any other position. If you’re wondering who those 4 SGs are, they are Wesley Johnson, OJ Mayo, Evan Turner, and James Harden. Obviously James Harden has seen his career blossom and he has developed into an elite SG in the league. So even if Waiters struggles in his rookie year, the hope will be that his career follows the Harden trajectory more so than his fellow Syracuse alum Wes Johnson.

And let’s talk real quick about the player Waiters has been so unfairly compared to, Dwyane Wade. Really, Wade is the last SG taken in the top 5 of the draft to really have a strong impact his rookie season. Wade had an efficiency rating of 17.61 his rookie season and has been above 20.00 every season since. But in his Summer League season his rookie year, Wade averaged 13.3 points per game. Waiters is at 12.3 with two games to go.

So what does all this mean? Is Waiters destined to struggle this season? Is he going to be like Dwyane Wade? Who knows. The point is just to be careful to not define Waiters by his Summer League performance. Lets wait and see how he plays with Kyrie Irving and how he reacts to Byron Scott’s coaching before we write the guy off just because he doesn’t look good in Summer League play. He is definitely showing some red flags out there right now, and of course we’d all prefer he be lighting things up. But none of this will matter. All that matters is how he plays in real NBA games.

In listening to some post game interviews with Waiters, I’m impressed with his accountability. He’s not making excuses for his play. He knows his shot is off right now and he is accepting blame and saying all the right things about working harder to fix them. His confidence is still high, which I like as well. I’m rooting for the guy, and there’s a lot to love about the way he plays with so much passion, confidence, and aggression. It’s just a matter of getting him to settle down a bit, feel more comfortable in the flow of the offense, and get his body under a little better control at times.

#####

Some other thoughts about the Cavaliers in the Summer League:

- I cannot say enough good things about Tyler Zeller. As some of you who read this site routinely may know, I’m a UNC guy. Ohio State is my alma mater and is in my blood, but after OSU, the school I follow next closest is UNC. So I was always biased, but I was ecstatic when the Cavaliers trade up to get Zeller. So far, he has not disappointed one bit. Tuesday night against Phoenix, Zeller had by far his worst game of the Summer League….and he had a double-double with 10 points and 12 rebounds. We’ve seen Zeller showcase his open floor ability, we’ve seen him demonstrate his strong footwork and his ability to rebound. He has good hands and is a very good passer out of the post. I don’t really care how low some people think Zeller’s ceiling is. The guy is a basketball player. He is as solid and dependable of a rookie center as I have seen in a while. The Cavaliers are really going to like this guy a lot.

- Wins and losses don’t mean a thing in Summer League. But one thing I was encouraged by in Tuesday’s game was how in the 4th quarter when the Suns closed the gap to within 10, the Cavaliers brought Waiters and Zeller back into the game. I was really eager to see how they would do in this type of situation. They didn’t disappoint, either, as they both played contributing roles in making key plays on both ends of the court to help the Cavaliers put the game away again. To reiterate, winning that game doesn’t mean anything, but it’s still nice to see the young bucks rise to the challenge of putting away the game.

- If you think I’m disappointed in Waiters, let me tell you something, I’m a million times more disappointed in Tristan Thompson. In his sophomore season, he should be dominating Summer League opponents. Getting by on your athleticism is fine and dandy, but at some point you should be able to use it to take control of inferior opponents. Unfortunately, Tristan has instead melted into the background in these games, content to allow D-Leaguers and future European league players hold him completely in check. Where’s the development in his game? What exactly has he been working on this summer? It’s a great quality that Thompson can use his athleticism to find scoring on breakdowns in set plays and it’s peachy that he doesn’t need plays run for him. But wouldn’t it be nice to actually be able to run some plays for him and have him deliver? That’s not happening right now, and I’m quite concerned that we’re not seeing more out of Tristan in the two games he has played in so far. I realize the Cavs are only giving him limited minutes, but still, I see so many sophomores just killing Summer League opponents right now. Tristan looks no different than the likes of Michael Eric right now.

- Donald Sloan has had himself a nice little Summer League. Auditioning for the role of Kyrie’s Backup, Sloan has continued to show that he can handle the job. He’s never going to be a starter-level PG in the NBA, but with Dion Waiters showing some comfort and ability in handling PG duties as well, the need for the Cavaliers to go out and waste some free agent dollars on someone like Jonny Flynn or Derek Fisher is diminishing. I’m actually quite comfortable with the idea of using a Kyrie/Sloan/Waiters rotation at PG. Remember, Daniel Gibson is capable of logging limited minutes at the point as well if needed. The Cavaliers have some versatility in their backcourt, and I think Sloan is showing enough to warrant keeping his job as backup PG.

- None of the other Summer League signees are really impressing me much. Justin Holliday has his moments, I suppose, and I know the Cavaliers kind of like Michael Eric, but I’ve not seen enough from those guys to say I support the Cavaliers giving them a roster spot. It’s a shame we couldn’t see Kevin Jones to get a grasp of what he might be able to bring to the team. The Cavaliers aren’t afraid of going outside their Summer League roster to find players. Remember, they poached Samardo Samuels off Chicago’s Summer League roster when the Bulls declined to give Samardo a roster spot. If the Cavaliers are as unimpressed with their Summer League roster as I am, they very well could look at some other rosters to try to find some hidden talent.

  • Harv 21

    It may be that Waiters is out of shape. He wasn’t working out for teams like other top draft picks and his body fat measurement has fluctuated pretty widely in the last year.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I would have liked to have seen Kevin Jones play but I agree with everything Andrew observed especially with regards to Waiters, Zeller and Thompson. Waiters obviously needs the guidance and teaching of Byron Scott and his staff not to mention some physical conditioning. It’ll be interesting to see how he develops given some of the players the Cavaliers could have had instead of him. I’m not going to go off on Grant in July but Tristan Thompson a year ago was one thing follow him up with Waiters and well, time will tell. As for Thompson I’ve been unimpressed to say the least. Despite a high motor and athleticism I see no signs of a guy who has learned much. I see a stunning resemblance to the way JJ Hickson started his career in all honesty. I’ve liked seeing Samardo Samuels play although he’s been taking more jump shots then I’d like. This is Samuels chance to show more of what he did a couple of years ago. There’s a spot for him if he decides to take it.

  • mgbode

    completely agree on Kevin Jones. hope this doesn’t hurt him too much (and I don’t think it will).

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Tritto on Kevin Jones… really was looking forward to seeing him in Summer League… my hunch is that we got a steal as an undrafted rookie (in other words, a legit rotation player).

  • Bryan

    TT is only playing 15 minutes a game. My sense is they want the minutes to go to other guys they are evaluating rather than waste them on TT.

    Also, in the 15 minutes he is playing, he is averaging 11 RBs and 3 BLKs per 40 minutes. Yes, his office has been minimal, but if he continues to develop into a strong rebounder and defender he can have a huge impact on the team.

    And remember, even though he is headed into his 2nd year, he is 14 months YOUNGER than Tyler Zeller. Dude needs time.

  • Steve

    I’m always a fan of the one-week-into-spring training/summer league/training camp panic article. We have no idea what these guys were asked to work on or any sort of goals or if they simply had an off week. Reading anything into summer league at this point is reading too much into it.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The minutes are a good point I was just hoping to see more of an offensive kind of game or at least an idea of one. He looks awkward on offense. As for the rebounds and defense for me I always thought these were more a sign of desire, work ethic and positioning. With his length and athleticism rebounding and block shots should be automatic.

    It’s summer league I’m not decided on Thompson at all but lets keep in mind the things that were said about JJ Hickson when he was drafted. Hickson never should have come out so early and it showed. I’m hoping Thompson isn’t a repeat.

  • mgbode

    I like the comparison. I do see TT as Hickson+dedication&hard work.

    that’s not a bad thing (Hickson had all the tools but never put them together. if TT works hard enough, then he could)

  • mgbode

    wait, are you saying BJ Mullens isn’t going to score 30pts/game this year?

  • BenRM

    …waits for the “We should have drafted X & Y instead of TT and Waiters” comment…

  • Vindictive_Pat

    Man, Thompson has played 22 minutes in one game and 8 minutes in another and people are worried that he hasn’t looked dominant on offense? He has always been more than a tweak here and a post move there from being a dominant offensive player. He was drafted as a shot-blocker and rebounder knowing that he would take a while to improve offensively. How much better were people expecting him to look halfway through one offseason? In his limited time on the court, I noticed that he was all over the offensive boards (even if he didn’t get the rebound, he was right in the mix every single time). I noticed that he has added a good post move that he made 2 out of 3 times in the Bobcats game and 0 out of 1 in the Suns game. His footwork in the post looks better. I’ve seen him dramatically change a few shots for opposing players.
    Better yet, what happens if you take TT out of the starting lineup because he’s just not a dominant offensive player? The paint becomes a playground for opposing teams. He is the only legitimate threat in the paint on the defensive end for the Cavs.
    I don’t know why this bugs me so much, but it does… it’s like, “Hey, we’ll give you your rookie season, but the second it’s over you better start doing well at all of the things that you weren’t good at doing!” It may be 3 more years before TT even develops a consistent 12-foot jump shot, and that shouldn’t be seen as slow development in my opinion.

  • dwhit110

    Val-en-CHOO-nus (I learned how to pronounce it but not how to spell it)

    Seriously though, I think you’re right on. Let’s all remember the “we should have taken Derrick Williams and Norris Cole instead of Kyrie narrative after the first game last season.

    Knee jerk reactions are fun.

  • cleveland__rocks

    tt basically only played one game, dude. 8 minutes last night doesn’t even count and he didn’t play the 2nd game.

  • Mike E

    Agreed 100%. In Cleveland if your not a FOH after one year you’re automatically a bust.

  • Bryan

    I don’t follow the Hickson comparisons. Hickson was a natural offensive player who dominated summer league on the offensive end. His problem was he never played defense. TT is the exact opposite. You know he will evolve into a good (possibly great) defender, but his offensive skill set may never get there.

    The decision to trade Hickson and keep TT reflects the team’s understanding that a dominant defensive player with limited offensive skills is worth more than a good offensive player with no defense.

    Final point: with Waiters and Zeller having above average offensive skills for a their respective positions, I think TTs lack of offense is more palatable.

  • Bryan

    Right on. TT will be a valuable piece at worst and has serious upside. People need more patience.

  • Yup

    You are absolutely wrong about his defense in the PHX game. Lazy journalism at it’s worst. Between you and Curry, I’m not sure which one of understands the game less…

  • Mike E

    It’s Byron Mullens now, c’mon!

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    Watch him defend players off the ball. He doesn’t even watch his man. He watches the ball. And he floats in empty space while his man easily runs away from him.

  • http://twitter.com/tompestak Thomas Pestak

    It’s not really about his bottom line. I haven’t seen a SINGLE POSSESSION from TT where I thought “whoa, he’s capable of THAT?” He’s like the anti JJ Hickson in some ways. JJ could swish an 18 footer or swat Dwight Howard, but his liabilities always seemed to cost too much. How does TT add value? He is not a great finisher at all around the hoop, and he’s a putrid FT shooter. Rebound is great, but if you are a complete liability at one end you better be HISTORICALLY ELITE at the other to justify a top 5 pick – or you are a bust, simple as that.

  • BenRM

    who do you write for again? I’d be really interested to read some industrious journalism.

  • mgbode

    what was I thinking. ok, he’s taking it easy on these guys. 34pts/16rbs per game once the regular season hits :)

  • mgbode

    they are both super athletic PFs who rely a bit too much on that athleticism and need to harness it and mix in some solid fundamentals to play their best basketball.

    Hickson never really seemed like he wanted to go through that process. maybe TT doesn’t either, but it “seems” like he does to this point.

  • Vindictive_Pat

    How about top 2 in offensive rebounding rate? That was TT last year in his rookie season… he has the possibility of being historically elite. Giving your team extra possessions is pretty important.

  • Yup

    That’s the point I watched him EVERY possession last night and I did not see his man beat him all night. He stands a lot because his man is standing out by the 3 point line out of the play. Again I watched every possession last night so I could see for myself whether he was as bad as that fool Curry was making him out to be. At no point did I see a bad defender out there. I’d be happy to meet you in person Andrew and re-watch the game with you and point out your errors.

  • Yup

    Wow. Yr so right. Since I don’t write for WFNY I must not voice my (learned) opinion! I am shamed…

  • jim

    Right. Difficult to blame Thompson for not standing out more when he has played sparingly.

    I also disagree with the assessment of Waiter’s play last night. He was much more aggressive, showed a quick first step, and generally had his way going to the basket. His shot is still not falling as he is not following through and he is fading away, but he also realizes that as he stated in the post game interview with Brent Barry.

  • BenRM

    I know. And you should be ashamed. But not because you don’t write for WFNY, but because you are really dumb.

  • http://www.waitingfornextyear.com Andrew Schnitkey

    And obviously you know more than Byron Scott does on this issue, too, since Byron has called out Waiters for his defense and even worked with him outside practice on his off-ball defensive footwork and positioning. Perhaps you need to meet Byron Scott in person so you can show him how wrong he is about Waiters’ lack of defense.

  • Intensity

    Thompson is a straight beast ………

  • http://twitter.com/Real2KInsider Rashidi

    I’m sure missing all of his shots at the rim had something to do with his high ORB rate.

  • http://twitter.com/teamrobhogg Rob Hogg

    It’s worth mentioning that, like Kyrie Irving, he led his team in scoring in the Rising Stars game. I know it’s just a little thing, but wanted to put that out there.

    He also has looked much better on the offensive end, if you’ve actually been watching the games. He doesn’t take it down to his ankle before going up for dunks anymore, makes his moves in the flow and seems to have developed a bit of a midrange game. I just don’t get the criticism, he’s obviously improved and he hasn’t even gone through a full NBA preseason yet.