Dion Waiters, to this point is still shrouded in plenty of unknown. Certainly, the Cavaliers’ rookie shooting guard, selected fourth-overall in the most recent NBA Draft, came out of the gate swinging — 17 points on 6-of-14 from the floor and three steals — in the team’s Opening Night win over the Wizards. But save for the 28 minutes of play, not much of Waiters’ persona is common knowledge amongst Cleveland fans.
For my feature in the impending third edition of the Cavs Zine, I dissected Waiters’ passion more than his play. Yes, we have seen the highlight reels of Dion’s days at Syracuse, and read the glowing remarks from those who have somewhat of a vested interest in the player succeeding at the next level, but until Tuesday night, expectations surrounding Waiters were kept fairly low. Talks of question marks surrounding chemistry, the penchant for focusing on published mock drafts and instant grade-based analysis as a means to say that the Cavaliers “reached” with their selection.
Not helping his case was a sub-par showing in Las Vegas coupled with injuries rooted in poor conditioning; he was more Weighters than Waiters.
But in the end, it was the inner-city kid from South Philly who managed to start his NBA career off with a fast break dunk, capping off the evening with a clutch three-point field goal to put his team back up by one point in the fourth quarter just as his they had let a double-digit lead slip away. It was only one evening, but on this very one, he was squaring off against a player who many Cleveland fans coveted in Bradley Beal, the sharp-shooting guard out of Florida. But it was also on this night, while Waiters was acting as an integral part in a victory, that Beal not-so-sharply shot 2-for-8, failing to score through the entire second half.
The rub, however, exists in the next week or so of scheduled Cavalier contests. With the Wine and Gold hosting the Chicago Bulls before heading out west to face the Milwaukee Bucks, Los Angeles Clippers, Golden State Warriors, Phoenix Suns, Oklahoma City Thunder, and then back east to face the relocated Brooklyn Nets. This schedule will swap out, in terms of direct opposition, a rookie for a slew of established veterans — Monta Ellis, Jamal Crawford, Jared Dudley, Thabo Sefolosha and Joe Johnson — as well as an up-and-coming guard in Klay Thompson.
While Waiters undoubtedly plays the game of basketball with a chip on his shoulder, staring down the opposing bench following a crowd-raising second-half dunk during his first game as a professional, will that be enough to carry his game to the level of the aforementioned?
Prior to the trade consummated between the Oklahoma City Thunder and Houston Rockets, hopes around these parts were that Waiters could somehow mimic guard James Harden — in both career arc and impact — as a means to provide much-needed scoring relief from the wing. Harden’s rookie season was marred with ups and downs, leading to bench minutes and 9.9-point scoring average. Waiters exceeded expecations across the board in his debut, outshining the memories of Kyrie Irving’s debut a season ago, stifled by the Toronto Raptors, finding more iron than net.
There’s a decent liklihood that Waitiers will not average 17 points per game this season; the over/under placed upon his name by the Vegas minds was 12.5. (Basidc math states that, in a vacuum, Waiters should finish with eight points against the Bulls on Friday.) He will have his rookie roller coaster, and will undoubtedly face stiffer competition in the coming weeks. It will be at this point that the hapless critics and myopic cynics — who have to this point remained silent — will crawl out of the shadows to opine about how questionable Chris Grant’s “moves” are, lobbing names of who Cleveland should have taken with the fourth-overall picks1.
But by no stretch will this change the team’s faith in the player, or the player’s faith in himself, to play his game at a high level against NBA competition. When I asked him how important it was to get that first basket out of the way, Waiters let out a smile as even he didn’t anticipate his NBA ice-breaker being that easy. While tougher tests undoubtedly exist ahead, the successes had in his first game will only serve as tools for learning and future success. As he grows, the team will undoubtedly work him into their offense even more — the 28 game minutes may creep into the low 30s.
With Waiters, it will be a waiting game. But in the end, assuming he’s the player Grant and his scouts raved about for much of the last 12 months, it will be wholly worth it.
(Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
Don’t count out the chances of Tristan Thompson being grouped in here, especially now that Jonas Valanciunas is in the NBA [↩]