April 24, 2014

The Diff: Making sense of Dion Waiters’ present and future

The Diff is your weekly WFNY look into the amazing world of sports statistics. For a complete log of articles, click this link. Last week, I shared some stats after the Browns’ depressing loss to the Cincinnati Bengals. This week, I’m talking at length about Dion Waiters.

The Diff

Dion Waiters is the most polarizing player on the Cleveland Cavaliers. He supersedes the tweener rookie with a 2.3 PER, the former All-Star coping with his battered present state, the current All-Star perhaps struggling to lead the charge and all the other enigmatic players on this disappointing 4-10 squad. In just 17 short months since the 2012 draft, the soon-to-be 22-year-old Waiters continues to be a target of negative commentary. David Thorpe of ESPN and Scouts Inc. is the latest to do so.

Yesterday, Thorpe posted an article of his top 20 sophomores in the NBA (Insider). He wrote the rankings “based on where these guys are today, not where they were yesterday or where they will end up one day.” Included on the ranking were former Ohio State Buckeye Jared Sullinger (No. 4), 2011 draftee Jonas Valanciunas (No. 9) plus an odd assortment of improving youngsters and undrafted free agents. Unlisted were Cavs big man Tyler Zeller1 and the former No. 4 overall pick Waiters.

This is despite the fact that Waiters finished in the No. 6 spot in Thorpe’s end-of-season rookie rankings, noting that despite his inconsistent performance, “he did outperform most of the other rookies overall.” That seems like a precipitous drop, no? Well, it’s even more curious when Thorpe noted previous No. 9 and new No. 19 Moe Harkless of Orlando “probably experienced the biggest fall of the sophs since their rookie season.” How could that be when Waiters fell from No. 6 to unranked among the top 20?

If we all recall, this is not the first time that Waiters has come under fire in the NBA media. Back in August, ESPN Insider’s Bradford Doolitle excluded Waiters on his listing of the top 2013-14 shooting guards. There were 18 shooting guards mentioned, based on his advanced WARP ratings. And in February, there was the mini Cavs controversy surrounding CBS Sports’ Matt Moore’s comments on Waiters. Moore later cooled off on his Waiters talk as the Syracuse product heated up toward the end of last year.

David Thorpe is a highly respected veteran NBA writer. He’s a guy I read a lot, even with some of his SEO-optimized rankings just like this for the WWL. But this article yesterday just got me a bit too infuriated. It’s possible that Thorpe just forgot Waiters, in which case I’d gladly calm down and move on to other things. Yet not top 20 “based on current play” among a constantly ridiculed sophomore class? That deserves a long edition of The Diff, diving into Waiters’ criticized current merits and then, his long-term NBA potential

In analyzing Waiters’ current play, let’s start with his shooting. That’s certainly a good place to start. Avid Twitter followers of mine might recall that I sent out a Dion Waiters shooting ratio chart back in early June. That chart settled a debate about whether Waiters’ shot selection improved during his rookie season. Now, in typical form of The Diff, here’s a more refined and updated version of that old chart:

waiters shooting stats

My head was spinning for a while when I finally was able to get this chart in its final form. There are just so many directions in which you could spin this data. Of course, you’d want to consider the small sample size for the 2013-14 data. Given that, here’s my look at the data section-by-section:

– In the paint: This was a topic I ranted about at length in mid-December last year. At the time, Waiters was shooting 41.6% at the rim, per HoopData. That’s historically bad. That HoopData website is no longer active, so now transitioning to information exclusively and consistently from NBA.com/stats, we can see that Waiters is depressingly off to a less active and less efficient start in the paint than his treacherous beginning as a rookie. On average over the last two years, NBA guards have taken 39% of their shots inside the paint with a .509 efg. Waiters crept up from abysmal efficiency to average and above average by the end of last season. That coincided – it’s possible there’s some correlation here – with a higher frequency of shots in the paint. This year, he’s been even more abysmal efficiency-wise with even fewer such shots. This is a serious issue.

– Mid-range: The average NBA guard has a .395 efg from mid-range. Say what you want to say about Waiters’ mechanics or penchant for long twos, but he’s been just fine in this category. He had one lull in the middle of last season, but has usually been above that token average mark. This year, the issue is that his ratio of mid-range shots has spiked up to 38.3% of his field goal attempts. The average ratio for NBA guards is 28.0%. So while Waiters has been decent here efficiency-wise, there’s something to be said for cutting back on these shots, oft-regarded as the worst type in the game. (It’s likely that Waiters’ increased passion for mid-range shots has been a factor in the Cavs holding the league’s lowest expected points per shot number, as Hickory High’s Ian Levy wrote last week.)

– Threes: While the Philly native has been above average from mid-range, he was criticized heavily last year for his inefficient three-point shooting. The average NBA guard posts a .548 efg from deep; Waiters was way below that average point last year. This season, he’s crept up and over the average. How can that be? It’s tough to tell without multi-year apples-to-apples data from either Synergy Sports or the new SportVU tracking data. However, Waiters is shooting far better in still-limited corner three opportunities: 7/10 so far. That was something I beckoned for back in mid-October. He also has been quite efficient in still-limited catch-and-shoot attempts: .646 efg on 41 shots, mostly threes. Those both are key areas to watch for his long-term development.

– Overall: The average NBA guard has a .490 efg overall. You might recall my Twitter shooting chart about Kyrie Irving’s struggles from a few weeks back, where I characterized under .440 efg as among league-worst and above .520 efg as among league-best. After a terrible overall start to his career, Waiters nearly approached league-average shooting efficiency by the end of his rookie season. Considering his given shot selection, that’s actually quite impressive. Now, however, he’s back down way under average, although kept somewhat afloat by his improved long-distance shooting. But for a player averaging that many shot attempts – the average NBA guard has 13.0 FGA/36 – you’d certainly want much more efficiency in the long run.

Before the season started, fans will recall that Mike Brown emphasized that Dion Waiters would be used exclusively at the 2-guard position. That hasn’t exactly been the case thus far, despite the fact Waiters has played 98.2% of his minutes with Kyrie Irving and/or Jarrett Jack on the floor as well. Epitomizing the lack of ball movement and structure in the Cavs’ terrible early season offense, those three have often simply flip-flopped lead guard duties. That’s a serious issue that plagued the team’s offensive rhythm last year too under former coach Byron Scott.

That chart above however only represents Waiters’ inconsistent shooting numbers. To get the full picture of Waiters’ “current value”, as Thorpe critiqued, Cavs: The Blog’s Kevin Hetrick mentioned Waiters’ declining assists and increasing turnovers in a great post yesterday. In general, 2-guards aren’t often called upon to contribute that much in other categories outside of scoring. That’s why their all-encompassing statistics are often lower then point guards or forwards, since they’re not racking up box score-available stats like assists or rebounds. Waiters PER has dropped slightly from 13.7 to 12.5 this year, although that doesn’t necessarily tell the whole story. I’ve written before about concerns related to young guards with high usage rates. On the defensive side, he continues to rate below average, despite his obvious skill set and occasional all-out effort, just like his backcourt mate Irving.

Looking back to the topic at hand, the rankings from David Thorpe, we can add some context to Waiters’ current value. The surprising No. 4 Sullinger was regarded by Thorpe as the leader of the second tier of “guys who can start and be good players for their teams.” However, Sully’s efficiency marks are actually slightly down this year; the only difference is he’s getting far more opportunities and usage with the depleted Boston Celtics roster. There’s something to be said for maintaining efficiency with larger involvement, of course. But I think many analysts would put Waiters in that specific qualifier described above.

The position comparisons for Waiters at draft time were Thorpe’s No. 7 Bradley Beal of Washington2 and No. 12 Harrison Barnes of Golden State. Perhaps surprisingly, the Cavs’ sophomore compares favorably to both players in PER for their careers. The biggest factor is that Waiters plays such a drastically different role than either of those two or up-and-coming No. 16 Jeremy Lamb of Oklahoma City. Waiters is still creating the bulk of his offense (inefficiently so) and is not being used enough in uber-efficient catch-and-shoot or corner three opportunities.

And of course, that analysis still hasn’t gotten to the fact that Waiters has continued to be yanked around in the Cavs rotation. Undrafted free agent Matthew Dellavedova is the new starting 2-guard after C.J. Miles went down with a calf injury. Waiters played a season-high of 44 minutes in an overtime win against Philly about two weeks ago, but has logged less than 21 minutes three times. There’s no knowing the exact dynamics between him and coach Mike Brown and what might happen next with his role in the rotation. There’s no knowing precisely how the Cavs organization views Waiters’ current and potential value.

In the end, it’s nearly impossible to over-emphasize the fact that we’ve only seen 75 games and 2,088 regular season minutes from Dion Waiters, who is still only 21 years old. I’m shocked he’s not regarded by a well-established writer as among the top 20 sophomores in the NBA based on current play, as he’s still averaging 13 points in 28 minutes a night. When looking at the advanced math and efficiency numbers however, the future of Waiters’ success comes down to his role with the Cavaliers roster. Will he embrace and/or will the team put him in situations where he can be more efficient alongside Kyrie Irving for the long-term? That’s the most serious question to consider when preparing for the future.

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Footnotes:

  1. Zeller was drafted No. 17 overall, so instinctively you’d hope he’s on any top 20 ranking. But his present and future are both cloudy as he struggles to find minutes in this current Cavs rotation. There was an entertaining Twitter conversation about Zeller on Monday between CBS Sports’ Chris Towers and Fear The Sword’s Sam Vecenie. Zeller’s status could certainly warrant its own article, but today is all about his sophomore teammate. []
  2. I love Bradley Beal; don’t get me wrong. Rumors before the draft indicated that the Cavs were aggressively looking to move up to draft him or Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, who slots in at No. 15 for Thorpe and has had his own serious shooting woes. But it didn’t happen so that should hopefully put fans at ease when making this comparison. One of the more surprising sophomores, Detroit’s Andre Drummond who was ranked No. 2, appeared to never be a serious draft candidate for the Cavs either. []

  • nobody

    Overall, I think Dion Waiters will prove to be a teal at #4 in lastt year’s draft…he may (dare I say it) end up being better than Kyrie in the long run (especially if Kyrie continues to just drive and try and collect fouls in the fourth quarter without having a plan B).

  • 240

    There are obviously more ?s than answers about 2nd year players, but what do people think his ceiling is? I only ask this because there is only 1 aspect of professional sports I care about: winning the title (I know, tough to be a CLE fan). Anyway, let’s say his ceiling is Jason Terry, who has been a good player for a very long time. If his ceiling is Terry then the Cavs still need to find 2 players that are better than him to pair with Kyrie to make a championship roster. This is the issue I’m seeing with these Chris Grant drafts. We have what we hope is our superstar (which still really remains to be seen) and then what looks to me as 2 4th best players on a championship team (that’s their upside, TT and DW) and of course a 12th man in Anthony Bennett. This is what scares me the most…we are seemingly in the middle of this rebuild…and I’m scared that they should tear it all down already and restart.

  • OAKTIGER

    Kyrie is a soft injury waiting to happen over rated player

  • MoreGolfLessWork

    I can’t see Thorpe’s list, but my personal opinion on Waiters after watching him for a season and some change is not very high. He just doesn’t do the little things that help a team win. These things often don’t show up in stat sheets or efficiency charts. Too often, he either drives to the basket with no real plan, or he dribbles a couple times and takes a long step back 2. Not a great defender, not a great motor, not a great passer. I know that whole draft class is unimpressive, but looking at the whole picture, Waiters doesn’t make a very good case for himself.

  • Mongoose

    From a fan’s perspective, it seems there is something negative going on between Kyrie and Dion. Kyrie almost never passes to Dion when he goes around picks and breaks for the ball – and many time Dion is wide open. Is Kyrie’s ego so fragile that he would rather lose games than help Dion look good?