Has Dion Waiters (finally) arrived?

Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Photo by David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

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After a season rife with rumors of trades and fistfights, is this—finally—Dion Waiters’ coming out party?

Dion Waiters stood outside of his locker, squinted his eyes and shook his head as a half-smile-half-grimace formed on his face. It was early January, just days after the calendar turned to 2014. The Cleveland Cavaliers had just lost a heartbreaker to the Indiana Pacers, contenders for the NBA title, and he came pretty damn close to pulling off a miracle that would have propelled his name even further up the ranks in the minds of Cavalier fans. The Cavs were playing in their third game without All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving who had fallen victim to a bruised knee. In Irving’s absence, Cavs head coach Mike Brown opted to go with Matthew Dellavedova at point guard, an undrafted rookie out of St. Mary’s who had grown a bit of a cult following due to his never-ending hustle, rather than Waiters, who was drafted fourth-overall just a year earlier. Down 16 points in the fourth quarter, however, Cavaliers head coach Mike Brown reached to his bench, placing Waiters in the rotation as the primary ball handler. Waiters, who had mysteriously been given very little in the way of playing time to this point, took immediate advantage, rattling off 12 straight points—a barrage of jumpshots between 17 and 26 feet, all different locations on the floor, all finding the bottom of the net. Once the Pacers defense started to converged, the second-year guard from Syracuse turned into a distributor, a facilitator, finding Varejao for two roof-raising assists.

Days earlier, needing overtime to pull out a win against the Orlando Magic, it was Waiters who drove to his left with the clock running down, sinking a lay-up that would eventually send the Cavaliers into extra frames. Down two points with 20 seconds to go against the Pacers, Waiters once again took an inbound pass at the top of the key. The 6-foot-3-inch guard was being guarded by a 6-foot-9-inch small forward in Paul George, one of the best defenders in the league. Waiters made quick work of George, blowing by him on a drive to his right side. The catch: The Pacers center, a 7-foot tall Roy Hibbert, was playing weak-side defense and turned into a brick wall, forcing Waiters to take a tough shot that would ultimately not fall1.

“Paul George is a good defender, but I knew I could get by him,” Waiters would say. “It was that next guy you had to worry about. If I could do it differently, I would, but I was just trying to be aggressive at that moment and put the pressure on the refs to make a call.”

This is the same Paul George who, in a feature for ESPN The Magazine, was recently dubbed one of the game’s top players even in the event that he would never score a single, solitary point; the same George who has transcended himself to being the 1A among small forwards, behind only the reigning MVP in LeBron James. When asked by WFNY about going to his left, a voice came shooting over the horde of media members who were swirling about. It was fellow swingman CJ Miles who prodded his teammate—”Everyone knows you wanted to go left,” he said, drawing a laugh from anyone within earshot. All it takes is a quick Google Image search of “Dion Waiters driving” to find dozens of images of Waiters, full steam ahead, with the basketball in his left hand. The left wasn’t there.

Brown, hardly one to hand out compliments in what had been a season of disappointment, was willing to budge a little on this very night, categorizing any one-on-one matchup between his shooting guard as favorable. “He’s a talented guy offensively,” said Brown. “He knows it. Everybody knows it.”

See what he did there?

*****

QUOTEOffense has never been an issue for Dion Waiters. Drafted fourth overall in 2012, he arrived on the NBA scene with a chip on his shoulder and a try-and-stop-me attitude that would allow him to get to the rim with ease. Just 24 hours after Waiters’ arrival to Cleveland, then head coach Byron Scott was lacing him with praise, saying that he felt the sixth man out of Syracuse was the second-best player in the draft2. Scott salivated while daydreaming of a young and spry backcourt duo with the on-ball skills of Irving and Waiters pick-and-rolling teams into oblivion. As Waiters will attest, however, getting to the rack at the NBA level would merely serve to be half of the battle—finishing upon arrival is the tougher of the tasks, one which would produce historically terrible numbers. Not given much in the way of a superstar treatment, Waiters often finds himself frustrated with the lack of whistles blown in his favor. This, at times, has led to poor defense and even worse body language, reportedly drawing the ire of a few teammates who were tired of watching teams score while their shooting guard is back on the other side of the floor seeking an explanation from an official. It was Dion Waiters whose face was plastered on the poster of shame following the Cavs’ embarrassing loss to the Sacramento Kings earlier in the year—his pouting was hitting a crescendo; his team was careening toward chaos.

Amidst a roller coaster of a season, fewer players wearing wine and gold on a nightly basis have experienced the twists and turns that have been associated to Dion Waiters. Less than one month into the season and it was Waiters’ name penned into the heart of stories rooted in team dysfunction—some going as far as speculation surrounding a fist fight, aided by Irving showing up with a black eye3 Trade rumors swirled, looming large like black clouds over the ebbs and flows of each passing day, but were consistently shot down like clay pigeons with both the team and the player toting verbal shotguns—”It’s nonsense,” said Waiters of a rumored meeting between he and then GM Chris Grant. “Man, I ain’t sitting in no office for three hours.” As the season wore on, when posed a question specifically regarding Waiters, Brown has gone as far as he has to to admit pleasure in his player’s offensive skill set, but consistently stops short of delivering full-blown praise—enough to keep other teams interested in the event that they had yearned to acquire the shooting guard via trade, but not enough to make the player feel as if he was meeting all expectations during what was just his sophomore season.

*****

There is something inherently compelling about Dion Waiters. From the day he stepped foot into Cleveland, he has been the player who is adored by most fans while being simultaneously shunned by those not looking through a lakefront prism. He arrived here having not been interviewed or taken part in a pre-draft workout. He showed up overweight and was shut down mid-way through his first run at an NBA Summer League. He was, after all, a sixth man.

Waiters’ decision-making has long been criticized, often predicated upon shot selection, shot form, and a lack of anything that could be classified as “hustle.” At the same time, over the course of the last two years, when selecting a topic for the annual CavsZine, this very author has made Waiters his subject of choice4. Maybe it’s the mystery. Maybe it’s the way he’s the first person to rush over and defend a pesky teammate or an irate coach. Maybe it’s the unfair (and oftentimes inaccurate) notions cast upon the man who lives inside of said mystery. To be fair, it is easy to be the subject of criticism when you tell the world that you believe you can be the best shooting guard in the entire world and subsequently put up a win-share total that is lower than your team’s reserve center.

“This year, I’m going to show a lot of people who doubted me and still doubt me,” Waiters said back in September. “I’m going to show them. I don’t need praise and all of that. I just want to be respected. I’m coming. That’s all I have to say. I’ve taken my work ethic to another level and I feel as though I still have something to prove. So, watch out.”

Then again, it could be that same (somewhat inflated) sense of self that makes Dion Waiters. Despite all of the struggles that the 2013-14 season has thrown his way, he’s still that same kid out of inner-city Philly who stepped into Cleveland Clinic Courts and stared wide-eyed like it was the Land of Oz; he’s the kid with “BLESSED” scrawled across his shoulders; he’s still as confident as ever. When recently asked about his mindset between being a member of the starting five or providing relief off of the bench, Waiters didn’t skip a beat. “It’s all the same: Go in there and kill somebody.”

*****

The Cavaliers are heading toward the finish line once again. For all of the hope and expectations that came with last year’s draft, some free agency additions and internal growth, a lottery pick awaits. Kyrie Irving just celebrated his 22nd birthday while wearing street clothes. Dion Waiters has had his own celebration, scoring nearly 24 points per game in the All-Star point guard’s absence.

QuoteLong having provided off-the-ball relief, leading the NBA in scoring off of the bench, Waiters has taken on a different persona as of late, doing so against the best the NBA has to offer. Against the Miami Heat earlier this month, Waiters’ ball skills were on display as he recorded his first double-double. He would thank his teammates for hitting their shots after he found them, whether it was for an easy two or a clutch three. Two nights later, he tied a career high with 30 points against the Oklahoma City Thunder, being a part of a 21-2 run that rivaled the comeback attemp made against the Pacers back in early January. His driving lay-up pulled his team within five; as things began to slip away, he would drain a three-pointer to give the Cavs one final chance. Against the Houston Rockets, Waiters once again paced the Cavaliers with 26 points, adding eight more assists for good measure. One night later, on the second night of a back-to-back, he provided 22 more points as the wine and gold ended the New York Knicks’ eight-game winning streak. It would be Jarrett Jack in the spotlight, leading the team in scoring and assists (31 and 10, respectively), but it would be Waiters who not only kept double-teams away from his backcourt mate, but hit a clutch three-pointer to put his team up by four late in the fourth quarter, having entered it down by nine.

By now, you’ve heard the story. Following the loss to the Thunder, a game that not only left many feeling good, but showed that his team was still fighting despite the point in the season and the opponent, it was Dion Waiters, having just scored 30 points, who was sitting in Mike Brown’s office, in a towel having not yet gotten dressed, waiting for his coach to finish his post-game address of the media. You see, despite the 30 points that he had just scored, Waiters felt that he did not do all that he could have done—in the rebounding and hustle department, specifically—and wanted to apologize. Why? Because “that’s what men do,” he would later say.

“At the end of the day you have to look in the mirror at yourself,” said Waiters. “If you feel as though you didn’t rebound and you were part of the problem, why not admit it? It’s easy to point the finger, but you have to look in the mirror and see what you can do better. Where I come from, we just tell it how it is. We don’t point the finger at someone else.”

Brown said that Waiters is trying to take some “initiative in the process.” His teammates, the same ones who were fed up with his antics during the winter-month drubbings, are also taking notice. Small forward Luol Deng said Waiters is “playing great right now.” Jack, the man who inhabits the locker next to Waiters when the two find themselves within the confines of The Q, has also seen marked improvement, but not just in the young guard’s play. Jack assured Waiters that the only reason people are hard on him is because of his ability and the expectations that come with being one of the best athletes in the world. He’s challenged Waiters to not only bring it on the court, but off of it as well.

“I think he’s done a hell of a job these last few games with Ky being out, stepping up making plays,” said Jack. “He’s still a work in progress, but I think he’s doing a hell of a job. Leaps and bounds from where we were at the beginning of the season—decision making, being more assertive, talkative, being more receptive to criticism but him also being able to lead others as well.”

Right now. A work in progress. Sure, all signs for Waiters are currently pointing up, but just like their head coach, his veteran teammates know that with life comes with qualifiers, with praise comes the notion that things are far from over. No matter where you are, no matter how far you’ve come, the rug can be pulled out from under your feet at any time—it comes down to how quick you can adapt to the altered landscape. For Waiters, to this point, his NBA career has been stocked full of almosts and what-could-have-beens. Fortunately for him, he’s just 22 years old and has shown that he finally knows what everyone else has for the last two years— just because you want to go to your left doesn’t mean the defense is going to give it to you.

(Image: Michael Ivins-US PRESSWIRE)

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Footnotes:

  1. This game, to many fans, will also be known as the “Earl Clark game,” as it was the since-traded forward who put a dagger in any comeback attempt, stepping out of bounds during a subsequent in-bound play, literally one second after checking in to the game. []
  2. Behind surefire star forward Anthony Davis. []
  3. This was later determined to be caused by a wayward elbow from Minnesota Timberwolves guard Corey Brewer. []
  4. “There is an obvious correlation in that the arrival of the Big Guy has turned Waiters into the man he is today. The media reports all say how much more comfortable he is, for it was just a year ago when the rookie would answer questions with two or three words, often providing little in the way of eye contact. Today, the chip on Waiters’ shoulder is still present, but it’s festooned with a burp cloth; his baritone voice remains, but it’s countered by high-pitch baby talk; his skeptical squint and scowl still headline his facial expressions, but are now frequently interrupted by the wide-eyed smile that comes with hoisting 10 pounds of pure joy over his shoulder.” — An excerpt from “Dion Waiters 2.0″ as published in CavsZine4 []
  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He has nothing to lose…Irving is out someone needed to step up…I can’t label what Waiters is doing as special. I refuse to fall into this trap because it sets you up for a rude awakening next season. Much like what Tristan Thompson has done to me. I ripped him then he made me a believe last season and now he’s regressed back to the kind of player who teases me into thinking he’s more then what he really is and that’s a soft, light in the britches, one dimensional player. It’s also why I am in full favor of this team being dismantled this summer starting with the head coach. But I know Brown being fired has a very low chance of happening which means I hope that Gilbert can find a GM with past success who can somehow remake this team. And yes it starts with Kyrie Irving. I just don’t know if this is a positive or negative.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    He has nothing to lose…Irving is out someone needed to step up…I can’t label what Waiters is doing as special. I refuse to fall into this trap because it sets you up for a rude awakening next season. Much like what Tristan Thompson has done to me. I ripped him then he made me a believe last season and now he’s regressed back to the kind of player who teases me into thinking he’s more then what he really is and that’s a soft, light in the britches, one dimensional player. It’s also why I am in full favor of this team being dismantled this summer starting with the head coach. But I know Brown being fired has a very low chance of happening which means I hope that Gilbert can find a GM with past success who can somehow remake this team. And yes it starts with Kyrie Irving. I just don’t know if this is a positive or negative.

  • Harv 21

    I like Dion a lot, mostly because his swagger is a prerequisite for putting his imprint on NBA games. But there are a few problems before we can say he’s turned a corner:

    – He has a prob with authority every place he’s gone. Is he accepting Mike Brown’s vision now? We’ll see.

    – Jim Boeheim only teaches zone defense as of the last 4-5 years. Dion came in last year with no knowledge of and apparently little desire to play the NBA’s man-to-man defense.

    – His monster games aren’t coming while playing next to the org’s Batman. I’m now of the opinion that it’s over, Grant blew the rebuild. There’s Kyrie, a talented but sullen and redundant guy in Dion, and pieces parts. Even if they let the young guys grow together they can’t even be a regular 6th or 7th playoff seed if Dion and Kyrie can’t at least agree to tailor their games to each other, to see the team picture. It’s actually kind of funny that of Kyrie, Dion and Jack, often sullen Dion seems to be the least selfish and best passer of the three, the guy whose field of vision widens when the pressure is on.

  • mgbode

    Grant blew the rebuild for a few reasons:

    (1) He got fired. If it takes so long that you don’t keep your job, then you don’t really care as much if it eventually takes hold.

    (2) He seemed to focus on pure analytics of who the best pick might be rather than think about it in the team concept as well. We needed a center and a shooter and kept trying to force that issue outside the draft.

    (3) Redundant parts. It’s great to have 3 guys like Kyrie/Jack/Dion if you have an offensive system in mind when you acquire them that will involve them handling the ball and driving and shooting and the defense not always knowing who will do each (see Spurs w/ Parker & Ginobli). It doesn’t work so much when you just PnR on one side spot-shoot on the other.

    (4) The team is so freaking young. The rebuild can still work moving forward, but the team is still so young. Waiters and Thompson were born in ’91. Irving in ’92. Bennett in ’93. Those guys are supposed to be the corps of the team competing and that makes it incredibly difficult when you need to go up against men in their late 20s at their physical peak. I still believe that if you add a true center to this team and keep a good SF (I assume we will need to replace Deng), then we can still make this a good team. But, that means we still need 2 key pieces.

  • BenRM

    I don’t know if guys like Dion or Bennett are ever going to get the benefit of the doubt that Barnes or Oladipo will because, “they weren’t supposed to be drafted that high.”

    When a player is drafted higher than Bill Simmons or Mike Mayock think they should be, fans look at the player and think, “prove to me you were worth this pick. Bill Simmons didn’t think so! Do it right now or I’ll hate you. You should have been Harrison Barnes!”

    When a player is “drafted where they are supposed to be” fans already assume they were worth the pick. Since they don’t feel “cheated,” the fan is willing to put up with the growing pains. “Overdrafted-player” doesn’t get this luxury.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Bennett sealed Grant’s fate he kinda got lucky with Thompson then Waiters but Bennett was his third strike. And a terrible third strike for being the #1 overall selection.

    I don’t remember Simmons, who I detest, wanting Barnes but he sure wanted Oladipo. I still would have preferred Barnes to Waiters but I wasn’t a Barnes fan either, not by a mile. That was an unfortunate circumstance where the Cavaliers ended up just missing out on the guy I wanted: Bradley Beal.

    I wasn’t an Oladipo slurper because of Irving and Waiters. I didn’t even think of Bennett when I looked at prospective draftees. I really wish Grant hadn’t as well.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    They’d need a prototypical center in order to make the core of Irving/Waiters/Thompson/Bennett have a chance to work. And/or a legitimate create his own shot offensive threat at SF. Personally I don’t see this core working which is why I’m leaning towards possibly moving both Waiters and Thompson. That depends on a lot of things though and is just my gut feeling right now. I am in no way locked in as it being a must.

  • Lunch

    Question is, was there any player from this years draft that would have saved Grant’s job?

  • mgbode

    I don’t think we would get much for Tristan and I think it’s too early to move Dion.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    I’m afraid you are right on Tristan I mean if you could get something that means he’s doing better so why move him at all. I’m just disappointed in myself that he fooled me into having a higher opinion of him.

    As for Waiters I just don’t know if he fits with Irving. And I don’t know if those two can learn/grow under the coaching of Mike Brown. Which is why I said initially tear it apart.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Awesome question I think the only guy who can answer that is Dan Gilbert and if he could I’m sure he’d say all kinds of other things led to his decision to fire Grant. It wasn’t the drafting of Bennett, solely if at all, that sealed the deal.

  • mgbode

    I think that someone needs to go down and slap Mike Brown across the face. Not literally, but in a way of getting him to hand over the offense to someone else. I don’t get why he refuses to give up that role other than pride.

  • mgbode

    I think that someone needs to go down and slap Mike Brown across the face. Not literally, but in a way of getting him to hand over the offense to someone else. I don’t get why he refuses to give up that role other than pride.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    You probably know their offensive ranks but if I were to guess they have to be at the bottom in virtually every one. I thought Brown’s offense frankly sucked the last time he was here but after watching the Cavaliers this year I think it’s even worse. Either that or Brown and his players are unable to do more then one thing at a time. Like understanding that even if you play smothering lock down defense that in order to win you must be able to score. I understand they needed to improve defensively but not at the cost of your offense. They went from one extreme to another. To me this is a sign of inadequate coaching.

  • BenRM

    Giannis or Olynyk maybe?

  • BenRM

    Agreed. Im wearing wine and gold glasses, but I still think Dion can be an all-star guard. He is just so talented off the dribble.

  • mgbode

    the telling line was when Hawes came over here and asked if there was more to the offense than the scouting report from Philly and it was basically, naw that’s what we do.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    LoL hadn’t heard that one but isn’t it amazing how well Hawes fit in it’s like Z never retired.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    If he can develop (I haven’t used that before when discussing a Cavaliers player) any sort of jump shot he could very dynamic. It’s part of the reason I won’t give up on him and why mgbode is correct when he says to do so would be to early.

  • Lunch

    Too early to tell. We’ll just have to wait and see. Plus, how well would they had performed under Mike Brown’s system?

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    Mike Brown is anti-rookie so they’d have struggled most assuredly.

  • mgbode

    not only that but there are signs of real improvement. he is shooting better from the outside. He is still horrible within the 10 feet, but he has cut back on the 3-10 footers significantly this season (as he’s inefficient with it). he still needs to finish better at the rim.

    I have no idea why his FTs have dropped off this year though. That is one of the concerning items to me (is he not working hard enough on them?).

  • Jason Hurley

    Another reason why hiring him again with such a young team was a *great* idea.

  • Harv 21

    Jerry West recently made an interesting statement (I’m paraphrasing): People way overrate the draft. Teams that think that they can get immediate help from these young players are kidding themselves.

    The vast majority of the first rounders just don’t appear ready to immediately compete against the grown men in the NBA, strenth or skill-wise. Maybe the next great advantage will go to teams that can really coach and identify the coachable, as opposed to the tanking teams that pray they end up with the occasional transcendent talent like LeBron. Was watching Jabari Parker in the tournament and thinking: surely he can play in the NBA next year, but another year under Coach K at Duke and he would come out and dominate. I really wonder what Kyrie’s game would look like had he actually stayed there another year and played at least the better part of a season.

  • mgbode

    the Wichita State v. Kentucky game really show-cased Early. He has such a NBA ready game that you wonder how he ended up with the Shockers. But, he’s as old as Tristan Thompson & Dion Waiters. Think how much they would be dominating college basketball (at least theoretically) had they stayed.

  • The_Real_Shamrock

    The fact that they didn’t even bother to interview anyone else makes it that much worse. The anti-Browns.

  • http://waitingfornextyear.com/ Scott @ WFNY

    Bonus points for the HTML

  • Jeffrey Brown

    Am I crazy for thinking I would rather trade Kyrie and keep Dion? I would blow up the team right now and fire Mike Brown. Get what you can for Tristan, Kryie should give you a high lottery pick right? And let Deng walk, send Andy a gift basket and a thank you for the memories, and start over.

  • Lunch

    If James and Wade can play well together under coach Spoelstra, then so can Irving and Waiters under coach Brown.

  • Lunch

    Your statement sums up why I look at mock drafts with a grain of salt. Sure they give you an idea of the highest ranked players coming out of college, and which teams should draft them, but when the fans EXPECT said players to be drafted in a particular order, that’s when they become laughable.

  • BenRM

    His shot is getting better. Fearthesword has a lot of graphs to show this. I don’t know if it’s a blip on the radar or indicative of a bigger trend. But you can’t complain about it too much right now.

    Finishing at the rim is still a big concern though.

  • BenRM

    Probably. :)

  • Harv 21

    Early was something else. Haven’t started reading NBA scouting reports but that kid …

  • mgbode

    effortless shot and movements.

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7eYVPMVDC6k

  • Harv 21

    can’t wait to see the draftexpress rundown. What I see is beautiful, confident footwork and release on the jumper and a guy who really knows how to use those long arms to full advantage going to the hole. Obviously, he’s also been the beneficiary of some fine play by his PG.

  • mgbode

    definitely. and he doesn’t waste movements. that is the absolute biggest thing to me. every movement seems to have a purpose (where alot of these guys are all helter skelter out there)

  • Dave

    Offensive ranking overall: 22nd. Defensive ranking overall: 16th. That’s not good, but it’s a significant improvement over the 30th-30th we were at a couple of seasons ago.

    Also, I wouldn’t be surprised if there was a big jump after Grant was fired.

  • oh_well

    if you watch closely his switch to his right hand has had some impact on his footwork in his faceup (his triple threat has switched to his right side), drives and finishing (finishing more with his right). His substantial increase in FT% + his high foul rate does give me a great deal of hope for the future. Although his jumper his still poor, at least he has shown some semblance of it – whether it can be reliable is another question, but at least that is a sign of progress.

    I too am dissapointed in TT – I wanted 13-15 and 10 out of him this season. But considering the circumstances of having to play in a new offense + no space in the paint with bynum initially + turmoil I am still optimistic for him

  • Horace

    Pre-draft, Bennett was deemed overrated by almost every meaningful analytic draft projection: Kevin Pelton, Hoops Analyst, Wages of Wins, shutupandjam.net, etc. Most of these rankings had the top 4 (in no particular order) as Noel, Michael Carter Williams, Oladipo and Porter. On top of that, Bennett had well known problems with injuries, conditioning, height, defensive issues, etc.

    Up to 30 minutes before the draft, Bennett and his agents were preparing for him to fall out of the top 10. The selection was indefensible at the time, and somehow looks even worse right now.