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?
Offense 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.
Long 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)