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NBA Rookie Watch: Dion Waiters Learning, Improving

Dion Waiters has had a rookie season with ups and downs, but the guard from Syracuse has put together an extended run of good play. Can he keep it up?


"It is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma; but perhaps there is a key." - Winston Churchill, 1939

Winston Churchill was speaking of Russia's intentions as the 2nd Great War began, but you could imagine the British Bulldog using the quote today to describe rookie Cavalier guard Dion Waiters (alright, maybe not, but I want to feel like my Russian degree has some meaningful bearing on my life). Waiters is supremely talented. I don't use that compliment lightly, either. His ball-handling ranges somewhere between very good and excellent, his court vision is fantastic, he has an explosive burst and low center of gravity that makes me think he could have been an all-world running back in the NFL, and I don't think there are more than a few defenders in the NBA who can stay in front of him off the dribble.

He also comes from a background that can't help but make me pull for him. Waiters was raised by a single mother who reportedly used tough love to keep him in line, and went to four different high schools. By the time he got to Syracuse, he has admitted to being a bit more arrogant than he should have been. After repeatedly clashing with legendary coach Jim Boeheim as a freshman, Waiters was left with three options: leave Syracuse for the NBA, where he might not have even been drafted (headcase scoring guards who average less than 7 points a game in college aren't at the top of a lot of general managers' wish lists), transferred and sat out a year, or stay and make an attitude adjustment. He stayed, developed a special bond with Boeheim, and put together a fantastic sophomore season for a good Syracuse team that made it to the elite eight.

On draft night, despite not having a workout or interview, Cavaliers General Manager Chris Grant spent the fourth overall pick on Waiters. Grant indicated that the Cavaliers had done more research on Waiters than perhaps any other player in his time in an NBA front office. Coach Byron Scott was an influence in the selection of Waiters. Now, I realize that for many (most) of the readers on this site, the history lesson on how Waiters' background and how he came to be a Cavalier is unnecessary. But I want to stress it because I cannot think of a player whose identity is so integral to the way they play the game of basketball. I don't mean it the way Michael Jordan's ridiculous competitive drive supposedly made him the greatest player ever. You can see Waiters' personality, faults and attributes, on display at virtually any point of any Cavaliers game.

I talk with Conrad about basketball quite a bit. A couple months ago, Waiters came up, and I wondered where Waiters would rank himself overall as an NBA player. My hypothesis was, and is, that if you could somehow give him Veritaserum he would tell you that he is a top 30 player in the league. Right now. And you probably wouldn't even need the Veritaserum to get him to say he sees himself as a top 10 player in a few years. Bravado is not something lacking in the NBA, and I realize this. Monta Ellis thinks he is Dwyane Wade, and Mario Chalmers thinks he elite. But with Dion, it isn't bravado. He doesn't pump himself up. He works, by all accounts, ridiculously hard on his game. He knows he has all the athleticism in the world. When he takes step-back fade-away 20 footers there isn't a doubt in his mind that the shot isn't going to go in. He plays ornery. He dunks so, so hard. When Kyrie has the ball, late in games and its clear the ball probably isn't going to make it over to him on the wing, he noticeably sulks. He has learned the lesson, from his mother and Boeheim, that listening to the person in charge is a good thing, and it appears that his bond with Coach Scott, also a former shooting guard, is tight. But you know he chafes at the tough love Scott shows him; until now, at least, he ultimately has taken the medicine.

Throughout his life, the theme of initial confidence before adversity before acceptance before success has been a rule, and his rookie season hasn't been an exception. He was out of shape for Summer League, he retweeted countless people who were convinced he would be Rookie of the Year, and he had a fantastic opening game against the Wizards and Bradley Beal, a shooting guard taken ahead of him. He took a lot of three pointers and bad mid-range jumpers and was shooting well under 40% from the field for a long part of the season. He led the league in frustrating plays while also doing just enough to make you say "Man, if this guy ever gets it ...".

While he has not been a perfect player, even recently, you can't help but notice that he is improving, and perhaps very rapidly. If there was one thing Cavs fans thought they were getting with Waiters, it was a guy who could get to the rim and finish. Early on, we saw him get to the rim, but it didn't lead to success. He was missing, he was shying away from contact, and then complaining about not getting the calls. In his first 16 games, his field goal percentage was under 43% at the rim, which is in Austin Rivers territory. This was bound to get better, and it has. In January, it was over 65%, and in February it is over 73%. It isn't a given this is going to keep up, and in fact this level of success at the rim is probably not likely. But he is getting to the free throw line more, and he is finishing better as he acclimates to the speed of the league.

It isn't just at the rim where he is seeing improvement. For the season, his true shooting percentage is just over 48%. Over his last 21 games, though, that percentage is at 53.5%. His three point shooting percentage is down, but he is taking less of them. Per 36 minutes, he is averaging over 19 points per game, and 4 assists. He rarely turns it over, and his decision making with the ball, especially in the pick and roll, is actually pretty impressive for a rookie. His Player Efficiency Rating, which has hovered in the 11-12 range for much of the year, has climbed to 13.39, and if he can maintain something close to his efforts since January 1, finishing above 14 seems like a real possibility. As a team, the Cavaliers are playing pretty well offensively and Waiters is a part of that story. He has started to get some love from national media members as well. David Thorpe of ESPN had Waiters rated as the 16th best rookie at one point this season, but he is currently up to 5 on the list.

He has a long ways to go. His defense is best not mentioned. He works hard a lot of the time, but he has no idea where he is supposed to be at any given time. He is a rookie, played in a zone at Syracuse, and doesn't understand how to play defense when the man he guards doesn't have the ball. This is okay. With his athleticism and solid length, he has the upside to be an above-average defender on guards in the league. It doesn't have to be now. There are times when Wayne Ellington plays at the end of games over Waiters, and Scott mainly points to defense as being the reason he is out there. Waiters' time will come. As Kyrie Irving and Waiters get better at playing off the ball, they should be able to get each other open threes, and despite his cold shooting from distance recently, he is a pretty good spot-up shooter. Dion's off-ball cutting should also improve with time. There are a lot of reasons to be excited about the young Cavaliers. Dion Waiters is one of them.