Dion Waiters' journey from sixth man supreme at Syracuse to fourth pick in the 2012 NBA Draft was nothing if not surprising. Waiters burst onto the scene as a lottery prospect during an explosive sophomore season with the Orange, and landed in the lap of the Cleveland Cavaliers after pulling out of the pre-draft combine in Chicago and canceling most of his private workouts with teams.
None of which included Cleveland.
It was something of a shock, then, when the Cavs called his name on draft night, though not because of fit. Cleveland can use a playmaker and scorer at shooting guard to accompany Rookie of the Year and budding All-Star Kyrie Irving, and may have found just that in Waiters.
The concern, rather, is that the Cavs may have reached a bit too far to pick Waiters—a purported Dwyane Wade/Monta Ellis play-alike—when supposed "surer things" like Thomas Robinson and Harrison Barnes were still on the board.
In essence, the Cavs put their money behind an occasionally out-of-shape off-guard with bulldog-like skills on the court who couldn't carve out a regular spot in a starting lineup in college. But will their gamble pay off? And if so, how?
How Waiters Fits In
In Waiters, the Cavs have a player who, if he lives up to his billing, will be a dangerous addition on the wing. He's a strong kid who's somewhat undersized at shooting guard but is quick with the dribble and fearless when attacking the basket. According to Mike Schmitz of DraftExpress, Waiters took 25.8 percent of his shots at the rim, converting just over half (51.5 percent) of them.
He's a solid shooter as well, be it on spot-ups (1.01 points per possession) or off the dribble (0.82 PPP). Waiters' stroke will come in handy on a Cavs squad that isn't exactly replete with sharpshooting.
Not that Waiters is at all a specialist, but rather that he's capable of knocking down jumpers off dishes and kick-outs of the sort that Irving is bound to dole out.
Where Waiters may be most valuable as a rookie, though, is in transition. Cleveland ranked just 25th in the NBA in fast-break points per game and 24th in fast-break efficiency last season, per Team Rankings.
This, while Waiters was converting 68.7 percent of chances in transition, which constituted 26.7 percent of his offensive plays (again, per Mike Schmitz).
Those skills should suit Waiters well as he seeks to establish himself as Irving's primary backcourt running mate. Cavs coach Byron Scott knows a thing or two about getting out on the break (see: Showtime Lakers, Jason Kidd-era Nets, Chris Paul-era Hornets) and will certainly encourage Cleveland to do as much, now that Irving has young guns like Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Tyler Zeller with whom to push the pace.
Waiters is capable of sparking the break on the other end, as well. His quick hands and sharp defensive instincts led to many a steal and subsequent transition basket during his time under Jim Boeheim in upstate New York. The Cavs could use someone on the perimeter who can pressure the ball and force turnovers like Waiters can, after finishing in the bottom third in the NBA in just about every statistical category pertaining to steals and turnovers forced last season.
At this point, the biggest question for Waiters is whether he will start. The Cavs are thin at shooting guard, with only former slumping sixth man Daniel "Boobie" Gibson competing for minutes at that position. Considering the high pick spent on Waiters, it wouldn't be unreasonable to suggest that the rookie may well wind up in Byron Scott's starting five.
Ideally, though, Waiters would be better suited to start his NBA career as a reserve. He thrived in that role at Syracuse, as it allowed him to change the complexion of any game with his energy and aggression. Tethering Waiters to the bench would also enable him to adjust to the pro game more steadily, much as Ricky Rubio did with the Minnesota Timberwolves last season.
Adjustments Waiters Must Make at the Pro Level
There's much to which Waiters must acclimate himself, particularly from a skills perspective, if he's to fulfill his considerable promise in the NBA.
For one, as greatly as Waiters improved defensively between his freshman and sophomore seasons, and as threatening a thief as he was in college, his experience came as but a cog in Jim Boehim's vaunted two-three zone defense.
A defense, by the way, that wouldn't pass muster amid NBA rules.
Waiters will have to adjust to playing man-to-man defense on the perimeter more often than not. He possesses the requisite physical skills (i.e. strength, quickness, agility) to be a lockdown-type guy at the 2, but must first be reminded how to defend an opposing player rather than just a space on the floor.
Waiters could also stand to improve as a playmaker and creator for his teammates. He's terrific at breaking down defenses and opening up the floor for others by drawing attention but currently lacks the kind of court vision to run an offense consistently or efficiently.
Then again, that won't matter much as long as he has an up-and-coming floor general like Kyrie Irving by his side.
What Waiters will have to work on, though, is his shot selection. He had a habit of hoisting ill-advised shots at inopportune times at Syracuse, be they contested, too early in the shot clock or both. Waiters' penchant for streak shooting also led to more than a few facepalm-worthy "heat checks," which resulted in wild shots and easy outlets for the opposition thereafter.
These particular deficiencies were on display during the Las Vegas Summer League, wherein Waiters hit just 30 percent of his shots from the field and averaged nearly as many turnovers (2.3) as he did assists (three).
A bit of discipline, then, would do wonders for Waiters at the pro level. So, too, might a quicker release on his jump shot and a tightening of his ball-handling.
Dion Waiters' greatest asset—his superb sense of self-confidence—may also be his eventual downfall. Waiters' aforementioned hoisting of bad shots stems from that same sense of belief that he's the best player on the floor and, as such, is better-suited than anyone else to put his team in position to succeed.
That might've been true at Syracuse, but won't be the case in Cleveland, where he'll be stuck behind Kyrie Irving in the talent pecking order.
Speaking of talent, how is it that a kid as gifted as Waiters never started regularly for a college program that failed to crack the Final Four of the NCAA Tournament while he was there? Was Jim Boeheim simply more comfortable bringing arguably his best player off the bench or was there something else going on that kept Waiters out of the starting five?
According to Rob Dauster of College Basketball Talk, Waiters nearly left Syracuse after his freshman season amid unhappiness stemming from his role as a reserve with the Orange. Waiters allowed his discontent to poison his approach, his conditioning and his play, all of which landed him in Boeheim's doghouse thereafter.
Much to Waiters' credit, he righted the ship considerably as a sophomore, learning to subvert his own egotistical and statistical desires for the good of the team. So long as Waiters is able to measure his ego and maintain a strong work ethic amid a starting role in the NBA, he'll be a credit to the Cavs organization and a boon to its future on the floor.
Rookie Year Projections
Dion Waiters' success (or failure) as a rookie in Cleveland will depend largely on the role into which he's cast. If he starts consistently and shoots proficiently, he may well rank among the league's highest-scoring debutantes, with 15-to-18 points per game, along with, say, four rebounds and two assists.
But if Waiters comes off the bench (as he did in college), he's likely to put up closer to 10 points per game, if that.
Bovada.lv currently has Waiters' Rookie of the Year-odds listed at 15-to-1, placing him seventh behind Anthony Davis, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Bradley Beal, Harrison Barnes, Jonas Valanciunas and Thomas Robinson.
Waiters' odds will improve if he starts, puts up strong numbers and contributes positively to a potential playoff push by the Cavs. ESPN has Cleveland pegged for 33 wins and 10th place in the East. However, a healthy season by Irving and a surprising one by Waiters could brighten the ever-gloomy sports landscape in Cleveland.
If there's any incoming rookie whose resume would portend such a surprise, it's Waiters. He was the swami of "shock-and-awe" at Syracuse, and few (if any) expected him to go as high as fourth in the June draft.
What better way to tip off Waiters' NBA career than with yet another unforeseen success all around?