Should Dion Waiters' Rookie Struggles Concern Cleveland Cavaliers Fans?
For sure, a 9-31 start to the season isn't what anyone wanted and certainly not what I expected. A lot of that is obviously due to the numerous injuries to key players, as well as serious depth issues with the bench.
I've heard a lot of people bemoan how Waiters has played this season, and I decided to take a closer look into how his performance as a rookie stacks up against his fellow rookies at his position, as well as past shooting guards taken around the No. 4 pick in previous drafts.
(Warning: I will be using a lot of advanced stats, not just points, rebounds, assists, etc. If that isn't your cup of tea, then you should still read. You just might learn something.)
Waiters, playing 30 minutes per game, is currently averaging 14.3 points, 2.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game. Those raw numbers are pretty good for a rookie. The downside is his shooting percentage: 37.4 field goal (FG%), 31.6 on threes (3PT%) and 78.2 on free throws (FT%).
He's doing fine on free throws but his overall FG% and 3PT% needs to improve. He needs to learn not to take as many long two-point jumpers and work at getting to the rim more, which he was so great at in college.
I think he's settling for jumpers too often because he's not getting foul calls in the lane. That's just the way goes for rookies in the NBA. Kyrie Irving dealt with it last year. It's dumb, but that's just the way it is.
Better shot selection is something that most young players struggle with and improves over time. With time, Waiters will learn that those long two-point jumpers are a low-percentage shot and will find that he's most successful either taking threes or layups. That's what the best players in the league do. Waiters will learn this with time.
Now, here are some more advanced efficiency stats for Waiters in his rookie season: 11.6 player efficiency rating (PER), 0.81 points per play (pts/play), 0.46 true shooting percentage (TS%).
Bradley Beal, another shooting guard who was taken one spot ahead of Waiters in the draft, has pretty similar stats this season: 12.5 PER, 0.85 pts/play, 0.47 TS%.
Harrison Barnes, while a small forward, was a player that many Cavs fans wanted coming out of the draft over Waiters. Now, taking into consideration that he plays a much lesser role on his team than both Waiters and Beal, and that his team is very good, here are his stats: 11.5 PER, 0.92 pts/play, 0.52 TS%.
All three players are right around the same area in terms of their play thus far in their rookie seasons. Something I found interesting though was comparing how each is doing this season compared with how he did in college.
Just taking their previous college season, Waiters is -14.5 PER, -0.20 pts/play and -0.11 TS%; Beal is -9.5 PER, -0.14 pts/play and -0.11 TS%; while Barnes is -9.5 PER, -0.02 pts/play and -0.01 TS%.
What does this mean? I'm glad you asked...
Waiters' production has slipped the most from where he was last year in college. To be fair, he also had the best stats of the three in college. The fact that Barnes pts/play and TS% haven't slipped much means that that's likely where he'll be in those areas going forward.
For Waiters and Beal, though, they have an established area of production from last year in college that they can probably get up to in the NBA.
(It's not likely that many players will ever get their NBA PER back to where it was in college. If they do, it takes several years. Kevin Durant, for example had a 33.7 PER at Texas. This year, he's having his best season so far with a PER of 28.9.)
From here, I wanted to look at some past shooting guards who went high in the draft. (Remember that these past rookie numbers are for full seasons. Most rookies tend to improve over the course of their rookie campaigns.)
Evan Turner was the second pick in the 2010 NBA draft out of Ohio State. Here were his rookie numbers with the 76ers: 10.8 PER, 0.85 pts/play, 0.48 TS%. Now in his third year in the NBA, Turner has yet to get his production back to where it was in his final year in college. I believe this is because Turner lacks the athleticism to blow by other guards and get to the rim like he could in college.
James Harden was the third pick in the 2009 NBA draft out of Arizona State. Here were his rookie numbers with the Thunder: 14.1 PER, 0.95 pts/play, 0.55 TS%. Unlike Turner, Harden has been able to get his pts/play and TS% back to where they were in college by his third year in the pros.
Harden is the model of efficiency that all guards should emulate. He rarely takes any jumpers outside of 10-12 feet and instead lives in the lane and beyond the three-point line. Those are the most efficient shots in basketball at any level.
Tyreke Evans was taken fourth in that same draft as Harden out of Memphis and won Rookie of the Year after scoring 21.6 PPG for the Kings. Here were his other rookie numbers: 18.1 PER, 0.91 pts/play, 0.52 TS%.
Like Barnes, Evans' rookie pts/play and TS% were right about where they were at Memphis. In fact, he was up 0.04 pts/play from his one year at Memphis. However, like I predict will happen with Barnes, this is where Evans has been his whole four-year pro career. His rookie numbers are almost identical to what they are this year.
O.J. Mayo, taken with the third pick out of USC in 2008 by the Timberwolves before being traded to the Grizzlies, is an interesting case. Here are his rookie numbers: 14.3 PER, 0.92 pts/play, 0.54 TS%. Mayo is another case of his pts/play and TS% being similar in his rookie season to college.
While his numbers tailed off every year through his first four seasons, they have gone up this year with the Mavericks to the point that his pts/play and TS% are actually a little better than they were in college.
Russell Westbrook, also taken in the 2008 draft, went No. 4 to the Thunder coming out of UCLA. Here were his rookie numbers: 15.1 PER, 0.80 pts/play, 0.48 TS%. It took Westbrook until year three to get his pts/play and TS% back to his college levels, but his 23.1 PER this season is up 3.7 from college, which is pretty remarkable.
Now, going back to the 2003 draft, let's look at Dwyane Wade's rookie numbers after being the No. 5 pick by the Heat: 16.5 PER, 0.87 pts/play, 0.52 TS%. I bring up Wade because that's who Waiters was sometimes compared to coming out of the draft.
Obviously, Wade is an outstanding player and a future Hall of Famer so the comparison is a tough one. All the same, it took Wade until his third year in the NBA to match his pts/play and TS% college numbers and he's never matched his 33.9 college PER (best was 30.4 2008-09).
What's the point of all of this? Another great question...
Most players, even the ones as great as Wade, Westbrook and Harden, took until their third season in the NBA to match their college pts/play and TS% numbers. Those players who matched those numbers in their rookie seasons haven't improved on them in subsequent seasons.
The only player that we looked at here who has yet to match his college pts/play and TS% numbers was Turner. As I noted earlier, this may be because he does not possess the athleticism that the other players in our research do. This doesn't mean that he will never get his numbers up, of course. He's in his third season as a pro and is having his best PER year thus far.
What this means for Waiters specifically is that just because his numbers are down right now does not mean that is where they will be forever, or even where they will end up at the end of the year.
For those that are panicking and/or calling him a bust already, you have to notice that his numbers are similar to that of Beal. You can't call one a bust or disappointment without calling the other one as well. Not to mention that Waiters' current pts/play and TS% are almost identical to Westbrook's from his rookie season.
I expect Waiters' numbers to improve steadily over the course of this season and will be respectable by April. In fact, check out his splits (games, minutes, points, field goal attempts, field goal percentage, three point attempts, three point percentage, free throw attempts, free throw percentage, assists, rebounds):
November--15, 32.0, 15.3, 15.0, .369, 5.3, .363, 2.9, .773, 2.1, 3.3
December--8, 31.6, 11.8, 14.3, .342, 3.6, .207, 2.0, .635, 3.3, 4.1
January--8, 27.0, 16.9, 13.6, .459, 2.8, .364, 3.9, .871, 2.3, 2.4
Over the course of the season we've seen Waiters improve in his efficiency already. He's taking fewer shots, scoring more points, and getting to the line more.
He's also taking better shots this month which has lead to markedly higher percentages. And all of this has also come with reduced minutes while coming off the bench.
While the fact that Waiters has come off the bench the past seven games may be seen as a negative for him in his young career, it's probably the best thing for him at this point.
In fact, most rookies don't start. Coming off the bench has allowed Waiters to be more of a leader since he's getting more minutes with Kyrie on the bench.
And also don't forget that those rough December numbers were when he was coming back from his ankle injury, which obviously had an effect.
Going from here, some things to look at for Waiters are how many points he's scoring compared to how many shots he's taking. That's the core of efficiency.
He's doing better of late, and the Cavs' most recent game against Sacramento is a perfect example: 33 points, 12-of-18 shooting, 3-of-3 on threes, 6-of-8 free throws, with five assists and zero turnovers. That's efficient basketball. And that's what we need to see more of out of Waiters.
So there's no need to panic or worry or bag on the guy at this point. He's a rookie. Rookies struggle. Check out LeBron James' rookie splits, even he wasn't very efficient early on. So give the kid some time to learn and grow as a player.
And one thing that should give everyone promise and a belief in Waiters is that he obviously has the ability. We've seen him have some outstanding games shooting threes (7-of-11 against the Clippers back on Nov. 5) and it's beyond clear that he has explosive athletic ability.
Waiters is going to be a great NBA player with time. He just needs to mature a little bit as a player and learn to take better shots. And all this will come with time.
As they say, patience is a virtue. And as Cleveland sports fans, we know all about being patient.
You can follow Benjamin Flack on Twitter @ClevelandFlack.
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