Just one year removed from entering the league as the surprise fourth-overall choice of the 2012 NBA draft, Dion Waiters remains an enigma. There are few Cleveland Cavaliers, and perhaps few NBA players at all, that can stir a debate quite like the shooting guard from Syracuse.
Breathtaking athleticism and explosiveness? He has plenty of it. Infuriating decision-making and inefficient scoring? That is part of the package, too.
On the surface, Waiters had a successful rookie season. He averaged 14.7 points per game and three assists, and he was selected All-Rookie First Team. Looking closer, though, Waiters struggled in multiple facets of the game. He rated as one of the worst defensive players in the league, regardless of position. His field-goal percentage, three-point percentage, and true shooting percentage all lagged far behind the league average for shooting guards.
His lack of success shooting the ball sure didn't make him shy, though. Among Cavaliers players, only Kyrie Irving and Marreese Speights had a higher usage rate than Waiters.
Waiters must improve his defense
Dion Waiters was a really poor defensive player as a rookie. This is alright; many rookies struggle to guard or find their place within a defensive system. The adjustment from Syracuse's strict zone defense to the NBA, where zone is now allowed but still relatively rare, added another challenge for Waiters.
He often found himself lost when the immediate man he was guarding operated without the ball. He didn't understand where picks were coming from, or whether to go over or under them once they arrived.
He was, at times, uninterested defensively or gambled for steals when it was unnecessary or dangerous. His rotations were slow, if they happened at all. According to Sam Vecenie of Fear the Sword, Waiters' man shot 48 percent from the field over the course of the season, an incredibly high number for a guard to allow (the average shooting guard shot 43.1 percent from the field last season, per hoopdata.com).
There are ways to excuse Waiters' poor defensive performance. He was a rookie learning a brand new system. He wasn't getting very much help from teammates, as the Cavaliers compiled the 27th-best defensive rating for the 2012-13 season. Deposed coach Byron Scott failed to instill any noticeable defensive system and the Cavaliers didn't have any type of rim protection inside. Waiters was certainly a part of the problem, but was far from the whole problem.
While the Cavaliers 2013-14 season has just begun, the team as a whole has made a new commitment to being a defensive-minded team. Mike Brown has been brought back as head coach with a system in which every player is held accountable for defensive lapses.
Waiters has been challenged by Brown to improve his defense, who has wondered aloud why Waiters isn't mentioned in the same breath as Iman Shumpert when it comes to the top perimeter defenders around the league.
Outside of exerting effort on that side of the court, and a commitment to defensive communication and learning Brown's system, Waiters' defensive potential is limitless. Even as a rookie he was proficient in causing turnovers. Despite being slightly undersized for a shooting guard, Waiters has the requisite quickness and length to stay with nearly anyone in the league. What's more, his strength allows him to bully smaller guards and makes up for size disparities when he is asked to cover bigger wings.
One such example occurred in the Cavaliers' season-opening win over the Brooklyn Nets. Brooklyn isolated Joe Johnson on Waiters with the game on the line, and Cleveland needed a stop. Johnson tried to use his significant height advantage to back down Waiters. Waiters wasn't budging, though, and Johnson ultimately was forced to settle for a low-percentage fadeaway jumper that missed badly. The Cavaliers won the game.
It isn't all roses, though. The same game involved Waiters failing to play adequate transition defense. In the NBA, the decision to defend is often a conscious choice that has to be made. Early in his career, he hasn't shown the ability to consistently make that choice.
The Cavaliers need Waiters to score, but it must come within the system
Dion Waiters is not an elite shooter. Last season, in fact, he was far below average. The average three-point shooting percentage for shooting guards last season was 36.8 percent per hoopdata.com; Waiters finished at 31 percent from beyond the arc.
The average true shooting percentage, which attempts to account for the added value derived from three pointers and free-throw attempts, was 53.8 percent for shooting guards, per hoopdata.com; Waiters' percentage was only 49.2.
But Waiters is far from a lost cause offensively. As Vecenie notes:
Once the calendar turned to 2013, (his final 37 games of the season), Waiters averaged 15.0 points per game on 12.5 shots with a 52.5% TS%. He became much more assertive around the rim, getting the line nearly 33% more often (2.7 FTAs up to 4 FTAs), leading to a spike in his field goal percentage at the rim -- all the way up to 68% for his final 31 games of the season.
Even though he was seemingly more assertive in getting to the rim, it happened more naturally within the offense as opposed to forcing action. Gone were the days of multiple pull-up 20-footers per game, and they were replaced by drives to the hoop.
Vecenie goes on to note that Waiters' improved numbers come with the added bonus that much of Waiters' offensive opportunities were a product of his own creation. Chris Grant selected Waiters with the idea that he would be able to add an offensive dimension next to budding star Kyrie Irving that opposing defenses would have to respect.
Ideally, though, Waiters will learn to play off of Irving as more of a true shooting guard. He has to get better playing off the ball, and that will require a better understanding of space. Finding seams in opposing defenses for backdoor cuts and easy opportunities at the rim, moving along the perimeter to find the appropriate place to spot up, are skills that would allow him to be a real weapon alongside Irving.
There are reasons to believe Waiters could thrive in this role: He has the athleticism to be a quick cutter, and he shot 41.6 percent from three-point range in spot-up situations, according to Vecenie.
There is a thin line to walk, though. You don't want to limit Waiters or give up on his potential as a creator. At the same time, he just isn't prepared to initiate or run the offense in a manner that approaches the efficiency of Irving. Waiters will have to accept a role that compliments Irving while also finding spots where he can challenge defenses.
Early indications from 2013-14
Early on in the season, Waiters has shown a bit more skill cutting and continued his solid shooting when spotting up. His shooting percentages are still bad (37.7 percent from the field, 30.8 percent from deep), but there haven't been enough games to get a firm grip on where Waiters' season is heading.
If Wednesday night's game against the Milwaukee Bucks is any indication, Waiters might take a step forward. He played in control, didn't force shots, attacked the paint and got to the free-throw line, and he played within the offense.
If Waiters can use his considerable athleticism on the defensive end and play within himself offensively, his value next to Irving, and for the Cavaliers, will be immense. The ability is there. Is Waiters up for it?
All stats courtesy of basketball-reference.com unless otherwise noted.