The journey of Dion Waiters hasn't been an easy one.
The Cleveland Cavaliers' shooting guard is considered to be a tremendous offensive talent that also carries a lot of baggage. Not even two years into his professional career, Waiters has already clashed with teammates and coaches, shown up to training camp overweight and been involved in trade rumors.
The general manager that many felt reached to select him at No. 4 overall in the 2012 NBA draft has since been fired. His new coach, the second he's had in two years, moved Waiters to the bench just nine games into the season.
While things haven't been easy for Waiters, he's managed to turn his game, and possibly his life, around.
Born and raised in South Philadelphia, Waiters' mother was just 17 when she gave birth to Dion. His father was in jail at the time.
Waiters grew up playing basketball wherever he could, regardless of weather or time of day.
“Sunup to sundown,” his mother told Pete Thamel of The New York Times. “He even shot in the rain or snow.”
Away from basketball, his home life revolved around his mother and stepfather, James Barnes. Waiters is the middle child of his mother's three children, while his biological father has 13 kids. The neighborhood he grew up in wasn't ideal and claimed the life of three cousins and his best friend.
"It's hard. Especially as a kid. You think, 'I'm losing everybody.' But at the end of the day, you still got your family. So I just play with a lot of pain and aggression," Waiters said in an interview with Donna Ditota of syracuse.com.
The one constant in Waiters' life has been his mother, Monique Brown.
Waiters said in the same interview:
My mom, that's my heart and soul. That's the reason I wake up every day and come out here and do what I do. She's a strong, black, single parent. She raised me. From Day One, she's always been there, thick and thin. And that's what drove me more. She told me, 'Never give up.' There was times when I wanted to leave, I just wanted to give up on certain things and she wouldn't let me. That's what really motivated me to go out there and work harder. And become a better person on and off the court.
Waiters went to four different high schools before attending Syracuse for two years. At times, he clashed with head coach Jim Boeheim and considered leaving the school, but he ultimately returned to win Big East Sixth Man of the Year during his sophomore season.
Despite his tough upbringing, Waiters eventually found college success and soon after entered the 2012 NBA draft.
Early NBA Struggles
While many viewed Waiters as a top-15 NBA draft pick, few could have predicted he would go No. 4 overall to the Cavaliers. After all, Waiters came off the bench at Syracuse while averaging just 12.6 points per game.
The Cavs knew they needed someone to help carry the scoring load next to Kyrie Irving, and Waiters appeared to be one of the best offensive players in all of college basketball.
Before the season started, Waiters participated in the NBA Summer League, where he looked noticeably overweight. When questioned about his conditioning, he later told syracuse.com, "It was a couple weeks between the draft and summer league. I still wasn’t (in game shape)."
As it would turn out, the excuses seemed to keep coming from Waiters.
“That’s Dion. He’s been like that since he got here. He doesn’t think anything is his fault,” a team source told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal.
Early this season, it was reported that Waiters called out teammates Irving and Tristan Thompson in a players-only meeting, accusing the two of playing "buddy ball," via Chris Broussard of ESPN The Magazine.
This was following a report saying that, despite being handpicked to play together, Waiters wasn't close to Irving and that he believed the Cavaliers held a double standard with their star point guard. Broussard also noted that Cleveland was "actively shopping" Waiters at the time.
Never one to hide his emotions, Waiters would often get visibly upset when his shots weren't falling. Sometimes, after being pulled from a game, he would appear to be sulking instead of paying attention to what his teammates were doing on the court. We also know that Waiters was removed from a February practice, per a Lloyd report in the Akron Beacon Journal.
Even at 22, being a professional athlete, Waiters still had a lot of maturing to do.
The New Dion
In the past few months, something changed in Waiters.
He's seemed more relaxed and comfortable both on and off the court.
“I’ve been in the media a lot for being the bad guy,” Waiters told Jason Lloyd of the Akron Beacon Journal. “I’m changing my image.”
Lloyd's article would go on to say:
He has certainly been in his share of headlines this season, but lately he truly has been the role of peacemaker. When Channing Frye seemed irritated with Matthew Dellavedova tonight, Waiters stepped in, just as he has done previously to defend teammates. When Mike Brown exploded following a non-call against the Spurs in a recent game, Waiters is the one who went out to retrieve his coach. Brown turned and saw Waiters coming for him and cracked up.
Remember all the excuses Waiters was reportedly making earlier in the year? It appears he's not only ready to admit when he makes a mistake, but is now hunting down Mike Brown to apologize for them.
Following a recent loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Waiters went to Brown's office to say he was sorry for not rebounding better.
Keep in mind that Waiters is a shooting guard, not a position that typically hits the boards real hard. Still, this was a huge turnaround for Waiters, and a move that showed a great amount of maturity on his part.
Waiters told Mary Schmitt Boyer of The Cleveland Plain Dealer:
At the end of the day you have to look in the mirror at yourself. 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.
Following a move to the starting lineup for the injured Irving, Waiters has responded in a big way.
In six games filling in for Irving, Waiters is averaging 22.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 5.8 assists while shooting 45.5 percent from the field. The Cavs have won three in a row, including a last-second victory over the Detroit Pistons thanks to Waiters.
Teammate Jarrett Jack had this to say about Waiters, via The Cleveland Plain Dealer.
I think he’s done a hell of a job these last few games with Ky being out, stepping up making plays. 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. That’s the one thing I try to get across to him: 'Boss, people look to you because of your ability. They respect what you do on the court and what you bring to the table, but for you to lead, you’ve got to be able to listen, then when you listen, that’s when you can help look out for others as well.
The journey from the streets of South Philly to Cleveland has been anything but smooth for Waiters, but it appears the former Syracuse star is now becoming the man everyone hoped he would be.
It may have taken awhile, but the Cavaliers are finally getting the player and person they envisioned back on draft night 2012.
Regardless of how this season ends, fans can enjoy watching Waiters' progression now and hopefully for years to come.
Stats provided by NBA.com/stats unless otherwise noted.