The Disregarded Development of Dion Waiters

Dion Waiters, as we presently know him, was meant for a different time. Shot-happy, ball-dominant guards littered the league just more than a decade ago, before our understanding of efficiency’s impact had reached its slow development let alone modern zenith. That Waiters was one of just eleven rookie guards in the past 20 years to average at least 18 points per 36 minutes last season would merit universal praise in another era; today it’s just more evidence of his expectedly sloppy NBA debut, and further confirmation behind similar prospects of his career trajectory on the whole.

So when Waiters warned HOOPSWORLD that he’ll “eventually be the best shooting guard in the NBA,” we dismissed him. Waiters showed little last season to suggest he’ll evolve into a net positive performer at all, let alone the top player at his position. Defensive sieves – Michael Beasley fared better individually – with a true shooting mark of 49.2% and usage rate of 26.2 aren’t exactly en vogue, after all.

But rookies deserve varying degrees of leeway while adjusting to the pro game, and Waiters is no different. That he came off the bench in his final season at Syracuse only speaks to the severity of his learning curve even with respect to his peers, too. That necessary context easily betrays the eye-test, though, especially when raw and advanced statistical measures upholds what we see. Passing immediate judgment is always the easiest route, and made even easier when that quick snapshot aligns with our earliest predilections – the Cavaliers, remember, were broadly panned for selecting Waiters fourth overall in the 2012 draft.

Overlooking our (sometimes) unfair perception of a player’s sustained performance is best done once we’ve had the time to reexamine our initial assessment. It’s been nearly five months since Waiters last played a meaningful game; the end of spring, near completion of summer and beginning of autumn is long enough to properly contextualize his rookie season.

But that doesn’t mean we’ve done it. Our collective guffaw to Waiters’ recent boasts confirm at least that much, and a deeper, more nuanced look at his debut campaign necessitates an altered portrait of his NBA future.

The proverbial “rookie wall” is real. The seasons of many first-year players can be parsed into halves, thirds, quarters, etcetera; contrary to rules of the well-established “wall,” though, rookies aren’t always superior before they reach it. Like players of any age and experience, they endure the ebb and flow that come with the grind of a nearly six-month regular season.

Waiters contemporary Bradley Beal’s 2012-2013, for instance, was separated neatly into halves before and after John Wall’s return from injury. Those simplest of splits – coupled with the narrative of Wall’s influence – made Beal’s dramatic improvement one of the bigger stories of the season’s second-half. That he enjoyed such consistent success in the latter months of his rookie year is indeed a testament to just how promising it was in the long run. But that shouldn’t make other first-year players’ similar, if more unsteady, degrees of improvement any less impressive.

Waiters, it should be obvious by now, is the perfect example: vantage point is crucial. Take a look at the chart below.

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There’s big development here across the board, and it all points to an evolution in Waiters’ offensive approach. But he was inconsistent enough after the calendar turned on a monthly and nightly basis that his game’s new diversity went largely unnoticed. To wit: Waiters scored 33 points on 18 shots, five points on nine shots, 23 points on 14 shots, and seven points on 12 shots during a four-game stretch in January. Injuries kept us from noticing the long strides of his game, too; Waiters played seven games in March and just four in April.

That he’s such a lightning rod for shallow criticism outside the friendly confines of Cleveland is indicative of Waiters’ rare natural talent level. Players that lack the gifts to potentially make such a positive impact don’t frustrate or disappoint, but instead just dissatisfy. We can agree, then, that Waiters’ talent is obvious. Few players possess the intuitive creativity to even attempt plays like those below, let alone finish them.

Those flashes and ones of a similar nature are important, because they frame the way we grade Waiters’ rookie season. Despite a fluid handle, rare body control and a strong frame, he opted for long jumpers far too often last year: Waiters ratio of above-break tries from beyond the arc mirrored Beal’s. That’s unacceptable for a player with his skill-set, and begs for the type of sarcastic, dismissive assessment the NBA blogosphere is so hastily willing to offer.

Get to the rim! Stop settling! You’re not a shooter! Those were accurate cries for the majority of Waiters’ first year in the league. The problem – initially, at least – is that he was hardly more effective once he acquiesced. Waiters was absolutely dreadful in the basket area during the first months of his rookie season; in fact, most jumpers were the more efficient option.

Gold: Accuracy Wine: Frequency

Gold: Accuracy
Wine: Frequency

Waiters shot 35.1% near the basket in November, a mark so putrid it’s difficult to find a frame of reference. He was over 10 percent better than that in December, but still over 10 percent below league-average in that same month, too. January, as previously noted, saw a spike in Waiters’ overall effectiveness that aligned perfectly with an increase in accuracy and frequency for shots near the rim. He peaked as a finisher in February – 58.9% performance and 50% distribution – before coming down to earth a bit in injury-plagued March and April stints, but those high-water marks are of particular note. The February Waiters was is in Kobe Bryant’s territory of quality and Dwyane Wade’s waters of quantity – a near-elite level finisher, basically. And while that’s just 12 games worth of play, that the uptick began in weeks prior and was nearly continued in weeks after is a sign that Waiters’ learned progress is sustainable in coming years.

The film only furthers that assumption. Waiters gleaned the vast majority of his rim opportunities last season as a pick-and-roll ballhandler. The comfort, poise, subtlety and confidence he exhibited in those situations where he finished the play was night-and-day difference in February as compared to November and December. You’d expect that much given the data highlighted in the graph, but actually watching the sea-change in action illustrates just how dynamic Waiters can be with the ball in his hands.

But to best discern his growth it’s important to note specifics behind his early struggles. The below series of clips highlights Waiters’ early-season troubles as a finisher and pick-and-roll operator. Pay special attention to his failures in manipulating the defense, as well as an overall lack of decisiveness.

The first clip is a nice encapsulation of Waiters’ 2012 deficiencies. Anderson Varejao sets a high ball screen for Waiters going left, and Marcin Gortat waits then retreats as Waiters gains a head of steam around the screen. Before we continue, it’s important to understand Waiters’ driving and finishing preferences; he always goes left but is uncomfortable around the basket with that hand nonetheless. That’s crucial here, as Waiters sizes up Gortat just beyond the arc with Leandro Barbosa behind him and Varejao beginning his role on the other side.

There are makings of an effective pick-and-roll here. The helper is on his heels, the screened man is out of the play and the dribbler and roller have ample space on either side of the lane. The defense hasn’t bent to the point of fracture yet, but it’s getting awfully close. If Waiters continues with another probing left-handed bounce, the Cavs are in business.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 2.48.51 PM

Instead he forces the issue, immediately crossing over to his right hand in the path of Varejao’s roll. That’s the right play in certain circumstances, but this isn’t one of them; there’s enough room between he and Gortat that the Phoenix center has ample time to cross his feet – usually a big no-no – recover, and get an effective contest. Not only is his shot attempt wild, but the direction of Waiters’ drive renders Varejao irrelevant.

The final sequence is another example of typical struggles related to inexperience. Tristan Thompson sets a ball-screen for Waiters on the right side of the floor coming middle, putting the rookie in a situation that befits his strengths and weaknesses. Brook Lopez hedges high, and Waiters emerges around him with momentum and a huge swath of empty floor. Thompson’s roll is on the early side but he’s still a viable option, and Kris Humphries – not exactly a rim-protector – is the lone object between Waiters and the basket. But youthful haste dooms him again.

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Waiters’ final dribble comes a couple feet above the free throw line, meaning his gather begins some 15-feet away from the rim. That’s okay for LeBron James or Kevin Durant, but Waiters is both 6’4’’ and – at this point – a terribly impaired finisher; his degree of difficulty needs to be far, far lower than theirs. Another dribble wouldn’t just allow him to draw contact and a possible foul, but create more space for a drop-off to the awaiting Thompson, too. As it is, Waiters jumps from the bottom of the dotted semi-circle and manages just a flailing scoop despite Humphries’ nominal “contest.” Yikes.

There’s no nuance to Waiters’ early season attacks, but that shouldn’t surprise – NBA defense is hard to decipher! That Waiters – who averaged 24.1 minutes per game his last year at Syracuse – couldn’t find the small cracks necessarily discovered to exploit pick-and-roll coverage in the first two months of his rookie season isn’t disappointing, but expected. Considering his unique context, any other outcome would have been the shocker. But jumping to urgent judgment is our natural inclination, and once its made it can be hard to come back from.

Waiters’ post-New Year breakthrough deserves that aboutface. The player and pick-and-roll creator we saw in 2012 was a far cry from the one we didn’t in 2013, and that’s most evident in film of his revelatory February.

There’s so much new to glean from Waiters’ 73 February forays to the rim – including more side pick-and-rolls from the right, several quick duck-ins to the post, and an increased awareness of how to use the rim to protect the ball – but the overarching theme is one of patience. Finishing from a dribble is about much more than the final act itself, and by his fourth month in the league Waiters had come to understand that vital aspect of pick-and-roll play.

The initial play of the series is perhaps the best illustration of his all-encompassing growth in that regard. Waiters receives a high screen from Marreese Speights going left, and Kendrick Perkins hedges tentatively as Waiters surveys the scene. Waiters has an opportunity to press things and beat Perkins with a quick dribble, but instead waits for the defense to shift back into place.

Screen Shot 2013-09-11 at 5.32.03 PM

Whether or not a palming violation goes uncalled here is beside the point; Waiters understands coming rotations enough to know a slick hesitation dribble will goad Perkins back to Speights while Martin struggles to recover on the ball. He always had this aspect of the required skill, but here we start to see the knack that’s necessary to thrive in today’s NBA, too.

But creating a path to the paint is only half the battle, and the indecisiveness that plagued him once there months before was obvious in the prior set of clips. Remember Waiters’ lengthy take-off with only Humphries between he and the rim? This time it’s Serge Ibaka – another attempt of that caliber won’t just lead to a miss, but a dunk for Oklahoma City on the other end.

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Ibaka might be the league’s best shot-blocker, and Waiters is on the side of the floor where one typically uses their left (and his weaker finishing) hand. This should still be a win for the Thunder given what we know about Ibaka and what we think we do about Waiters, but we’re wrong on the latter count. He’s developed the sense since November to keep Ibaka off-balance and play to his individual strengths. Waiters uses a quick extra dribble to get to Ibaka’s body and complicate the timing of the OKC forward’s jump, then explodes off his strong foot before finishing with his strong hand.

Similarly learned craft is on display throughout the February video’s remainder; none of it’s there in the compilation from the season’s first month of play. The result? A 23.6% increase in basket area accuracy and 14.4% gain in frequency. Basketball players need to fall off the horse and experience trial and error, too. That’s what Waiters did in November and December before climbing back on and reaping the benefits in the second half of his rookie year.

Now, in reassessing Waiters’ future it’s obviously pertinent to look at the whole picture. Should he develop into the devastating penetrator he was in February full-time, he’d still have major deficiencies. Waiters must improve his jumper, involve his teammates more often, and make wholesale changes on the defensive end of the floor.

And even if he makes good on righting those wrongs, odds might still be against Waiters becoming the league’s best shooting guard. But he made enough progress last season for that lofty ambition to be above mocking. The circumstances behind Waiters’ substantial, specific growth – late in the season and halted by injuries – kept us from fully appreciating not just the player he is, but the one he’ll become. And should his development continue, by this time next year maybe his bravado won’t seem so crazy.



Jack Winter

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  • Justin Rowan

    Absolutely fantastic article. Very fair and objective.

  • tornicade

    Great Article. I believe you overlooked one aspect of Waiters Jumper. His struggle is shooting on the bounce. His spot up is pretty spot on though. This means if he limits his jumpers to off the ball open looks his efficiency will be pretty top notch.

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  • Very thorough complaint, but this is only half the picture with Dion. He desperately needs to learn how to play without the ball in his hands to be great, especially with Kyrie Irving on the team. Until he and Irving Learn to play off each other, and Dion learns how to be effective without the ball in his hands, he’ll never sniff league’s best shooting guard. Kobe, Jordan, Vince Carter, etc, learned to operate off the ball, both finding spots to get open jumpers, and being deadly off the cut, and especially deadly off the offensive boards. Waiters has to stop drifting without the ball.

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  • Ryan

    Great piece of writing.

  • chris

    great article!

    one thing i was wondering about though, you said waiters was in kobe’s territory of quality, with regards to finishing at the rim, but kobe shot 69% at the rim last year, while dion peaked below 60%. thats still a pretty big gap.

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  • Bon

    Now that’s the future of sports reporting. Absolutely brilliant! You need to stay tuned because you’ve built it and they will come — eventually. I can’t wait to read more from you – great job here though.