I must admit that I have had my doubts about the Cleveland Cavaliers selection of Dion Waiters since day one when he was the fourth overall selection of the 2012 NBA draft. With the Cavs sorely needing a strong presence at small forward, I had my heart set on North Carolina Tarheel Harrison Barnes. Barnes had been perhaps the most highly touted player to come out of high school since LeBron James. In spite of two lukewarm seasons at North Carolina, I knew, if nothing else, he would be well schooled fundamentally, that he could shoot the ball and would lend an athletic presence on the court.
Throughout the 2012-13 season, I tracked the progress of both players, as I needed the mental justification for how the Cavs could pass on a pedigreed player like Barnes for a player that wasn’t even good enough to start for his own college team. Waiters had a fine season for the Cavs, outdistancing Barnes in PPG 14.7 to Barnes’ 9.2, but Barnes held the edge in shooting percentages from the field, the line and beyond the arc. Further doubt entered the picture as Barnes stepped up his game down the stretch, helping the Golden State Warriors to the sixth seed in the Western Conference playoffs. Barnes continued his fine play, increasing his playoff scoring output to 16.1 PPG and continued his fine shooting thru 16 first- and second-round games. Both Waiters and Barnes were named to the NBA 2012-13 All-Rookie squads.
I continued my quest for answers this off season, hoping the Las Vegas Summer League would provide evidence of the maturing of these two young players. The first game out of the shoot, almost to my delight, Waiters had a terrible game, shooting just 1-of-11 and scoring three points in a Cavs victory over the Los Angeles Lakers. To make matters worse, the commentators noted that this was the second season in a row that Waiters had arrived for the summer league appearing to out of shape.
Waiters redeemed himself in the game two victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, playing some tough defense and scoring a game-high 23 points for the Cavs. Waiters followed that up regressing to shooting 5-of-16 and scoring 16 points against the New Orleans Pelicans, as the Cavs grabbed the seventh seed in the tournament. The Cavs next opponent, the San Antonio Spurs, ran into a buzzsaw, as Waiters was destroying defenders by shooting 12-of-23 and finishing with 27 points. Waiters scored at will, backing down smaller guards, penetrating the lane at will and by simply rising above defenders to nail the jumper. There was simply nothing San Antonio could do to stop him, as they were eliminated from the tournament. The Cavs then moved onward to face the Miami Heat but ended up losing in the second round by a score of 82-76.
There was no summer league comparison with Barnes, as the Warriors graduated him from the league after just one season. I think summer league was good for Waiters, as he took the helm to lead the team game after game. His performance so far has shown me that he has the explosiveness to take over games, the scoring ability to be a prime time shooting guard at the NBA level and that the guy can play some hard-nosed defense. At the conclusion of the San Antonio game, Mke Brown interrupted Waiters’ post-game interview, running up to congratulate him on shutting down his opponents, giving him a kiss on the side of the head and a pat on the butt. Obviously Brown is happy with the progress Waiters has made defensively.
Waiters has earned my approval, finally, a year after being drafted. However, there are a few things that still concern me. In game one, it was apparent that if you get up in his face defensively and force him to miss a few early shots, Waiters appears to become rattled, which may just be from youth and lack of experience. Another thing I noticed throughout the series is that Waiters is a player that needs the ball in his hands a lot in order to function. This does not bode well for someone playing beside with Kyrie Irving. Hopefully Brown and his staff will address this and teach Waiters to function offensively moving without the ball and promoting ball movement. Regardless, the Cavs have put together an interesting blend of talent that could put the team in the Eastern Conference playoffs next spring.