As the 2011-2012 college basketball season tipped off, Dion Waiters found himself on the Syracuse University bench. Still glad to be in his pumpkin-orange warm-ups, Waiters was still on the losing end for one of the highly coveted starting spots.
At the time, Jim Boeheim’s team was dealing with a problem other programs would be happy to face: a surplus of over-qualified players. With a solid core group of starters, the anxious Waiters would have to wait for his time to shine. Little did he know, he would attract all the attention he needed as the team’s 6th man.
Coaches recognized his ability to add a spark to the Syracuse offense, which at times sputtered in producing any sort of rhythm, so they kept him in his usual off-the-bench role. The strategic move paid off, as Waiters tore apart opposing Big East defenses, averaging 12.6 points per game, 2.5 assists per game, and 2.3 rebounds per game.
Such consistent figures are rarely expected of bench players, so his contribution became vital in the later end of games. As the bench thinned due to injury and academic ineligibility, Waiters understanding of the offense thickened.
He developed a knack for knocking down big shots. Coupled with Boeheim’s team-first mentality, ‘Cuse cruised through the regular season, finishing with a 34-3 record.
The loss of big-man Fab Melo (yes, he was academically ineligible) for the NCAA tournament left a gaping hole in the Orangemen’s overall plan of action. They had to atone for this lack of offensive attack with a more athletic approach, a strategy in which Dion could be of great help. Despite a long run to the NCAA Elite Eight, the absence of a 7-foot presence proved too tall a task for Syracuse.
But as they watched the clock hit 0:00 on their season, Waiters could still take pride in the fact that he had left as much of an impact on the season as anyone with the same opportunities could possibly have. The Cleveland Cavaliers thought so too, taking him as the 4th overall pick in the 1st Round of the 2012 NBA Draft.
The once 6th man shooting guard had climbed all the way up the draft ladder to #4, drawing comparisons to NBA Champion and past league scoring leader Dwayne Wade in the process. His tremendous potential had served as a springboard for draft standing, and he landed on a Cavs team desperate for a complimentary addition to their star point guard, Kyrie Irving.
What’s left now is to see how Waiters does with the NBA maturity process. Players with high upsides at a young age have a tendency to allow inflated egos to diminish scoring output. Longevity in the league is determined by the ability to adapt.
Whether it’s developing a playing style in accordance to the pace of play or jumping off your high horse before you fall flat on your face, the league’s best always adapt to the obstacles the NBA poses for anyone trying to make a name for themselves.
With overall talent at its all-time high, you don’t see many self-absorbed thirty-year-olds dropping 25 points per game. It’s because they get over themselves and start playing fundamental basketball. Unselfish, team-first basketball.
That team-first mentality that Boeheim instilled in Waiters will be something to watch for as the season progresses. Fortunately, we have yet to see any shade of ill-will from Dion towards his teammates. Even after his incredible performance against the Los Angeles Clippers, where Dion dropped 28 points (7-10 from three point land), there was an aura of humbleness radiating from the game’s leading scorer.
“He’s more ready for the NBA than any guard I’ve ever had,” Jim Boeheim raved back in June. “Nobody will be able to guard him one on one unless their last name is Westbrook. He’ll go by anyone he faces.” Although unseen as to whether Dion will go by anyone, such high remarks from arguably the most consistent college coach in NCAA history cannot be taken lightly.
It seems like he’s had no trouble at all adjusting to this new atmosphere and the pressures that come with it. The other day against Atlanta, his three with only a few ticks left was an airball… that was promptly put home as time expired, crediting Dion with the game-winning pass.
With balanced team play and a few more fortuitous bounces, it’s not too early to start throwing him in the mix for NBA Rookie of the Year. And even if Waiters’ contribution as a starter slows, Cleveland most definitely knows there is always the option of bringing him off the bench.
Rob Dick | Elite.