Is Cavs youngster Dion Waiters the NBA’s next great shooting guard? Just ask him
Cleveland’s Dion Waiters does not lack for confidence. His style of play draws on a seemingly boundless self-belief, as every bull-headed drive and pull-up jumper evokes a complete faith in his abilities. He is not daunted or dwarfed, for better or worse.
In some cases, that enables Waiters to complete plays that only select others would even think to attempt. In others, it leads him to overreach a bit, as was the case in the second-year guard’s recent interview with Alex Kennedy of HOOPSWORLD:
“I’m coming,” Waiters told HOOPSWORLD in a phone interview. “I just feel as though I’m next up as far as shooting guards. If you look around, you know, Kobe [Bryant] and [Dwyane] Wade and those guys, they paved the way for a player like me and they’re almost done. It’s not like that, but I’m just saying, I’m coming. I just want everybody to know that.
“Without a doubt, I really believe that [I’ll eventually be the best shooting guard in the NBA]. This year, I’m going to show a lot of people who doubted me and still doubt me. I’m going to show them. And I don’t need praise and all of that. I just want to be respected. I’m coming. That’s all I have to say. I’ve taken my work ethic to another level and I feel as though I still have something to prove. So, watch out.”
Waiters’ comment is hardly unique, as the process of making the NBA cut tends to draw upon those with expectations so bold as to border on unrealistic. This is not by coincidence; self-doubt can be crippling, and thus the NBA ranks are in part subject to a selection bias on the basis of confidence. Waiters is no exception, and though this kind of self-assessment might also lead to his overstepping his bounds on the court, it’s likely that this kind of distorted reflection played a part in Waiters’ rise to the NBA in the first place. Pride is, first and foremost, an enabler.
And yet clearly this kind of claim is a bit absurd; Waiters, 21, the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, isn’t even the best young shooting guard prospect in the NBA, not to mention the ranks of positional superiors who contribute more and more reliably than Waiters has as of yet. If he were to become the top shooting guard in the league, that evolution would run contrary to most of the evidence we’ve seen so far — all of which points to the Cavalier being a fine, useful NBA player, albeit one whose skills are hedged by his decision making.
In a vacuum, Waiters can do many things quite well. He’s a strong perimeter shooter when he has a chance to get his feet set (Waiters shot 41.6 percent on spot-up three-pointers last season, according to Synergy Sports). He has decent touch from mid-range when on balance. He’s strong enough to get to the rim and good enough with his left hand to grow into a dual threat. And he’s developing the kind of diverse driving game (via spins, splitting double teams, changing direction and speeds) that could fuel a long, successful career.
But Waiters’ style last season was far too loose for projection as a potential star. It’s one thing to expect baseline improvement in terms of a young player’s skill development or understanding of the NBA game, but at the moment Waiters operates from a place of fundamental limitation. He hinders his own efficacy by playing on tilt and courting low-percentage shots, all of which can’t be totally mitigated by his scoring talents.
If Waiters were more engaged off the ball, then some of the damage could be stemmed. But for now, he’s only activated when in control, and only somewhat effective when given that freedom. Waiters isn’t beyond growth or change by any means, but his combination of ball dominance and shaky judgment doesn’t at all ticket him for the positional elite. That’s OK, frankly; the Cavs can benefit from Waiters’ presence as long as he continues to curb his more problematic instincts.
We’ve seen some strides on that front already. Not only was Waiters gradually more effective around the basket as a result of diversifying his driving game, but he also took significantly fewer off-the-dribble three-point attempts as his rookie season progressed. His awareness of open teammates and rotating defenders is still fairly low, but for Waiters to pass up some of those quick, contested threes represents a sound development toward a rich evolution.
His grasp of the game will undoubtedly improve along similar lines, but what remains to be seen is if Waiters can truly compromise his style while retaining his conviction. It’s that give and take — between balance and audacity — that will define these early stages of his career, and could come to shape his NBA course.