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2015-16 Thunder season player preview: to start or not to start, why should it matter?

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We look to Dion's past coaches and teammates for answers.

Mark D. Smith-USA TODAY Sports

(WTLC continues its annual player preview for the expected roster this upcoming season. Today is shooting guard Dion Waiters. Expect a player preview every day leading up to the beginning of the regular season.)

Dion Waiters is entering the last year of his rookie contract and according to SBNation's Tom Ziller:

"No one is talking about an early extension because few are sure he's long for the NBA".

No one?

Does anyone remember what the buzzer sounds like on TV's Family Feud when a contestant answers "frog" to the question "name something that cannot swim"? Well.... according to Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski, now would be the right time to push that button.

Woj's NBA sources tell him that Waiters and the Thunder are "actively exploring a contract extension" before the November 2nd deadline and Woj is never... excuse me, I do not wish to back myself into a corner.... Woj is rarely wrong.

Most of the feedback on Woj's announcement has not been flattering unless referring to Waiters as a "third-rate iso" player is some new form of props. Considering Dion's checkered professional and collegiate past the negative responses are not overly surprising.

That is what happens when a young player like Waiters says things like this....

"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."

..... then produces so-so numbers while getting into a heated argument with his teammates and then finds himself being shopped by his team for a "laughable return" ..... all in less than ninety days.

Ziller and Woj's conflicting posts raise a few questions. If the Waiters naysayers are right then why are the Thunder working on a contract extension now? Ziller said Waiters is possibly "one of the worst NBA players on a guaranteed contract", why prolong the agony?

I think part of the answer may lie in Waiters'  two seasons at Syracuse University. I found this article from the New York Times dated March 23, 2012. The description it provides of Dion's freshman season is eerily analogous to his three professional seasons:

He has played matador defense, clashed with Coach Jim Boeheim and led the Big East in bad body language. He arrived at Syracuse overweight, defensively ambivalent and overwhelmed by the demands of both college and college basketball. The only thing that appeared certain about Waiters’s freshman year was that it would end with his leaving Syracuse.

Coach Boeheim had this to say about Dion's freshman season defense:

"He had nothing to be frustrated about because he was 100 percent wrong...He played no defense last year. Not some. None."

That changed the next year and Waiters credits his Mom, Monique Brown, for helping him turn things around. Syracuse assistant, Mike Hopkins, agrees that Brown helped the coaching staff keep Dion grounded by working with them and not "demanding that her son get preferential treatment".

When Waiters became frustrated and wanted to quit, Hopkins told Brown that "if he runs, he will be running for the rest of his life", and added that the problem was not his talent.

Dion just needed to learn how to work.

After two emergency trips to Syracuse and fielding hundreds of calls from her son venting his frustration, Brown was able to steer Dion in a more positive direction:

"She wouldn’t let me quit and I give her a lot of credit for that."

Near the end of his freshman year, Waiters got on the treadmill and cut his body fat from 10% to 4%. Further, he dedicated himself to improving his defensive skills and his head coach said that there were many times that Dion was the Orangemen's best defender. When Dion accepted his role off the bench his playing time increased and the Cleveland Cavaliers rewarded Waiters for his effort by making him the 4th overall selection in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Syracuse head coach Jim Boeheim's thoughts on Waiters' future, March 23, 2012:

"If he goes to the N.B.A., he’s going to have to come off the bench....He’s shown that he can come in and play. He’s also shown he’s a good teammate and he can handle doing that."

Boeheim was not the only one to ever say that. Last November, LeBron James agreed with Boeheim's assessment as have three of Dion's four previous NBA coaches and yet Dion responded with a resounding 'NOOOOOOooooooo...'  to a fan's Tweet asking him if he thought he should come off the bench before last season.

The 2014-15 result?

More of the same mediocre numbers that Waiters produced in his first two seasons in the NBA. In fact, after being traded to Oklahoma City, Waiters put up some of the worst stats of his short career. His minutes went up but his efficiency went down so why is Sam Presti trying to sign this guy?

Again, the clues rest in Waiters' collegiate past. Getting in shape, working hard and adjusting his perceptions produced these results:

PER GAME

For a more apple to apple comparison:

PER 40 MINUTES

There is one stat that is missing on these last two charts that I feel is significant. In 71 games played at Syracuse, Boehiem never started Waiters. When Dion got in shape and accepted the fact that his role was as the spark plug off the bench his playing time went up as did his efficiency.

Fast forward to this summer:

DION WAITERS HAS LOST 10 POUNDS

  • Dion Waiters has lost 10 pounds, and plans to lose more.
  • Dion is working on his catch-and-shoot skills and his ability to shoot off the dribble. Dion is also working on his post-up game and finishing ability.
  • Dion is still waiting to train with Kobe, but it's still on track to happen.
  • Dion believes next season is championship or bust.


I like where this interview took place. Dion relaxing on his the front steps of his home in south Philly, waving at friends and neighbors as they passed by. It is obvious there is more to Dion Waiters than most people are willing to look for.

When asked if he expects to start this season during his Thunder Media Day interview, Dion responded he is going to do what is best for the team and trust his coaches:

Dion is applying the same formula that produced positive results at Syracuse.

  1. Getting in shape and losing weight.
  2. Actively working on his game.
  3. Embracing a team-first mentality.
  4. Trusting his coaches judgement

Taking Waiters' past into consideration, number four may be his biggest hurdle but it helps that Dion likes his coaches, especially Billy Donovan's long-time friend and assistant Anthony Grant. Waiters and Grant have hit it off and go through a personal workout after every practice and Dion told NewsOK's Anthony Slater that he was grateful that Donovan hired a coach like Grant. Perhaps Grant reminds Waiters of Mike Hopkins, the coach at Syracuse that refused to give up on him.

Add that all to the fact that Waiters has been a perfect teammate and I think we get a fairly good idea why Woj's sources said Presti is moving forward on the Waiters front.

I like Dion. I think he has tremendous potential but I must admit I still have a teeny bit of concern.

Waiters also made this comment in his interview with Slater:

"There's egos, of course, but right now I got to do what's best for the team. If that's coming off the bench, that's coming off the bench. I can't let something like that get in the way of this team and what we're destined for, as far as our goals."

(emphasis mine)

I would feel much better if I did not get the impression that Dion still views coming off the bench as a booby prize because it's not. In the last six seasons, only the Miami Heat have won a championship without having a player that finished eighth or higher in the KIA Sixth Man Award voting. The reigning NBA Finals MVP, Andre Iguodala, did not start in a single regular season or playoff game until those Finals.

Kevin Durant added these thoughts about Dion's perception about coming off the bench:

"Once you're in this league and you're on a good team, it doesn't really matter if you a starter or if you come off the bench. He's getting opportunities, the ball's in his hands, coach trusts him, the team trusts him. I think he's starting to really realize that starting for a player like him really doesn't matter."

(emphasis mine)

Durant is right... and so was Lebron James.... and Jim Boehiem ... and...

Let's hope Dion completely realizes it sometime this year.

Maybe it would help if someone showed Waiters a video of THIS GUY and then pointed out where his jersey is at when the Thunder go to Detroit on March 29th. This guy did not waste time worrying about starting or not, he was too busy lighting up the scoreboard.