Dion Waiters would kill you in a game of 1-on-1.
As one of the very last believers (hopers?) in Waiters, that assertion has become my last defense for the fourth year guard, taken 4th in the 2012 draft, and frustrating everyone with his play ever since. All of the stats say he’s a bad playerand we’re running out of cliches to cling to (he’s had a change of scenery, coaching changes, and, last year, the world’s best teammate in LeBron James). But still, watch the guy and you can see that he can ball. Maybe not in a way has ever fit into a successful NBA scheme, but dude can ball. He’d smoke you in the half court, and I’m guessing he would tell you as much if you trash talked his pro game.
This year, it’s going to work. There are a handful of Thunder players who could and should improve this year, by way of natural growth and development and/or the new Billy Donovan coaching regime's fresh systems. Enes Kanter could become a better-than-abysmal defender, Cameron Payne could surprise by surpassing D.J. Augustin as a legitimate #2 point guard in his rookie season, Mitch McGary could stay healthy long enough to survive in a crowded frontcourt. But I can't imagine most of OKC's roster pieces having a proper breakout alongside the established talent pyramid you can see from space (Durant, Westbrook, Ibaka).
Only Dion has the role and thus far untapped potential to become a revelation. The Thunder want no part of Waiters-to-James-Harden comparisons (no need to worry, guys), but the team has been lacking a two-way shooting guard since the de-bearding. Kevin Martin, Thabo Sefolosha, and Anthony Morrow have been great on one end of the floor or the other, but a shooting guard who can both take up the playmaking slack when the OKC stars sit, without needing to be hidden on D, hasn’t materialized. The 2015/16 likely starting shooting guard (Andre Roberson) is continuing the trend, as the team counts on his defense and hopes he throws up a wide-open corner airball less than once a week.
To be sure, Waiters’ game is confounding. He has a good handle, but he can't finish or draw fouls. He has decent shot creation skills, but heavily relies on the inefficient "long-2" step-back jumper. He can spot up and be found by teammates for open looks, but isn't much better at hitting open shots than he is at knocking down contested ones. He is capable of nifty dump-off and pocket passes, but he's not in love with actually using them.
If you lifted either his inability to finish or to shoot from distance, you would immediately have a very solid offensive player. His jumper is ugly, and dipped below .300 last year, when he had the most freedom to work with in his career. He also just looks uncomfortable beyond the arc, often taking an awkward dribble to reset instead of firing off the catch. I don’t think he’ll be shooting the lights out anytime soon, but the odds are better for improvement at the rim.
Whether he turns his career around or not, "AND ONE! The Ballad of Dion" should be the biographical stage production of his NBA story. Waiter ranked 70th among guards in free throw attempts per 36 minutes last season (2.8, clustered with guys like Tony Allen, Austin Rivers, and hey! Bradley Beal--more on him later). He draws so very few fouls, yet yells "AND ONE!" approximately 5.5 times per game. How did he get so many shouting opportunities? He took the 23rd most shots within 5’ of the goal among guards (4.4 per game, not far behind paint beasts like John Wall and Dwyane Wade).
The important thing is that he knows how to get into the paint. But he ranked a jaw-dropping 168th in field goal percentage at the same range among guards, at 48.9%. Just finishing at a league average clip would correct so much of his inefficient package. And while he seems oblivious to his inefficiencies as a scorer, his struggles in the lane are not lost on him. He acknowledged last season that he tries too hard to create contact and that he’s worked on finishing better. In addition to the preoccupation with phantom fouls, he also contorts and reverses in the air all the time, leading to wild circus shots that rarely drop.
Mike Brown, Byron Scott, and Scott Brooks were not the coaches to fix Waiters. If Donovan performs to expectations, he very well could hone in on Waiters’ weaknesses and find himself a very productive 2-guard on his hands. Waiters actually just finished very similar season to Kemba Walker, who shot worse than Waiters within 5’, but does enough outside of his weaknesses (5.1 assists per game, 4.6 free throws taken, game-winners) to keep him from becoming a whipping boy for fans and commentators. Did you know that Bradley Beal, taken one spot ahead of our man in that 2012 draft, has shot worse from 2-point range, drawn less fouls, and racked up less assists, steals, and points per-36 minutes for his career than Waiters? Of course, Beal’s .400 stroke from distance dwarfs Dion’s .326, and other fine differences in his game has (rightly) earned him a reputation as a valuable young player.
No one believes in Dion Waiters like Dion Waiters believes in Dion Waiters. His confidence can be maddening for fans wishing he didn’t believe all those shots were going to fall, despite evidence to the contrary. I’m no exception: the odds are ever not quite in his favor. Waiters Island is mostly empty, but the Thunder knew the project they were trading for last season, and haven’t tried to move him since. But if a rejuvenation comes, his confidence will surely play a part. Thunder fans have recently watched the play of Jeremy Lamb and Reggie Jackson crumble when all was not right their psyches. Waiters is in no danger of shrinking anytime soon.
As a fan of Kanye West, I know that the rollercoaster talents we watch from afar can ultimately reward those who don’t jump off the bandwagon when it’s easy to do so. Kanye 2020 could happen, guys. So could a great Waiters season. Really. (Really?)
Really, I think so. But my caveat-filled, tepid prediction is not the kind of take befitting a mad genius like Kanye (proven) or Waiters (TBD). To truly believe in Dion is to believe in the power of buckets, which I must, so long as basketball is fun. Dude can ball.