No Orange player seems to be feeling Fab Melo’s absence quite as much as Dion Waiters.
In the three games his fellow sophomore has missed, reportedly for academic reasons, Waiters is shooting 7-of-28 (25 percent) and has just three assists.
Coach Jim Boeheim was obviously displeased with his guard’s 2-of-9 performance in the Orange’s controversial 63-61 win over West Virginia on Saturday.
“Maybe I should just tell him he’s a good player and then he won’t miss anymore. He’s got more confidence than this room has,” Boeheim said after the game, visibly annoyed when a reporter observed that Waiters’ body language suggested a lack of confidence. “He needs to make some shots.”
Over the past three games, Waiters has shown only flashes of the player who has been Syracuse’s most electrifying offensive option all season. At his best, he’s relentless in transition, turning his quick hands and tenacious defense into fast-break buckets and crowd-pleasing dunks. In the half court, he’s the Orange’s most dynamic and poised attacker.
But it seems obvious that something’s out of sync with him right now.
In Syracuse’s loss against Notre Dame, he shot 4-of-14 for 12 points, and turned the ball over an uncharacteristic 3 times, including a critical giveaway late in the game as the Orange desperately tried to mount a comeback.
He followed that up with easily his worst game of the year. Against Cincinnati, he looked lost, his 12 minutes of playing time marred by poor decisions and a bizarre lack of focus. He played better against West Virginia on Saturday, but he still scored only 8 points on 2-of-9 shooting.
It’s only been three games. But the player whose eyes light up when he talks about how he’s always in attack mode, always trying to take it to the guy trying to guard him, hasn’t seemed locked in like he was earlier in the season.
His shot selection has been particularly suspect. In the half court he’s been settling for jumpers, and missing them. Every player is going to take bad shots sometimes, of course, but he hasn’t attacked the way he typically does.
Usually, his confidence is practically contagious. But Waiters has looked uncertain, even tentative at times, during this stretch, especially against Cincinnati.
It’s possible that he’s just feeling Melo’s absence. The team’s entire offense has struggled mightily without the 7-footer in the middle, and it hasn’t managed to get out in transition—where Waiters is most dangerous—very much either.
West Virginia may have signaled a step in the right direction. Early on, he crossed over his defender on the perimeter, darted down the lane, and crammed it home over Mountaineer big man Deniz Kilicli. At the close of the first half, he drove to set up a wide-open Scoop Jardine 3-pointer, sending the Orange into half up by 4 points. Waiters also got to the line 6 times on the afternoon on aggressive drives.
But he also took—and missed—pull-up jumpers, 3s early in the shot clock, and a wild layup on an out-of-control drive that didn’t even come close to going in. His points all came on dunks and free throws.
Given its guard depth, Syracuse can probably survive for awhile without Waiters playing well. But he and Melo are the two players whose emergence this year has turned a fringe contender into a favorite to win the national title. The Orange will need the Waiters who had ESPN analyst Fran Fraschilla making breathless Dwyane Wade comparisons to return if they hope to live up to expectations in March.
“At the end of the day, [the shots] are going to fall,” Waiters said after the West Virginia game. “I’m just going to continue to play my game.”
Whatever’s going on with him—whether it’s a slump, a lapse in confidence, or something else—the Orange had better hope he works through it soon.