Less than a year ago, the Syracuse faithful (including coach Jim Boeheim) were wondering whether or not guard Dion Waiters would be wearing a Syracuse uniform for the 2011-12 season. Now, after last week’s draft, Waiters became the fourth Orange player in the last five years to be drafted in the first round. Not only that, but only four Syracuse players (Dave Bing, Derrick Coleman, Billy Owens, and Carmelo Anthony) have ever been drafted HIGHER than Waiters was selected by the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Who saw that coming?
Knowing that now…did the Cavs reach a bit to land Waiters to pair with Kyrie Irving in their backcourt?
Perhaps. By the time people turned their attention from March Madness to the NBA Draft, Waiters was looked at as a promising prospect projected to be selected in the mid- to late-first round. After workouts started taking place, Waiters projections moved into the lottery, with a rumor that one team in the lottery had guaranteed him they would select him, causing him to cancel the rest of his workouts.
By draft night, it seemed Waiters would be packing his bags for Canada as most people projected him to be selected with the 8th pick by the Toronto Raptors. Others thought he might go #7 to Golden State. His stock continued to rise all the way to the #4 pick…all without ever starting a game for the Orange in two seasons.
A couple of things propelled Waiters into top draft pick status. For starters, his sophomore season on the SU hill was a lesson in maturation. A disgruntled freshman, Waiters morphed into an example for the rest of the team. Still unhappy about coming off the bench, he turned that energy into positive results, keeping his head on straight and taking out his frustrations on the opposition by averaging a point every other minute while he was on the floor. And, on the floor he was at the end of games…the real indicator of how much Boeheim believed in Waiters. But being able to mentally and physically respond to adversity bodes well for Waiters maturation in the NBA and clearly opened the eyes of NBA executives.
Those NBA execs also are suckers for a good romantic story. When they evaluate draft prospects, they always try to attach comparisons to guys currently in the league. Projections frequently say a guys is a “poor man’s so-and-so” or “so-and-so version 2.0.”
Conveniently, Waiters reminds plenty of people of Dwyane Wade. Similar height, weight, and build to Wade, Waiters is that slashing 2-guard who can get to the rim on almost anybody. He’s not a great outside shooter. Instead, he’s streaky. When he starts feeling it, just let him do his thing.
So, to be compared with one of the Top 10 players in the league is never a bad thing. Living up to those expectations might be a little harder, but the Cavs thought enough about the similarities to take Waiters.
And they will put him alongside Irving as the starting backcourt next season. Even with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Bradley Beal off the board when Cleveland’s pick was up, guys like Thomas Robinson, Andre Drummond, and Harrison Barnes were still available. Targeting a wing player, it was either going to be Waiters or Barnes.
Although I would personally project Barnes to have a better NBA career than Waiters, the Irving-Waiters backcourt is one that could be very exciting. With Irving showing he can play both in the half-court and in transition, Waiters seems to be a better running mate to get out in the open floor. Syracuse was one of the best get-out-and-go teams in college basketball last season, using guys like Waiters to finish strong at the tin. And, unlike Barnes, Waiters’ ability to get to the rim is a quality that he possesses that may be better than anybody else who was drafted. Barnes does not have a specific talent like that to hang his hat on.
And so it appears Waiters has grown up before our very eyes. From malcontent to possible Rookie of the Year candidate. Again, I ask…who saw that coming?