Dion Waiters: Charting his progress through Year 1

There isn’t a more polarizing player in my life of following the Cleveland Cavaliers than Dion Waiters. I could be wrong but I can’t think of a player who Cavs fans are/were more divided on. Either you love him or he’s terrible. It’s almost like he’s a Browns quarterback. We’ve seen it happen with Tim Couch, Charlie Frye, Derek Anderson, Brady Quinn, Colt McCoy, and now Brandon Weeden. Each guy had droves of defenders but also had just as many people who thought he was a bum. Waiters falls in the same line.

It didn’t help his case that he was a surprise draft pick last summer, taken over Harrison Barnes. Waiters was a guy who didn’t start for Syracuse, a team that plays in the Big East but doesn’t get a ton of national love, had risen on draft boards despite not working out for teams and the rumors of him being in the mix for the Cavs at No. 4 were thought to be just a smokescreen. Barnes on the other hand was one of the most highly regarded players coming out of high school and he played for one of the top four college basketball programs in the country. He had a following in the mainstream media so that even casual college basketball fans were aware of him. However, none of this mattered for crap to Chris Grant and the Cavs. They believed that Waiters was the better player, said “Screw the critics” and took him.

I’m an unabashed Dion defender. I hated the pick in the moment and then quickly turned after doing some research about a week later. The Cavs are big believers in advanced stats which supported Waiters. Jon Hollinger had Dion at No. 4 in his Draft Rater column that year. Barnes was No. 12, just for the record. The other thing that the Cavs really liked about Waiters was his ability to handle the ball and create shots for himself and teammates, both check marks for Dion that Barnes didn’t demonstrate in college.

As his rookie season unfolded Waiters had the typical ups and downs that most rookies have. The critics poured on him every time he had a poor shooting night. I remember Tony Rizzo freaking out on radio and calling him a bust about two months into the season. He got consistently beat on and picked apart by fans and media. Because so many fans, and even several members of the Cleveland media, wanted Barnes they’ve been picking apart Waiters for over a year now. Even the fact that Waiters was named to the All-Rookie First Team and also got an invite to the USA Basketball camp (going on right now) hasn’t seemed to slow the critics. Dion had another chance to get picked apart during this year’s Summer League when he shot 1-11 in the first game, leading to a lot of negativity which completely ignored his four rebounds and five assists and the fact that he controlled the offense and played good defense. Then even when he exploded in game four for 27 points and had what was really a dominating performance, on a bad wrist no less, you still get tweets out there like this…

Even when he has a great game he can’t get credit from alleged Cavs fans who cover the team. The comment has to come with the caveat “Solid summer league game” as if 27 points with 6 assists is just ok, and as if it wasn’t a high scoring mark for the whole of the Vegas Summer League. And then he has to throw in the trolling mark about the defense, which Dion showed throughout the four games is much improved. It just fascinates me that Waiters doesn’t get the credit when he does well that fans and media give to other players.

Last season at about the midpoint I decided to do a little research into how Dion’s rookie season stacked up against other players who fit his profile. In one of my last columns for Bleacher Report I put Waiters’ numbers through half a season against Bradley Beal and Harrison Barnes and then also against former highly drafted shooting guards like Evan Turner, Russell Westbrook, and Dwyane Wade. I’ll give you the cliff notes version: Waiters’ struggles as a rookie were not only not uncommon but also quite typical of other guards who were taken high in the draft. His numbers were also nearly identical to those of fellow 2012 draft picks Beal and Barnes. I found that even for great players like Wade, Westbrook, and James Harden it took until their third NBA season before their pts/play and TS% got back to where they were in college.[1] Furthermore, I found that players who’s college numbers didn’t slip too much in their first year as a pro tend to stay at that same level of production. Tyreke Evans is a prime example: 1.00 pts/pos and 0.53 TS% in college compared to 1.05 pts/pos and 0.55 TS% this past season. As a four-year pro you’d expect to see better improvement than that. This is what I found with Barnes as well… College year 1: 0.92 pts/play, 0.52 TS%; College year 2: 0.94 pts/play, 0.53 TS%; Pro year 1: 0.91 pts/play, 0.52 TS%. The argument is that these guys are who they are, that they’ve essentially plateaued as a player. I don’t know this for sure obviously, but the evidence is there to support it.

Now, that article was done on January 16. How did those guys finish out their rookie season and how do they stack up? Here’s what I found…

Waiters on Jan 16: 11.6 PER, 0.81 pts/play, 0.46 TS%

Waiters season end: 13.6 PER, 0.86 pts/play, 0.49 TS%

Beal on Jan 16: 12.5 PER, 0.85 pts/play, 0.46 TS%

Beal season end: 13.7 PER, 0.92 pts/play, 0.51 TS%

Barnes on Jan 16: 11.5 PER, 0.92 pts/play, 0.52 TS%

Barnes season end: 11.1 PER, 0.91 pts/play, 0.52 TS%

My initial hypothesis was that Barnes would stay about where he was throughout his career while Waiters and Beal would continue to show improvement. I find it interesting now that so far that hypothesis is proving true. Both Waiters and Beal showed marked improvement in all three areas from Jan 16 to the end of the season while Barnes basically stayed right where he was. This is good news for Cavs fans. Not only did our eyes show us that Waiters has been improving as a player but the stats are backing it up. I feel like that matters a lot.

Now, how then did Dion’s 13.6 PER, 0.86 pts/play, and 0.49 TS% stack up against other top guards of recent drafts in their rookie seasons? Let’s take a look…

Turner: 10.8 PER, 0.85 pts/play, 0.48 TS%[2]

Harden: 14.1 PER, 0.95 pts/play, 0.55 TS%

Evans: 18.1 PER, 0.91 pts/play, 0.52 TS%[3]

OJ Mayo: 14.3 PER, 0.92 pts/play, 0.54 TS%[4]

Westbrook: 15.1 PER, 0.80 pts/play, 0.48 TS%

Wade: 16.5 PER, 0.87 pts/play, 0.52 TS%

Waiters 004

Dion fits right in there with much of that pack. His PER is a little on the lower side but it’s interesting to see how the other numbers look even better than Westbrook and pretty close to Wade. Now that you can see all the seasons stacked up against each other you should take a breathe and realize that it’s foolish to try and judge a player after his rookie season. If you did that you’d take Tyreke Evans and OJ Mayo over Russell Westbrook and Dwyane Wade. You have to take everything with a grain of salt and see how they progress throughout their careers.

We’ll continue to track this every year and see how Dion continues to progress and how he stacks up against these same players as they progressed in their careers. For now, I’m excited about what I’ve seen from Dion Waiters. He has all the skills and ability to be a great player and it seems like he has the attitude and work ethic to get there. Additionally, if he can continue to work at his defense, which looked greatly improved during Summer League, then he’ll be even more valuable to the Cavs beyond what his pts/play and TS% numbers are.

[1] Even for great NBA players, they seldom get their PER numbers up to where they were in college.

[2] Turner is an interesting case. His numbers did dip from college to pro but have since stayed where they were, unable through three seasons to get them up to where they were in college. My theory on Turner is that the questions about his athleticism coming out of college are the reason. He just doesn’t have the physical ability to produce in the pros. That’s obviously not a concern with Waiters.

[3] We forget how good Evans was as a rookie. Really an impressive player. It’ll be interesting to see how his career unfolds now that he’s left the absolute mess of a Sacramento franchise. To be fair though, Evans was probably a big part of why it was a mess. Let’s just say he’s not really known as a team player.

[4] Mayo, similar to Evans and Barnes, didn’t show much of a dip from college to the pros and has stayed almost exactly at that level through five NBA seasons.


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