Dion Waiters has been somewhat of an enigma throughout his professional career. After being selected fourth overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2012 draft—a position higher than anyone projected him to go—Waiters has had a constantly changing set of expectations to navigate through during his first three seasons in the league. But now that he’s found some comfort on an Oklahoma City Thunder team that is setting the stage for his success while providing a proper role in which Waiters can thrive, the 23-year-old is is beginning to understand his best chance at NBA survival.
Drawing (strange) comparisons to a younger version of Dwyane Wade, Waiters came to a desperate Cleveland franchise that needed him to live up to those star projections. Outside of point guard Kyrie Irving, the Cavs’ roster was bare during Waiters’ inaugural campaign; Tristan Thompson hadn’t become a critical piece to anything Cleveland was building, and the team included great throwback names like Chris Quinn, Samardo Samuels and Luke Walton. Given a role he didn’t earn, failing to meet unrealistic expectations and a poor fit alongside the team’s franchise player, we should have known that Waiters’ Cleveland tenure was always going to be a sojourn.
After two seasons of mediocre production in Cleveland, Waiters was sent packing in the first year of LeBron James’ return. No longer needed to play any role—let alone one that resembles something synonymous with stardom—the Cavs shipped Waiters off in a three-team trade that landed him in Oklahoma City. A Thunder franchise known for its commitment to continuity in the Kevin Durant era had just executed a deal nobody saw coming and few understood at the time. Fast forward less than one calendar year later, after so many predicted that Waiters’ seemingly toxic reputation would make him a poor fit on a team that holds title expectations every season, and the two sides have started negotiations on a potential contract extension. From Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports:
Waiters, 23, has been enthusiastic about working toward a deal with the Thunder, eager to compete on a contender and comfortable with his growth in a strong atmosphere for player development.
This is not the Waiters who we saw in Cleveland. That’s not the player that regularly demanded the ball like he was a 20-a-night scorer for the last decade. But maybe we actually shouldn’t be so surprised since Waiters hasn’t been the same player for some time now.
There will be those who offer a sizzling hot take upon reading that sentence and fire back with statistics in order to prove that Waiters is very much the same, but this is all about the shift in Waiters’ mental approach to a game that’s about far more than on-court X’s and O’s.
We place immediate expectations of production and professionalism upon an athlete rising through the NBA ranks, but far too often the context is regularly ignored. In a basketball landscape where fans both emphasize and value out-of-context video clips and celebrate the failure of others like a personal achievement, maybe we should allow time for growth, maturation and change. Instead of offering declarative judgments based on limited sample sizes, maybe we should hold our opinions a little longer in order to see a clearer picture. Maybe we should work a little harder to understand what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes, both on and off the court, when the entire world is watching. Maybe we need to examine our perception, its purpose and what we value when watching a game that we all fell in love with as children.
Maybe that’s just wishful thinking.
Regardless of how you feel regarding Waiters, his past or what he can do moving forward as he paves his NBA path, there has been a clear maturation that everyone can appreciate from a kid who previously showed little of it. No longer driving individual goals over the betterment of the group and no longer hoping to land in a space where he can be the star of the show, Waiters’ maturation will be critical to his survival.
If talent served as the sole determinant in how to build a basketball team, there would have been a lot of abbreviated careers lasting significantly longer. Now finally prepared to embrace the proper role, Waiters is determined to avoid being a part of that ill-fated group.