Watching Dion Waiters can be one of the NBA’s greatest thrills. The Cleveland Cavaliers’ second-year stud runs the finest of lines between team and ego, combustible under the power of his own singular skill set.
His sculpted, swaggering self cuts through the lane with one of the best first steps in basketball, his shooting is sweet as it gets, and when his game is on and his head is straight Waiters becomes a servant to his teammates, intuitively distributing toward a well-oiled offense. He’s even shown potential as a defender — instinctively, nastily snagging steals for easy breakaways.
Put more simply: Waiters can ball. He might be one of the most talented players of his generation.
Waiters’ conflict is a typical one, and a slippery slope we lose many a player down. Huge talents have and will always be marginalized in the league when their belief in their ability becomes detached from either a larger team concept, the evolution of craft, or both. Everyone–even LeBron James–needs to change their game and maintain a court connection to others with the intensity of a missile, just to keep status quo with their competitors. Some of the most transfixing talents alive are not up to the discipline of this task.
So when Waiters sparks large in the wake of Irving’s injured biceps (likely to end his season) it warms the basketball-loving heart. Since January, he’s played easily the best basketball of his young career, beginning with his ever-memorable shootout with Tim Hardaway Jr. over All-Star weekend. He’s averaged 19.4 on 46 percent from the field through March, upping his month’s assists to 4.3 per game as he helps replace Irving’s responsibilities at the point.
Waiters has come into his own, increasingly less frightened by the prospect that he lives in Irving’s shadow, looking for his mega-talented teammate more than ever through the team’s best shining February–the Cavs were 8-6 through that span, the only month they’ve spent above .500 this season. Perhaps something was learned through the string of ego kerfuffles between the two ballers. Waiters is now making good on his potential after the dust of his and Irving’s conflict has settled.
He went through a similar growth period in college, once referring to himself as a "caged lion" as Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim skimped on his minutes. But once Boheim and Waiters came to better terms and he was given his chance, Waiters led his team to an Elite Eight appearance in the NCAA tournament and collected Sixth Man of the Year distinction in the Big East, to go along with an Honorable Mention All-American distinction.
So despite the problems the Cavs and Waiters have had, and despite another rough season marked by injuries and sloppy losses, the future in Cleveland is looking brighter today. Through the dirt of 2013-14’s difficulty the Cavaliers come out with a newly minted warrior. Rebuilding has never seemed as easy as it does with two elite offensive players at the core of the team’s starting lineup. Dion Waiters’ coming-of-age saga is the sterling silver lining of a disappointing season, and cause for optimism with the team regardless of how they re-shift the roster this summer. The lion has been uncaged anew.