As Dion Waiters and his crew hung out at a South Philly diner back in April, the topic of conversation eventually swung to what type of player Dion would resemble in the pros. I was there writing a profile for Dime; when asked my opinion, I offered up Latrell Sprewell, which I meant as a compliment. Like Spree, Dion is a tough defender, a good shooter, intense on the court and explosive to the rim.
Dion’s brow furrowed as he considered that for a minute.
Then somebody brought up Dwyane Wade, and Dion’s eyes immediately lit up.
That Dion identified far more with one of the singular stars of his era in Wade obviously isn’t a slight to Sprewell, who also played a bit before Dion’s time. It only speaks to the high standard he holds himself to, and his determination to reach the outer limits of his potential.
“I’m coming for whoever’s got the No. 1 spot,” Waiters told me later. “I don’t just want to say I made it to the NBA. I want to be an All-Star, I want to win championships, I want to win defensive awards, MVP â€“ I want to win every award possible.
“And that’s my main thing. I don’t just want to be another NBA player, I want to be somebody.”
He appears to be on his way. No player’s stock has improved more during the run-up to the draft than Dion’s has. Long said to have received a promise in the lottery, Dion shut down his individual workouts, yet his draft projection skyrocketed from the mid-20’s back in the winter all the way to where Yahoo! reported late last night that he might be considered by the Cavs at No. 4.
There’s so much talk about measurables â€“ vertical leap, wingspan, sprint time, height without shoes. And all those statistics have their place, but there are certain ingredients for success that you can’t time with a stopwatch or evaluate with a tape measure. A player needs the requisite physical attributes and on-court skills, but when it comes down to it, you also need the focused mentality to put it all together.
I could tell you Waiters was one of the finest perimeter defenders in the country last year. Or I could tell you how he’s determined to show his mom that her support and guidance over the years has paid off.
“There were times when I wanted to give up,” Dion said about his difficult first year at Syracuse. “But my mom was there saying, ‘Don’t let nobody win.’ Just strong words from a person like herself, that gave me that much more firepower to go out and prove everybody wrong. I saw what she went through to help get me to the position I am.”
I could tell you about Waiters’ ability to get in the lane and get to the line. Or I could tell you how he plans to honor those he’s lost along the way â€“ his best friend and several cousins â€“ with his own success.
“It’s just motivation,” Dion said. “It’s just something where I wake up every day with that on my mind. It just makes me want to go get after it, every day, and just work that much harder.”
I could tell you how lethal Waiters is on a pick and roll and a fast break. Or I could tell you how convincing he is when he says nobody in his path intimidates him.
“Nobody,” Dion said. “I mean, I’m from Philly, man. Honestly, I don’t think there’s a tougher city than this. Growing up, I saw a lot. At the end of the day, we’re all the same. We all bleed the same. We all breathe the same. So at the end of the day, I fear no one.”
The simultaneous beauty and frustration of the NBA Draft is the uncertainty of the whole endeavor. Except for a select few, there’s little way to know for sure how good anyone will really be in the long run. If there were, there wouldn’t have been Darkos, Odens or Kwames, and Kobe would have gone a lot higher than 13th.
But after watching Dion work out like a demon and hearing him discuss his various motivations, I have to believe his competitive drive gives him a leg up on other players who might coast on their God-given talents or reputation, expecting to reap rewards before they’ve been earned.
Depending on where he ends up, Waiters might have to begin his career as a high-volume defense and energy guy off the bench, a role similar to the one the Knicks cast Iman Shumpert in last season. That assignment wouldn’t be foreign; Dion thrived as a sixth man for Syracuse.
And yet, if Dion ends up being more than that right off the bat, it wouldn’t be all that surprising. He’s got natural talent, he’s battle-tested, he has a certain star quality and he has the dual gifts of determination and self-confidence.
“You only get one opportunity,” Dion told me in April, “and I’m going to take full advantage of mine.”
By any measure, I’m not inclined to doubt him.
Where do you think Waiters will be drafted?
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