When the Oklahoma City Thunder imported Dion Waiters in a three-team deal with the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks earlier this month, an awful lot of us (myself included) wondered whether the shoot-first-ask-questions-later guard would struggle to make the sort of James Harden-level impact for which OKC's brass hoped when pulling the trigger. While there's certainly stuff to like about Waiters' game — his size at the two, his ability to create shots, his brashness and believe that he belongs on big stages at big moments, etc. — the issue seemed to be one of resource scarcity; if there weren't enough minutes, shots and scoring opportunities for Waiters to excel behind LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in Cleveland, would there really be enough for him behind Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Reggie Jackson in Oklahoma City?
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We're still a long way from a definitive answer, but the early returns have been promising. For one thing, at this point Waiters doesn't actually appear to be behind Jackson, whose declining play as a supplementary option and impending restricted free agency have raised all sorts of questions about his present and future in OKC. For another, Waiters has looked pretty good in Thunder blue over the past week and a half, bouncing back from a pretty brutal introductory outing (four points on 1-for-9 shooting in a blowout loss to the Sacramento Kings) with four strong performances.
The No. 4 pick in the 2012 NBA draft is averaging 17 points, 2.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists and 1.8 steals in 28.9 minutes per game over those last four contests, shooting 50.9 percent from the field and 46.2 percent from 3-point land and even showing bursts of defensive urgency to help the Thunder win three of four, capped by a devastation of the Orlando Magic that has Scott Brooks' club back at .500 at 20-20, 3 1/2 games back of the Phoenix Suns for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference.
With a chance to make it four out of five when the Thunder take on the scuffling Miami Heat on Tuesday night, Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman checked in with Waiters to see what's been behind his uptick in form and why he's looked like a better fit in Oklahoma than he did in Ohio. Waiters' response was, well, perfect:
After a 16-point performance Sunday at Orlando in which he made seven of nine shots, Waiters was asked what he’s learned so far about where his shots will come from and how he fit into the offense.
“Listen,” he said, “they give me the ball. Like, I touch the ball. Like, I actually, like, you know, touch the ball.” [...]
“I’m able to feel the game out, knowing when to take the shot, when not to,” Waiters said. “Like I said, we got a great group of guys on this team who’s very unselfish and they want you to be successful. So I think I came into a great situation.”
Well, the Thunder don't always let Dion touch the ball:
... which reminds us that not everything is different about Waiters' situation on his new team:
Interestingly enough, while Waiters clearly seems to feel more freedom in Brooks' offense, the numbers don't necessarily back up his claim.
Through 32 games in Cleveland this season, Waiters was averaging 35.6 total touches and 31.6 front-court touches in 23.7 minutes per game, according to the NBA's SportVU player tracking data. Through five games in Oklahoma City, he's seen more court time (27.6 minutes per contest) but a bit less of the ball, averaging 34 total touches and 30.4 front-court touches a night.
His total time of possession has dropped slightly (1.8 minutes per game in Cleveland, 1.7 in OKC) despite the extra four minutes of nightly playing time, too. And while he's tended to get the ball closer to the basket a bit more often through a handful of games with the Thunder than he did with the Cavs this season — he's averaging 0.8 "close touches" (defined as opportunities starting within 12 feet of the rim) per game in OKC, up from 0.5 in Cleveland — it's not a massive difference in terms of the shift in his offensive profile.
And yet, Waiters' offensive efficiency has jumped up a notch. He's gone from averaging .333 points per half-court touch with the Cavs, an unimpressive mark that nestled him snugly between Tony Allen and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, two wings known far more for their defense than for their scoring touch, to .474 points per half-court touch in OKC, a much stronger tally that would place just outside the top 10 among non-big-men in that department over the course of the full season. His True Shooting and Effective Field Goal percentages with the Thunder would both represent career highs, and his per-minute scoring's much more in line with what he managed during his first two NBA seasons than what he put up during a disappointing start to the season in Cleveland.
So what gives? Well, basically, he's just hitting jumpers more frequently.
Waiters shot 37 percent on 3.3 midrange jacks per game with the Cavs this season before the trade; he's up to 46.2 percent on 5.2 tries between the paint and arc through a handful of games with the Thunder. And while the increase in his above-the-break 3-point output isn't quite as large — 1.5 a game in Cleveland, 1.8 a game in OKC — the success rate is, as Waiters has improved nearly 30 points (from 14.6 percent to 44.4 percent) in long-range tries outside the corners since the move.
When you watch those midrange tries and above-the-break looks, it doesn't seem like Waiters is necessarily getting more open shots because of slick play design or the gravity of his All-Star teammates or anything. (Notable exception: His dagger wing triple against the Utah Jazz.) There's some nice in-rhythm work off the pick-and-roll, sure, but the tape shows lots of jab-steps, triple-threats, step-backs and pull-ups, the kinds of things for which Waiters has often been pilloried as a ball-stopper and shot-jacker in the past; they're just going in more frequently.
That's the thing: Waiters can make those shots — he's knocked down a solid (if not quite elite) 41.4 percent of his midrange looks during his three-year career, and he shot just south of 37 percent from 3-point land two seasons back. If his percentages tail off, though, it'll be up to him to prove more willing and able to contribute in other areas — specifically in terms of facilitating and defensive work — than he's seemed in the past.
Both Waiters and his new coach, for their part, feel confident that he can do so, according to Mayberry:
“I still think he’s picking up everything. It’s going to take him some time,” Brooks said. “And there’s going to be a stretch where he’s going to flatten out, and there’s going to be another jump where he’s going to pick some things up. But I think that’s always the learning curve with guys that we bring in. But I love his competitive spirit.”
“It’s just, like I said, about opportunity and being able to go out here and do what I do and that’s play basketball,” Waiters said. “I’ve always been confident in myself knowing what I can do. It’s about having the opportunity to go out there and be able to just play my game and have fun and enjoy it. And that’s what I’m doing. I’m having fun. I’m enjoying the fresh start. It’s a great organization. Great coaches. I couldn’t ask for a better situation than what I’m in.”
And as long as that enjoyment continues to translate into buckets, the Thunder figure to keep letting Waiters touch the ball and see what he can do with it.
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