Dion Waiters folded his arms, stared into nothingness and gave this NBA season its best deal-with-it moment, a classic internet meme that will live on for sometime. Waiters had to wait until he was in his fifth season, with his third team and sixth coach, to have the chance to take, and make, the kind of pull-up 3-pointer that he used to knock off the Golden State Warriors two months ago. But what turned Waiters into the cult hero of confidence was what came after his shot went splash – that defiant pose, that self-admiring b-boy stance that seemed to be asking his doubters, “How ya like me now?”
“That’s just that Philly cheese swag,” Waiters told The Vertical. “Now, everybody see me, they do the pose.”
The pose has certainly been the defining image of Waiters’ breakout season, but it certainly wasn’t the last time he would save the Heat with his timely shot-making. Since then, he has banked a back-breaking 3-pointer against his former team, the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers, and urged fans to get out of the building. He has hit three heat-check, fall-away 3-pointers late in the fourth quarter to finish off Charlotte and – borrowing a phrase from the previous occupant of his position – let fans in Miami know whose city it was.
Waiters, 25, has been a starter on a bad team and then a reserve on two championship contenders but always believed he could play a more integral role in helping a team win. After an unexpected detour last summer, Waiters found that chance in Miami, where he’s averaging career-highs of 16.1 points, 4.4 assists and 3.4 rebounds on a Heat team that is somehow knocking on the Eastern Conference playoff door despite starting the season 11-30.
“This season right here, I truly believe it shows players that when things aren’t going right, or if you’re on better teams and have a lesser role, or you’re knowing you can do some of the things these other guys are doing but never really had the chance, be patient,” Waiters told The Vertical. “Keep working and always have faith and the utmost confidence in yourself. I always had confidence in myself. Everybody knows that. That’s how I am. I never lacked confidence. I don’t care. You could make jokes of it. But I’m a man. I’m a father at the end of the day. I can’t allow my child to see his father lack confidence in any situation. That’s why as a man, you’ve got to believe you can do anything you put your mind to.”
No longer a catch-and-shoot player, hustling to get open and begging for the generosity of his teammates to get touches, Waiters is playing the way he always imagined he should’ve. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has given him the freedom to make plays off the dribble, to make plays for others, to make mistakes, even earn the chance to make up for a bad shot here and there. “I know my role. And I know I can be myself,” Waiters told The Vertical. “I can play my game and I can impact the game [with] me not having to defer. And when I say, ‘defer,’ I mean I don’t have to be this guy that I’m not – a guy that has to be in the corner and wait for the ball. That’s not who I am as a player.
“Overall, I’m back to having fun. I think I’ve been missing that part of the game over the last two and a half years – playing the game and having fun doing it. I always used to watch other guys. I’d watch guys from my [draft] class and see how freely they were able to play. I’d be like, ‘Man, I just want that, one time.’ And I got that opportunity to come to Miami.”
Playing in Miami wasn’t the plan entering last offseason. Waiters expected to re-sign with the Oklahoma City Thunder, which had tendered a $6.9 million qualifying offer to have right of first refusal for any deal that he signed with another team. Those plans were altered after the Thunder traded for Victor Oladipo, brought over Alex Abrines from Spain and were forced to regroup after Kevin Durant’s unexpected defection. Clearing the necessary cap space to get Russell Westbrook to commit to a renegotiation meant rescinding the offer for Waiters.
Though he still considers the Thunder “one of the greatest organizations” and credits the franchise for helping him mature in his season and a half in Oklahoma City, Waiters wasn’t pleased with how his tenure ended. He needed to find a new employer after the flood of free-agent money had begun to dry.
“I felt some type of way, but everything happens for a reason,” Waiters told The Vertical. “I didn’t like how it went down. I didn’t like how they handled it. It opened my eyes, from what I was told at the beginning of the year, it didn’t happen. I can’t cry over spoiled milk, but I understand it’s a business to be told something that didn’t happen. That’s why I always had trouble trusting people that you don’t really know. I always had that problem. Coming from where I come from, in my life. You open up with things like that and can be taken advantage of at times. Because you never really showed that other side. You never really let people into your life that you don’t know. I can’t sit here and complain … because I can tell you one thing, it’s been a helluva ride. I’m enjoying it. And most importantly, I got the opportunity I always wanted.”
Waiters took a huge gamble on himself, signing a two-year, $5.9 million deal with an option after one season with Miami, which was scrambling following Dwyane Wade’s departure for his hometown of Chicago after 13 seasons. Having grown up patterning his game after Wade, and even wearing Wade’s No. 3 at Syracuse and Cleveland, Waiters wasn’t intimidated about sliding into the same shooting guard slot once owned by the future Hall of Famer with whom he shares initials.
“You can’t replace no legend, considering what he did for the city of Miami. He did so much for this city, brought them three titles,” Waiters told The Vertical. “I try to tell people all the time, I think that’s disrespect to D-Wade when people say I’m taking his place. I don’t say that. What he did for this city is unmatched. Hopefully, I can be here, however long I’m here for, the same way that he was here for 13, 14 years.
“I told people, even though I was coming off the playoffs, Western Conference finals, I wanted a better opportunity for me,” Waiters told The Vertical. “And it wasn’t about the money at the time for me. It was just about finding that comfort, really finding that home to play my game and have fun doing it, most importantly.”
Waiters’ decision didn’t yield immediate positive results, with him losing 20 games to a groin injury and the Heat stumbling to a dreadful start that gave the appearance of a rare rebuilding season. While Waiters was rehabbing, the situation appeared bleaker when second-year forward Justise Winslow suffered a season-ending shoulder injury. But team president and master motivator Pat Riley gave Waiters the confidence that the season wasn’t over. Since Waiters returned Jan. 4, the Heat have gone 23-9 and Waiters has twice matched his career high with 33 points while recording 12 of his 16 20-point games this season. Miami is 12-4 when Waiters scores at least 20 points.
“I’m a winner. When I was hurt and things like that, people were counting us out,” Waiters told The Vertical. “Pat told me, ‘When you come back, you’re going to take off.’ And ever since then, we built chemistry, we built that trust and we just took off and it’s a testament in having faith and believing everything is going to be all right.”
Even his choice of No. 11 has worked out. Waiters has connected with backcourt mate and locker-room neighbor Goran Dragic and combined their jersey numbers for a catchy “7-11” nickname. Waiters told The Vertical he respects Dragic, who recently returned from a gruesome-looking eye injury because “he’s a warrior, man. I love warriors. I consider myself a warrior. But he’s one of those tough dudes. … We’re trying to make this last push to get into the playoffs. That’s the most important thing right there.”
Waiters doesn’t try to spend too much time on social media, but told The Vertical that he is aware of the reputation he developed as an unrepentant gunner before arriving in Miami. Images of him raising and clapping his hands, demanding the ball and declaring he was open have put him on the wrong end of a few jokes. “I knew after that I was a target and everybody wanted to have something to say. That don’t bother me,” Waiters told The Vertical. “I’m from Philly. That kind of stuff, we don’t care about that. It’s nothing. In this league, things don’t go your way and you can easily get discouraged and you start to question yourself. And I was never one of those guys, questioning myself.”
That confidence led to the GIF that keeps on giving, following his game-winning shot and pose against the Warriors. “It was another moment that I probably wouldn’t have ever gotten with another team, to show that I was able to make that shot, or take that shot. That’s why I say, opportunity in this league is everything. Because anywhere else, I wouldn’t have been able to take that shot and have that pose,” Waiters told The Vertical. “It’s just being in the moment, staying in the moment. I don’t take it for granted, because this is what I wanted.”
The upward swing in Waiters’ career comes nearly a year after one of the most challenging moments of his life: dealing with the shooting death of his brother, Demetrius “Zique” Pinckney. Waiters is still coping with the loss but chooses to use it as inspiration. “Things like that are unfortunate. I try not to think about it too much, because it can have you sad and emotional,” Waiters told The Vertical. “But I know he’s there in spirit. I know he’s up there doing the pose for me and all that.”
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