Dion Waiters enters the 2015-16 season hoping to secure a new contract next summer and possibly maintain a future with the Oklahoma City Thunder.
With a new coach and possibly a new role on a team with championship aspirations, Waiters has the opportunity to break out, but he needs to get rid of the inconsistency that has followed him his throughout his NBA career.
After joining the Thunder, he averaged 12.7 points in 46 games and was one of the few Thunder players who played in every game this past season. Most importantly, after a reportedly unstable time with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Waiters found happiness in his new environment.
“It was a special year for me. Just being able to make the transition that I did,” Waiters said during his exit interview. “It was exciting, the fans, the people, the community. I miss it already. I just can’t wait to get back.”
However, Waiters’ time in OKC had its fair share of woes. His shot selection was suspect as he shot a career-low 39.2 percent from the field and also struggled from the free throw line, shooting 68 percent from the line.
History suggests that a contract extension for Waiters by the October 31 deadline is unlikely as the Thunder let Jeff Green, James Harden and Reggie Jackson enter their contract year still looking for a new deal and each were traded before the season ended. OKC hasn’t shown any signs of moving Waiters, but the uncertainty makes this season an important campaign for him.
Former Thunder coach Scott Brooks used defensive players with length at the shooting guard spot to help stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook use less energy on defense. Thabo Sefolosha was the team’s perimeter defender for more than five seasons before Andre Roberson took over the role.
Now Brooks is gone and ex-University of Florida coach Billy Donovan is in, which means there could a new face in OKC’s backcourt. During his introductory press conference, Donovan gave an idea of what he wants at the offensive end, per Darnell Mayberry of the Oklahoman:
“Playing fast, moving and playing into a flow on offense,” Donovan said. “Playing out of concepts, not trying to stop the game and trying to call a play every time, but let those guys create and make plays inside the framework of that vision of player movement, ball movement, making the extra pass and being unselfish.”
Roberson has his limits as a scorer, which makes him a poor choice for Donovan’s pace-and-space scheme. This past season Roberson averaged 3.4 points and shot a woeful 24.7 percent from downtown.
Anthony Morrow is another candidate for the starting job. He shot 43.4 percent from behind the arc, but his scoring is mostly from the three ball. Of his 615 field-goal attempts in 2014-15, 325 came from behind the arc, which means 52.8 percent of his shots were 3’s.
Waiters does fit the bill as a 2-guard who is both confident to take shots and make plays with the kind of tempo Donovan is looking for.
Waiter’s was anything but selective, though. When he got the ball, you generally knew it was going up. The worst of his shot selection was shooting long 2-pointers, which made up 27 percent of his field goals.
The hope is Donovan can push Waiters away from taking long jumpers and convince him to attack the basket more often, where he converted 50.8 percent of his shots. Waiters also has the potential to be a weapon from the outside. Although his 31.9 percent from deep was a bit demoralizing, it’s worth noting he made 36.8 percent of his threes in 2013-14.
After struggling to co-exist with ball-dominant stars like LeBron James and Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, can Waiters handle playing heavy minutes in the starting lineup with Durant and Westbrook? Waiters will have to accept being possibly the fifth option in the rotation behind Durant, Westbrook, Serge Ibaka and Enes Kanter. If he is moved back to the sixth-man role again, he will need to become a more willing passer, as ball movement is one of Donovan’s key principles.
To secure a future in Oklahoma City, Waiters’ needs to make strides in these areas. The Thunder gave up a future first-round pick to acquire him, and its alleged reluctance to use him to move up in the draft suggests he’s an essential part of the core.
Whether Waiters is a starter or a reserve, the Thunder took a chance on playing him in their championship quest. So far, the results have been mixed, leaving his future with the team uncertain.
The opportunity is there for Waiters to leave his mark in OKC, with it being his contract year, now is the time to do so.