The Graduation of Dion Waiters

VIDEO: Waiters gets served.

OKLAHOMA CITY – Fourth-year Oklahoma City Thunder guard Dion Waiters is averaging the fewest points per game (9.8 ppg) of his career. Waiters is also probably playing the best overall basketball of his career. It speaks to Waiters’ continuing basketball education that he realizes the two aren’t necessarily mutually exclusive.

As the fourth overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, Waiters joined a rebuilding Cavaliers team with plenty of shots to go around. But as part of Cleveland’s rebuild following the return of LeBron James, Waiters was traded to Oklahoma City, where the Thunder just missed the postseason last year while Kevin Durant was out injured.

This season, things finally fell into place for the Thunder and Waiters, as he played in 78 games for the 55-27 Thunder. Waiters made his playoff debut last night in the Thunder’s 108-70 win over the Mavericks. Waiters chalks up his 1-of-9 shooting game to being overexcited. But it’s worth noting, Waiters also netted a +17 plus/minus rating thanks to two rebounds, two steals, three assists, and making an effort on the defensive end.

We sat down with Waiters after practice Sunday, where the guy who used to relish going one-on-one is now talking about hockey assists and giving up good shots for great shots.

DION WAITERS: I’m excited just to be here first and foremost. I’m blessed. My first playoffs ever. I was real excited yesterday, too excited. I’m glad I got one game under my belt now.

NBA.COM: You were too fired up?

DW: I was too hyped. I came out like that. But I needed one of those games, needed one of those to get those emotions out. I’m fine now. Guys were telling me how crazy it would be. You just see it, the stands with people wearing blue and white. It was great.

NBA.COM: What’s the transition been like for you, into this organization as you’ve learning your role here?

DW: I mean, of course, it’s different. My rookie year, my sophomore year, I was able to play and play a lot. I was one of the go-to guys. My rookie year and sophomore year I got better each year, but we were losing. My third year, LeBron came, and things just weren’t going right. I got traded in January, came here, and when I got here, I just felt the love. Everybody connected. The atmosphere, the love, the people that really want to help you. And I knew what it took to be a pro, but over here it was pro’s pros. If practice is at 11, these guys are here at 9, out on the floor, setting an example. So I started trying to beat them here. I see what it takes. And they do it every day, no breaks in between, they got the same routine. When I got here, instantly I got better. Of course, you’ve got to make sacrifices. You’ve got to find your niche. When I got here, unfortunately KD had gotten hurt, so Scott Brooks let me play, and that was some of the most fun basketball I’d had, being one game away from the playoffs even though I ended the season strong. I knew coming here with KD was going to be different, because that’s what he does, he scores. And a guy like me, I need the ball. So I’ve tried to make different adjustments now, as far as like, working on being able to catch and shoot. I’m at like 40-percent now on catch-and-shoot situations, so that’s great. I was a guy who had to take you off the dribble. Now that I’m here, I don’t always have to do any of those things because I’ve got two top-five players in the League in Russ and Kev. I know I can score the ball, but now I want to show other people that I can defend, that I can get to the lane and make plays for myself and others. And one thing about here? You’ve gotta understand, some games you might have a big night, some games you might have 10 points. But what did you do to impact the game? I’m learning that. I’m only 24 years old. Just by me being here for a year and a half, I’ve gotten so much better as a player, as far as developing a consistent routine, I feel like my body is good, just working and continuing to work on an everyday basis. So it’s been a great ride for me so far, man. I’m enjoying every moment, and it’s about being patient, being patient. I know my time is going to come, I’ve just got to continue to work hard and be a part of a winning team and enjoy it. You can’t substitute anything for winning. I was losing my first three years. Just to win 50 games alone is great.

NBA.COM: Man, you need to have a radio show.

DW: I should?

NBA.COM: Yes, you should. Because you can really talk.

DW: (laughs) When I first got here, I was just talking without making sense. I used to hate watching myself in interviews.

NBA.COM: You talked about making sacrifices with your game. What kind of things have you pulled back on, what have you emphasized?

DW: Just trying to figure out when to be aggressive. I’m always going to be aggressive, that’s who I am. But learning the difference between what’s a good shot and what’s a great shot?

NBA.COM: What is the difference?

DW: It’s a good shot when you’re open, but a great shot if you’re open but you’ve got a guy open in the corner, and the defender in between comes to you and you kick it to him. Or if you make the hockey assist or get an assist. I can always get my shot off, I feel. At the end of the day, when you’re a scorer, you think scoring first. That’s just your mentality and your instinct. But here we’ve got so many great players who can make plays. Sometimes you even make a pass, get the guy the open shot, and it might come right back. Those type of things, I’m learning each day. I would say, coming into the league you really don’t know what to expect and you learn on your own, on the fly. That’s the difference between me three years ago and now. I’d say I was a pretty good, smart basketball player, but now I know the difference, and you know when you’re wrong and when you take a bad shot.

NBA.COM: I don’t know if you mean to, but you keep talking about your “sophomore” year in the NBA, and it’s almost like you’re talking about college. Now that you’re in your fourth season, does it feel like you’re a senior ready to graduate?

DW: That’s exactly it. I’m ready to take off. But we still have to focus on the task at hand right now. That’s my whole thing, I’m ready for that next step. That’s what it is man. I know what it takes.

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