Dion Waiters is honest. He brings a competitive edge to the basketball court that’s fueled by an unrelenting desire to never back down. After being selected fourth overall in 2012, Waiters has averaged 15.3 points and 3.0 assists over his first 131 games in League.
When asked about competing for a starting job this season, he answers with the same competitive honesty he plays with. His responses to those questions, and others, are truthful, genuine and refreshing. But sometimes that straightforward approach rubs people who don’t know him the wrong way—even though it shouldn’t.
“If you ask me a question, I’m just going to answer it,” Waiters told SLAM, in response to a comment he offered recently about his goal of securing a starting spot this year. “You dream about being a starter in the NBA your whole life. I’m right here with a chance to do that and I’m not backing down from the challenge. So when somebody asks me if that’s my goal, I’m going to just answer truthfully. I don’t mean any disrespect to anybody. I’m just trying to compete. Anybody in my position would think the same way. I worked hard to get where I’m at today. I haven’t reached my peak. I feel like I’m still getting started. But as a man, in the NBA, if you don’t have confidence in yourself nobody else will.”
One person who embraces that confidence from Waiters is the new head coach of the Cavaliers, David Blatt. He had a chance to talk with the 22-year-old shooting guard last week in Las Vegas while watching him compete with Team USA.
“For me, just being around him, he’s a laid back, up-front type of guy,” Waiters said of his conversations with Blatt. “He’s a guy you can talk to about anything. I’m really excited to play for him. And I think it’s vice-versa. He thinks I can excel and go to the next level in his offense. He loves that my goal is to be a starter. He respects that type of attitude. But when we met, we mostly just talked about life.
“He asked about my life story growing up. He wanted to learn about the things I’ve been through, how I got to where I am. So I put it all out there, my whole life story. Everything I went through growing up as a kid in Philadelphia. And it gave him a chance to understand how I am as a person. He respects that I’m straightforward and wear my heart on my sleeve. And he’s a straightforward guy, too. So I just felt like I got the chance to really be myself around him. I didn’t have to be somebody else.”
What Blatt and anyone else who spends time talking with Waiters understands is that he’s simply pushing himself to become the best player he can. He’ll tell you the personal goals he has heading into his third professional season if you ask, but he’s not issuing any sort of ultimatum.
“I’m willing to do anything for the team at the end of the day,” Waiters added. “If that’s coming off the bench, I’ll come off the bench. Coach knows that. He knows I’m just being myself as a competitor. That’s the only way I can succeed is by being myself. I can’t try to be somebody I’m not. I’m maturing as a man, I’m growing as a player and person, but I’m always going to give it to you straightforward. I’m not going to hide. The only way I know how to be is real.”
Last week, Waiters had the opportunity to measure his off-season growth against Kevin Durant, James Harden and the rest of Team USA Basketball. Competing for his second year as a member of Team USA Select, it proved to be another productive trip to Nevada.
“It was a good experience with USA Basketball,” Waiters said. “Going against the best players, always bringing it every day at a high level and just really getting after it. It’s great to be around those guys, working to get better. And Coach K, he’s a really genuine guy. He’s the same all the time, real level, soft-spoken and it’s always good being around him. The whole coaching staff always does an unbelievable job and I just really appreciate the opportunity to be a part of something like that.”
As LeBron James makes his return to Northeast Ohio, Waiters is also preparing to be part of something special in Cleveland. The possibility of playing next to the world’s best player became increasingly real for Waiters when his phone rang early last month. But he didn’t ultimately know where James would end up until he read his decision on July 11.
“We’ve talked,” Waiters said of his new teammate. “I actually talked with LeBron before he made his decision. He called me and just told me to be ready. Be ready. I talked to him four or five days before he made his decision. He just got on the phone and said I haven’t made my mind up yet but be ready.
I told him that I’m already working hard. I’ll be ready. And he said, I know, I know you are. Then a few days later I read the letter. I was just really excited for the city of Cleveland. I think the city, more than anybody, deserves this. They deserve to have LeBron coming back. I think the excitement is really back in Cleveland and I’m looking forward to being a part of that.”
While Waiters has spent his offseason improving his body and overall game, he’s also specifically focused on improving his offensive impact without the basketball. He’s breaking down film of Dwyane Wade to better understand how he dominated games in that capacity alongside James in Miami.
“I’ve been thinking about how I can adjust my game to best play alongside LeBron ever since he made his decision,” Waiters said. “A player like that, the best player in the world, you get excited to have him on your team. And you also have to adjust your game to make the overall team better around him.
“So like I told ESPN the other day, I’ve gone back and I’m watching film on D-Wade. I’m studying how he was able to put himself in a position to dominate the game off the ball. I know I’m not going to have the ball in my hands that much. I know I need to be more efficient. I’ll have it some, but I know I need to make adjustments when you have three ball-dominant players like LeBron, Ky and myself. So I’m just getting ready to do whatever it takes.”
Learning to play more efficiently without the basketball has been a consistent goal for Waiters and Irving over the last two seasons. While working in two different systems offensively—first under the direction of Byron Scott and then Mike Brown—the young guards experienced growing pains at times in the backcourt. But Waiters is confident that will improve the more time they spend playing together.
“People say me and Ky can’t play together,” Waiters said. “But you got to look at it, we haven’t even had a real chance to play together. Twenty games last year I’m starting. The next 20 I’m on the bench. Then I’m starting again. Then Ky got hurt. Our rotations together never were that consistent for us to totally learn each other’s game. But people don’t seem to look at it like that sometimes. When we were on the floor together, it showed we could play. I know we can keep growing the more chances we get to play together and I’m excited about that.”
As far as their relationship, Waiters also says that the narrative suggesting the two guards don’t like each other—and even rumors of a physical altercations last season—couldn’t be further from the truth.
“Listen man, a lot of people don’t really know,” Waiters said, of his relationship with Irving. “People just talk. The truth is I never had a problem with Ky. We never fought. Me and Ky, we hang out. We talk. We work out together. We’re not always together, we have two lives we both live. He’s somewhere, I’m somewhere. But when we’re in the same city, we work out together. We go out together. People are going to always talk and say things that aren’t true but that don’t bother me. I know how our relationship is and so does Ky. That’s all that matters.”
In addition to studying tape of D-Wade, and working to improve his overall game, Waiters has also added an element of boxing to his strength-training regimen like a lot of other NBA players have over the last few years.
“You always want to improve on everything in the offseason,” Waiters said. “I’m trying to do more things this summer than I did last year. I think when you mix it up a lot, it works better. I’ve been getting on the court and playing more than I did last year. I’m running, lifting and getting my individual work in, and I’ve also been doing a lot of boxing.
I’ve been going to the boxing gym in Philly every morning. The boxing is really helping my legs. Every morning I go to the gym, then I go run, lift and play. I’m getting in the ring, hitting the bags, doing all that stuff. The only thing I didn’t do yet is spar [laughs]. But I’m gonna leave that alone.”
The Wait Is Over
Dion Waiters has consistently given back to the communities of Cleveland and Philadelphia ever since he signed his first deal in the League. This summer, he’s helped launch a series of events through his charity foundation, The Wait Is Over, designed to support the inner-city community he grew up in.
“Growing up around where I did, a lot of people don’t really get a lot of opportunities in life,” he said. “I understand that struggle and know what it was like before I experienced success. So I always want to give back to the city and my hometown to show kids that they have a chance to be something in life too.
Even if someone tells you that you can’t do something, don’t let that bring you down. I was told by people that I wouldn’t be nothing in life growing up. I know how it feels when someone tells you things like that and I want kids to understand they can achieve their dreams too.”
One teacher who always believed in Dion met him in the first grade. They’ve stayed in contact ever since, and she is still teaching at his former elementary school—one of the schools his foundation is helping raise funds for.
“We’re raising money to help the elementary school I went to growing up,” he explained. “It wasn’t doing that good as far as books and things like that. But the whole purpose is to raise money for books, equipment, supplies, chairs and the basic things the kids need for the school. Our school wasn’t even able to even have recess last year. During the season, I was away so much I didn’t know what was going on until afterward. But my favorite teacher is still there, her name is Ms. A—she took care of me when I was a kid and still works there. I just think it’s the right thing to do, to help out and support people in the community like her who work to put smiles on kid’s faces every day.”
Waiters has a second-annual book drive scheduled for September 6, along with other events throughout the year. But those aren’t the only times you’ll find him interacting with the community.
“I try to just interact with the kids in the neighborhood during the summer when I’m riding around on a bike. Or at the playground, just being myself and talking to them like nothing ever changed. People from my neighborhood will tell you that nothing ever changed about me, that I’m still myself, and I think that’s important. I’m not trying to act like I’m better than anybody. I want the kids that see me to know that I’m just like them.”
The kid who’s most like Waiters is his young son, Dion Jr. He’s also helping Waiters put in extra work this summer by forcing him to keep up with his newly developed foot-speed.
“One thing I learned about being a father is that you have to be very patient,” Waiters joked. “Very patient. And I think that helped me. Because when my son Dion was younger, when he wasn’t walking, I was like, Man, I can’t wait until he starts walking. But now he’s running, and I’m like, Aww man, I wish he wasn’t walking and running around so much! It’s hard to keep up.
“He’s into everything, man, he’s bad [laughs]. I think it’s catching up to me because of how I was as a kid. I was bad as a kid, too, and everything I did to my mom is all catching up to me. He’s driving me crazy, but I love every second of it. I see me in him a whole lot and it’s fun to be around him. It’s the best feeling in the world.”
It’s also another reason why Waiters doesn’t get hung up on rumors, trade speculation, or people who interpret his quotes the wrong way. Life, for Dion Waiters, is much simpler than all that. He’s just a Philly kid, chasing his dreams, who arrived in the NBA on the strength of being himself. His family, his team, his city and the game he loves is all he’s trying to worry about.
Just ask him, he’ll tell you.