When Dion Waiters returns soon from January ankle surgery, the Heat – in some respects – will know exactly what it’s getting: a gifted, supremely confident player who usually can get to the basket when he pleases and never shirks from taking a big shot.
“He’s definitely above average in drawing defenses and finding guys,” said Heat swingman Josh Richardson, whose team is riding a five-game winning streak heading into Wednesday’s home game against Eastern Conference-leading Toronto.
But in another respect, the Heat cannot be sure at all what it’s getting with Waiters.
Is Miami welcoming back the Waiters who was one of the NBA’s most productive and efficient shooting guards during a magical 25-game stretch during the second half of the 2016-17 season? Or are they getting the player who struggled badly with his shot while playing on a bum ankle to start last season, and the one whose career has often been marred by inefficiency?
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The Heat is banking on the former, believing that last year’s 30-game struggle can be blamed in part on Waiters playing through a stress fracture in his left ankle. Erik Spoelstra said Waiters has been participating in full practices but has declined to say when he will make his season debut. The Heat has ruled him out for Wednesday’s game against Toronto.
“He’s going to whet your appetite,” a veteran scout with another NBA team said Monday, speaking on condition of anonymity because he’s not authorized to speak publicly. “I don’t know if you can call him a tease at this point in his career. He teased them into a big contract. What he did [in the second half of the 2016-17 season] is an outlier. He’s more scorer than shooter and he hasn’t been efficient for much of his career.”
The Heat hopes a healthy Waiters resembles the player who averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists per game and shot 49.3 percent from the field and 44.8 on three-pointers during that splendid 25-game run between January and March 2017.
Those numbers were all well ahead of his career averages over 365 NBA games: 13.3 points, 2.8 assists, 41.2 percent shooting from the field and 34.1 percent from three-point range.
Waiters, 27, parlayed those 25 games into a four-year, $52 million contract, though the value of the deal will be lessened by at least $2.2 million in incentives because he didn’t play in 70 games last season and won’t do it this season, either.
“Twenty five games isn’t a big sample size,” the scout said. “It’s like what Jeremy Lin did a few years ago. A mirage.”
But the scout said if Waiters’ 25-game joyride wasn’t a mirage, it will be in part because the Heat pushed him to get in better shape and “maybe the Miami effect helped” and will continue to help in terms of how effectively Heat coaches develop players.
The Waiters who began last season wasn’t remotely as efficient as the 25-game Waiters. Before his season-ending surgery, Waiters ranked among the bottom shooting guards in the league in shooting percentage (39.8) and three-point shooting (30.6 percent), while averaging 14.8 points.
In his defense, he was in discomfort with the ankle. According to an SI.com profile last week, he struggled walking and couldn’t drive during the three months he played last season and often wore slippers on his left foot because of severe ankle swelling.
Because of that discomfort, Waiters drove to the basket less than during his first season with the Heat. He attempted 3.4 shots per game at the rim, compared with 4.9 the previous season.
The other big difference was he shot 34.8 percent from 16 feet to the three-point line in his 30 games last season, compared with 43 percent the previous season. And his three-point percentage tumbled, ranking second-worst among NBA shooting guards, ahead of only Oklahoma City defensive wizard Andre Roberson, who played in 39 games before rupturing his Achilles’.
But here was one encouraging development from last season: Waiters remained lethal in the clutch, much as he was in the second half of 2016-17. In his 30 games last season, he shot 18 for 35 (51.4 percent) and 7 for 14 on three-pointers in the clutch – defined by the NBA as games in the final five minutes with a margin of five points or fewer.
Ultimately, Waiters needed a seven-hour procedure on Jan. 20, a surgery that included ligament repair and two screws being inserted in his foot.
Now, more than a year after his last NBA game (Dec. 22, 2017), his confidence hasn’t wavered.
“I know I’m better than a lot of these guys in the [expletive] league,” Waiters told SI.com when asked about what he can bring to the Heat. “I only gave y’all a taste. I know I can do more.”
He told SI.com that he appreciates that Spoelstra allows him the freedom to play his game:
“Correct me when I’m wrong, but let me make mistakes. You need a chance to correct yourself, but let me be the best version of me. Spo allowed me to be me and have fun.”
Richardson said even beyond his ability to score, there’s something else Waiters will bring: “an aggressive attacker and another ball-handler. And he will bring an edge to the game.”
The scout, like much of the NBA, is eager to see if this Waiters looks anything like the January through March 2017 Waiters.
“He can score, can give you playmaking, can break you down at the end of the shot clock and get his shot,” the scout said. “In today’s NBA, that’s a positive.
“But he hasn’t played in a long time. He’s going to have to play a lot of point guard too without [Goran] Dragic [until mid-February]. Is that going to help him? That isn’t clear. If they get above average productivity out of him, they should be very happy.”