NEW YORK – There was a while back in April where it seemed like Dion Waiters was all but out the door.
Waiters didn’t play as much as he wanted to as a freshman. Coming in as a top 30 recruit nationally, Waiters expected to make an immediate impact as a freshman. But with Syracuse returning a veteran back court, Waiters was relegated to the bench. It didn’t sit well with him, and his attitude affected his play. He still managed to have an impact off the bench — he averaged 6.6 ppg in just over 16 mpg, taking 24.4% of his team’s shots while he was on the floor — but with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche both back this season, Waiters had to decide whether or not he would be comfortable spending another season in the role of the sparkplug off the bench.
“I thought about it,” Waiters said after the game when asked whether he truly intended to transfer this summer.
But Waiters never did end up transferring. While the conversations he had with head coach Jim Boeheim eased his concerns about playing time — Waiters said they had a number of conversations over the summer and “got a better relationship with each other” — it was a conversation with his mother, Monique Brown, that convinced him that Syracuse was where he wanted to be.
“She said she never raised a quitter. That’s something that stuck with me,” Waiters said. “She said don’t let them win. Just don’t let them win, don’t give up. Just work hard and show them that this is something that you’ve done your entire life. This summer I worked hard, I was in the gym every day.”
“That’s what motivated me.”
That motivation, that hard work that Waiters put in over the summer — he said he was in the gym three and four times a day — is paying off in a big way. Coming into Wednesday, Waiters was tied for the team lead in scoring at 13.8 ppg and was second in assists at 3.5 apg while reducing his number of turnovers.
And while Waiters got off to a slow start in the Orange’s 69-58 win over Virginia Tech in the semifinals of the Preseason NIT, he was the difference maker in the second half. Waiters played a huge role in the game-changing, 17-3 run that turned a 42-39 deficit into a 56-45 lead. First, he found Brandon Triche in the corner for a three. He followed that up on the next possession by driving and dumping the ball off to CJ Fair for a dunk.
After Fair hit a three on the next possession, Waiters reeled off nine straight points. He hit a three from the wing and an 18-footer on the following possession. He followed that up with a layup in transition and another jumper to build the 11 point lead. Three possessions later, after Tech had cut the lead to five, Waiters found Fair for another layup and then got a dunk in transition off of a steal from Triche, pushing the lead back to nine with just over three minutes left.
“Right now we need Dion to come off the bench and be confident because we’re going to need them in big games,” Jardine said.
To his credit, Waiters has embraced his role this season. Instead of being concerned with what his stat line looks like in the box score, he’s worried about the team’s record. Instead of fretting over who is in the starting lineup, he’s focused on how successful this group can be this season and how far they can go in March.
“I was kind of selfish last year,” Waiters said. “Not starting, all the little things instead of me just knowing that we got a great group of guys here. If we were all on the same page last year, we probably could have gotten the job done.”
“We gotta work together. We’re going to have a great team this year and I can’t be the only one that’s unhappy.”
But that success that Waiters has had may end up creating a tricky situation for Boeheim to handle. Jardine played just 20 minutes against Virginia Tech. He was parked in the seat next to Boeheim for the entirety of the stretch run as Waiters spurred the Orange to Friday’s final. As good as Jardine and Triche are, Waiters may be the most talented back court player that Boeheim has at his disposal.
The key to the season is going to be how Boeheim is able to manage the egos on this team. He legitimately has six starters on his roster, and every game one of those guys are going to be riding pine in the most important minutes of the game. If he opts to go three guards, that means that either he will have Kris Joseph, the star of this group and a guy that had 20 points and 10 boards in Syracuse’s first game against real competition, sitting on the bench or playing out of position at the four. If he opts to play Fair, than one of the three back court players will be on the bench.
Too much talent is a better problem to have than not enough talent, but its a tricky balance keeping everyone happy with their playing time.
To the credit of the players, it seems like everyone is buying in at this point.
“Its about accepting your role and playing to the best of your ability,” Jardine said. “I’m just trying to be as efficient as possible and get us into our offense and try not to make o mistakes. My biggest thing tonight is I didn’t have any turnovers, so that’s a big thing, I’m a point guard.”
“We’re trying to win games.”
Waiters reiterated the same point.
“I’m getting used to it,” he said of his role off the bench. “But I just know that we got a great group of guys here and I don’t want to mess that up. I’m just going to play my role, play my part and do what I’ve got to do to try and win a national championship.”
Rob Dauster is the editor of the college basketball website Ballin’ is a Habit. You can find him on twitter @ballinisahabit.