After nearly transferring, ‘Cuse’s Waiters thriving off the bench

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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.

VIDEOS: New footlocker commercials make fun of Trae Young, LiAngelo Ball

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A new series of commercials being released today by Foot Locker feature the stars of the NBA draft getting roasted.

Well, “stars”.

Because the commercial that is going to get the most play is of LiAngelo Ball, who never actually played in college. Ball, if you remember, was arrested for shoplifting while his UCLA team was on a trip to China. He was eventually dismissed from the program and ended up playing for a year in Lithuania before entering the NBA draft.

And, well, they touch on all of that in this commercial:

The other player to get roasted was Trae Young, who was a sensation for the first half of the college basketball season before a dreadful finish saw him losing 12 of his last 16 games. It was ugly, and Foot Locker made sure to remind him of it:

I appreciate the effort here from Foot Locker, but I have to say that these just are not all that funny.

Michael Porter Jr. says info on hip injury ‘got exaggerated a lot’

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Michael Porter Jr. told the Will Cain Show on Monday that he’s “feeling great” and that the information that made the rounds last week was “exaggerated a lot”.

Porter, who missed almost his entire freshman season after undergoing surgery on his back, cancelled a workout that was supposed to take place on Friday due to issues in his hip. It was reported to be spasms, bad enough that he wasn’t able to get out of bed, according to a report from ESPN. It’s worth noting that the original injury he was said to be dealing with at Missouri was a hip injury, not a back injury.

Porter eventually attended Friday’s team workout, although he didn’t workout, he only allowed teams to have their doctors evaluate his back.

“I got evaluated,” Porter said. “I let the doctors come in and do all their tests on me. I’m feeling good. I think the teams are comfortable, but I might get a couple workouts in.”

“It was just a little sore, so I told [my agent] my hip was kind of sore and he just wanted to shut it down for a couple of days,” Porter said. “And then people took that and kind of ran with it, saying, you know, my hip was injured, I couldn’t get out of bed. None of that was really true. I was just sore and I wanted to take a couple of days off. So that’s all that was.”

Porter added that his back is “normal. I have no issues with it. There’s no risk of reinjury [and] every MRI that I’ve done is perfect.”

2018 NBA Draft: 12 players outside the lottery that will out-perform their draft position

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In three of the last five seasons, the NBA’s Rookie of the Year award was given to a player that was picked outside of the top five.

Damian Lillard was the No. 6 pick in the 2012 NBA Draft.

Michael Carter-Williams went 11th in 2013.

Malcolm Brogdon? He was a second round pick in 2016.

This season, Donovan Mitchell, who was selected 13th in the 2017 NBA Draft, would be a shoe-in for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons had not been hurt last season.

Kyle Kuzma, the 27th pick in the draft, will be a First-Team All-Rookie selection.

So with that in mind, let’s take a look at 12 players projected to be picked outside of the lottery in the 2018 NBA Draft are going to out-perform their draft position.

ROBERT WILLIAMS, Texas A&M

I know I said outside of the lottery and I know that Williams is projected by many to be scooped up in the back-end of the lottery, but he deserves a mention here because anyone getting him outside of the top ten will be getting a steal.

The reason for that is simple: Williams has the perfect set of skills to play the five in the NBA. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot-5 wingspan and the kind of athleticism that will leave him in danger of concussing himself on the backboard, Williams has every tool needed to be a rim-running, lob-catching, rim-protecting center in today’s NBA.

NBA scouts saw this in Williams prior to last season. That’s why he was projected as a lottery pick early on in his freshman season, but the combination of returning to school, playing on a team where the pieces did not fit together and dealing with some suspensions and injuries throughout the year limited his production. The biggest hindrance? For a player that needs space to operate, Williams played on a team that had no floor-spacing whose go-to option offensively was Tyler Davis, a 6-foot-10 land-warrior that did all of his damage within eight-feet of the rim.

Put another way, playing in the NBA, where spacing is plentiful and point guards excel at throwing lobs up at the rim, will be better for Williams’ production than playing in college.

One other note on Williams: One of the biggest knocks on him is his work ethic. Texas A&M head coach Billy Kennedy told me before the season started that the one thing that Williams had been working the hardest on was learning how to work hard. That’s a major reason why there are concerns about whether or not Williams will hit his upside or develop a three-point shot.

He can add nothing to his repertoire between now and when he hits free agency and Williams will, in my mind, be somewhere between Clint Capela and Tristan Thompson by then. If he drops all the way to the Wizards at No. 15, John Wall’s celebration will make Alex Ovechkin’s look humble.

DE’ANTHONY MELTON, USC

Everyone loves hot takes, so here’s a scorcher for you: If De’Anthony Melton had been allowed to play this season, if he had not gotten caught up in the FBI’s investigation into college basketball, we would he talking about his as a potential lottery pick. Melton is a swiss-army knife. He’s 6-foot-3 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, an athletic defender that averaged 2.8 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes as a freshman. His size and length should allow him to defend multiple positions, and his ability to create — 5.1 assists per 40 minutes as a freshman — makes him an intriguing and versatile talent. He was the only player in the NCAA to average 10 points, five boards, five assists, 2.5 steals and 1.5 blocks per 40 minutes in 2016-17, something that has only been done seven times in NCAA history.

His big question mark is his ability to shoot the ball. That was the major reason he opted to return to school for his sophomore season; he made just 21 threes in 36 games at USC. Melton spent some time working out with Drew Hanlen, who helped reconfigure the shooting stroke of Jayson Tatum and Mo Bamba and is now working with Markelle Fultz to get his shot fixed, and had a full year to do nothing but get his shot right. It looked improved at the combine, and sources at USC say that he looked much-improved before he opted to leave school.

Melton is likely always going to be somewhat limited offensively, but I see him as a perfect fit as a role player alongside a ball-dominant lead guard.

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AARON HOLIDAY, UCLA

I love Holiday as a mid-to-late first round pick in this draft, and I think he has the potential to thrive as the first guard off the bench for a playoff team even as a rookie. The season he had as a junior — 20.3 points, 5.8 assists, 3.7 boards, 1.3 steals — has been underrated because of the disappointment that UCLA was. He’s a point guard by trade, and capable of playing against second-units in the NBA, but as a career 42 percent three-point shooter that spent last season playing alongside Lonzo Ball, he’s also quite capable of playing off-the-ball as a floor-spacer.

He’s just a shade under 6-foot-1, but he’s a good athlete with a 6-foot-7.5 wingspan and is a better defender than he’ll get credit for because of Steve Alford’s inability to coach a team to get stops. Throw in his NBA pedigree — he is the younger brother of NBA player Jrue and Justin — and I think you’re looking at a guy that will spend a decade in the league.

CHANDLER HUTCHISON, Boise State

I love Hutchison’s potential as a scorer at the next level. He has positional size — 6-foot-7 with a 7-foot wingspan — and he spent the last year working on improving his shooting stroke and his toughness. His fluidity and shot-making should translate well to the NBA, and I think that he has the physical tools to hold his own on the defensive end of the floor. A late-bloomer with size, athleticism and the ability to shoot the ball should be something that playoff teams are looking for. I’m not sure that he is a starter at the NBA level, but I think he can help a playoff as a role player off the bench next season.

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KEVIN HUERTER, Maryland; MELVIN FRAZIER, Tulane; JOSH OKOGIE, Georgia Tech;  and KHYRI THOMAS, Creighton

All four of these guys fit the mold for what NBA teams are looking for out of a player at the end of the first round or the beginning of the second round. Players with positional versatility, size, length and shooting ability.

To me, Huerter is the best of the group. At 6-foot-7, he has the height to make up for what he lacks in length. He’s probably the best shooter of the group, and he has a much better feel for how to play than the others; he averaged 3.4 assists as a sophomore. Toughness and his impact defensively are the question marks, but what he’ll bring offensively will help to offset some of that.

Huerter, like Okogie, is also very young, younger than Mo Bamba, Deandre Ayton and Michael Porter Jr., and that adds to their intrigue. Okogie is just 6-foot-4, but his 7-foot wingspan, athleticism and ability to knock down perimeter shots makes him an ideal 3-and-D prospect, and his age is the reason why he’s likely to get picked ahead of Thomas, whose profile — 6-foot-3, 6-foot-10 wingspan, knockdown shooter — isn’t all that different.

Frazier is the x-factor. He’s the biggest (6-foot-7, 7-foot-2 wingspan) and the most athletic, but he’s also the rawest. The tools are there, and the 38 percent he shot from three this past season is promising, but sources around the Tulane program have said that number may be a bit fluky, like the 38 percent Josh Jackson shot from three as a freshman at Kansas. He’s a risk, but in the late-20s or 30s, he is certainly worth the risk.

RAWLE ALKINS, Arizona

Alkins hasn’t gotten much as any of the four players I just listed, but he’s a guy I think could sneak up on some people. He’s strong and athletic with that New York City toughness in his blood. He’s not a great three-point shooter, but he’s good. He’s not an elite defender, but he’s good. I do think he ends up in an NBA rotation by the end of next season, which is a pretty good return for a guy projected as a early-to-mid second round pick.

DEVON HALL, Virginia

Hall is a strong, 6-foot-4 guard with a 6-foot-8 wingspan and the kind of defensive toughness you know you are getting from a product of Tony Bennett’s system at Virginia. He shot 43 percent from three as a senior while averaging 3.1 assists. He can defend multiple positions, he can play off the ball and he is a playmaker when the ball is in his hands. As a mid-to-late second round pick, Hall seems to me to be a great fit as a back-end-of-the-rotation guard that will come on the cheap. I think he makes an NBA roster within two years.

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JALEN BRUNSON, Villanova

Brunson is so smart and so efficient and such a good shooter that I cannot imagine him not finding success in the NBA. Before Quinn Cook had the season that he had, I would have pegged Golden State as the perfect landing spot for Brunson. Now, I think he’ll probably slide to the second round, and if the Suns don’t land Aaron Holiday with the 16th pick, I think that might be a perfect landing spot for Brunson at 31. Either way, I think that his floor is Fred VanVleet, who averaged 8.6 points and 3.2 assists while shooting 41 percent from three as Toronto’s back-up point guard.

WHOEVER THE WARRIORS PICK

Golden State needs to find a player that can simply fill a role on the best team in NBA history, and they’ve proven in recent years that they excel at finding those kind of talents. Damian Jones was a miss, but Kevon Looney, Pat McCaw and Jordan Bell all played key roles for the Warriors during title runs the last two seasons. None of them are ever going to be great NBA players, but they don’t have to be: They are on a roster with two MVPs, three of the best shooters in NBA history and four of the top 15-20 players in the NBA today. All they have to do is the job they’re asked to do, and to do so on the cheap.

Whoever the Warriors get with the 28th pick should be able to do the same, whether that’s someone on this list — Thomas, Okogie and Brunson all make sense to me — or a player like Grayson Allen, a shooter that played both guard positions in college and is older and more physically ready for the league.

Penn State’s Mike Watkins arrested for third time in two years

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Penn State forward Mike Watkins has found himself in trouble with the law for the third time in his career as a Nittany Lion.

On Monday, Watkins, a 6-foot-9 forward that just completed his redshirt sophomore season by averaging 12.9 points and 8.8 boards, was arrested for possession of drug paraphenalia. According to a report from the Centre Daily Times, Watkins was found to have a weed grinder as well as three .40 caliber bullets in a team issued gym bag. Police were investigating Watkins for possessing an unregistered gun.

“We are aware of the incident and take this situation seriously,” Penn State Associate Athletic Director Jeff Nelson said. “We hold our student-athletes to high standards and will address this violation of team rules.”

In September of 2016, Watkins was arrested for criminal mischief and eventually ordered to pay nearly $3,000 in fines and fees, according to Centre County court records. Last July, Watkins was arrested for disorderly conduct after allegedly getting into a fight, and that led to Watkins being left home from Penn State’s tour of the Bahamas and suspended for the first game of the 2017-18 season for what was termed a disciplinary issue.

Annual doubleheader featuring state of Iowa’s four schools ending after 2018

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One of college basketball’s distinctive events is coming to a close after this season.

The Hy-Vee Classic, formerly the Big Four Classic, which has put the state of Iowa’s four Division I programs under one roof for a doubleheader each season since 2012 will have its last edition this December with the University of Iowa electing to exercise its option to pull out of the event with the Big Ten’s move to 20 conference games.

“The addition of two conference games is good for our fans, the Big Ten Conference and our strength of schedule,” Iowa athletic director Gary Barta said in a statement, “but unfortunately it created some scheduling challenges that impacts this event.”

The event was unique as it pit the state’s two Power 5 institutions – Iowa and Iowa State – against its two Missouri Valley Conference programs – Northern Iowa and Drake – on a rotating basis each season in the state capital of Des Moines. One year Iowa State would play Drake while Iowa would face Northern Iowa with the following year featuring Iowa State vs. Northern Iowa and Iowa vs. Drake. And so on and so forth for the last six years and ending after one last go-round this December.

The event was a sort of compromise to keep the intrastate series alive after years of both the Hawkeyes and Cyclones playing home-and-homes with Drake and Northern Iowa most years, putting them on the road in hostile MVC arenas.

That went away in 2012 and doesn’t appear to be likely to return with the dissolution of the yearly doubleheader.

“Although we would certainly welcome continuing to play games against UNI or Drake in the future,” Iowa State athletic director Jamie Pollard said in a statement, “our ability to do that will most likely depend on each of their institution’s willingness to play games in Hilton Coliseum.”

Needless to say, Drake and UNI were not pleased with Iowa’s decision to force the end of the event.

“What has made our state unique on the college basketball landscape was the willingness and cooperation between the state’s four Division I universities to play each other on a regular basis,” Drake athletic director Brian Hardin said in a statement. “I understand the position that Iowa and Iowa State believe they are in. However, it is a sad day for passionate basketball fans of all four programs who have enjoyed nearly a century of history and rivalries between these four schools that were played in various great venues in our state.”

When the event was initially announced, it always felt like it was intended to act as a wind-down for Iowa and Iowa State – who will continue to face each other in on-campus games every year –  of the mid-major games that were popular with fans but not always with Hawkeyes and Cyclones coaches. Given the option, few Power 5 coaches are going to be excited about facing a lower-tier in-state rival every year anywhere other than its home floor.

Still, it’s a major loss for a unique situation in a small-population state that is not home to professional sports, but four Division I men’s hoops programs. College athletics is the passion in Iowa, and depriving the state’s fans of what were – if not national marquee – fun and interesting matchups that carry with them pride and bragging rights is a step in the wrong direction.

Ultimately, these games are likely going to be replaced on the schedules for the Cyclones and Hawkeyes with low-major opponents that won’t move the needle either at the gate or on their NCAA tournament resumes. Instead of an innovative event that against a co-worker’s or neighbor’s alma mater, Iowa and Iowa State fans can say hello to a steady diet of games against Bryant, Campbell and Maryland Eastern Shore while Drake and UNI get relegated to even more pronounced second-class status.

The move isn’t surprising, but it is disappointing.