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Life Is Good on Waiters Island

Dion Waiters, long known as one of the NBA’s most mercurial talents, has not only fueled Miami’s rise into the playoff race — he’s also attracted a whole new crop of true believers

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Outside of the most insular and dorky subsets of the basketball world, the phrase "Waiters Island" may conjure up visions of a tropical locale with turquoise water, briny zephyrs, and visitors who leave 30 percent tips after every meal. But for those in the know, it’s a nickname for the small group of stalwarts who have maintained belief in the basketball-playing talents of Dion Waiters, the mercurial fifth-year shooting guard on the Heat. At last, their faith is being rewarded.

"It’s strictly about opportunity," Waiters says, standing on the basketball court at an athletic facility in lower Manhattan, where Miami is shooting around in preparation for an evening tipoff against the Nets. "Not having to really defer to anybody, being able to be yourself on a night-in, night-out basis. I was on great teams where your role changed every day."

Dion Waiters (AP Images)
Dion Waiters (AP Images)

Since being taken by the Cavaliers with the fourth pick in the 2012 draft, Waiters has primarily been known as a temperamental gunner with an impenetrable hazmat suit of self-confidence. He squabbled with Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, accusing them of playing "buddy ball" and freezing him out. There were clips of him yelling for the rock, bouncing up and down with his arms outstretched, then sulking when teammates like LeBron James opted to keep it or pass it elsewhere. The nadir might have come last offseason, when the Thunder — who acquired Waiters in a three-team trade in January 2015 — abruptly rescinded their qualifying offer and cut him loose as an unrestricted free agent.

Now with the Heat, with whom he signed a two-year deal worth nearly $6 million last July, Waiters has landed in an environment where he has an outsize role to match his ego. He’s third on the team in scoring (15.7 points per game) and second in assists (4.2), and absolutely sizzled over the last 30 days, a span in which Miami (24–32) rode a 13-game winning streak to rise from the depths of the Eastern Conference to within two games of a playoff position. Since January 17, Waiters has averaged 20.8 points on 50 percent shooting, including 47.6 percent from beyond the arc.

Waiters’s scoring onslaught included back-to-back 33-point outbursts against the Bucks and Warriors in late January. In the latter contest, his game-winning 3 over Klay Thompson’s outstretched fingers instantly became a meme, not only because of the thrilling upset or the moon-scraping shot, but because of the defiant, scowling, B-boy pose Waiters struck in its aftermath. He has long been mocked for his attitude and on-court blunders; it was endearing to see him celebrated for a moment that distilled his unwavering self-certainty into triumphant, 200-proof form.

"Here," he says, "Coach [Erik Spoelstra] and the guys allow me to be me."

Letting Dion be Dion boils down to giving him the ball. After all, Waiters told the South Florida Sun Sentinel in January that he’d "rather go 0-for-30 than 0-for-9, because you go 0-for-9 that means you stopped shooting." In Miami, Waiters is taking 14.6 shots a game, the most of his career. Although his points are being amassed with customary inefficiency — his 49.8 true shooting percentage is only slightly better than his career numbers — he’s posting highs in assist rate (22.9 percent), rebound rate (6.1 percent), and 3-point percentage (38). He’s still hoisting too many ill-advised, 17-foot fadeaways, but he’s also doing productive things on the court.

"I think people remember the shots, but he did a lot more," Miami center Hassan Whiteside says of Waiters’s play during the team’s 13-game winning streak. "He’s aggressive getting to the basket and his shot is falling for him. His playmaking ability is overlooked a lot of times. It’s about the way he plays defense and makes plays for us."

Waiters turned 25 in December and remains both an intriguing and flawed player. The physical tools are there, and the modern NBA will always have room for someone who can shoot 38 percent from deep. He’s a bullying guard who persistently attacks the basket, but neither finishes particularly well at the rim nor draws many fouls. By player-tracking data, he’s eighth in the league in field goal attempts on drives per game, and he passes more frequently on those plays than anyone in the top 15 other than teammate Goran Dragic. As a result, the Heat rank second in the NBA in drives per game, behind only the Nets, who play at a much faster tempo. (Brooklyn is first in pace; Miami is in 20th.)

"We both like to get inside the paint and collapse the defense," Dragic says. "When he does that, I can just spot up and wait for the open shot. He’s really good at kicking the ball out. Sometimes it’s really tough for the opponents to defend this type of play, especially if the ball is swinging from one side to the other — you can attack from both sides."

The Heat’s defense has been rugged all season, but the starting backcourt of Dragic and Waiters has juiced the offense by averaging a combined 44 points and 10.9 assists per game over the last month. Although Miami has the NBA’s 26th-ranked offense overall, it was 11th during that stretch.

Waiters has received inordinate attention from fans and media alike throughout his career because he regularly looks pissed off. He has a Frenchman’s flair for surliness, whether directed at opponents, referees, or teammates. Coupled with a propensity for brash chucking and the occasional goofy play, Waiters has an undeniable magnetism that some view as obnoxious and others view as wildly entertaining.

"I have no idea what his reputation was [before he got to Miami]," Spoelstra says, relaying a message that is difficult to believe. "That’s the way we approach new players coming in, that we’ll have an open mind and embrace them and the personalities. And we ask that they embrace us and our culture, and not come in with preconceived notions. I’ve enjoyed working with him and getting to know him. I actually enjoy getting to know him off the floor more than getting to know him on the floor. He’s a very engaging and fun personality."

Dion Waiters (AP Images)
Dion Waiters (AP Images)

Dragic, whose locker sits next to Waiters’s, agrees. "He’s a little bit quiet, but when you get to know him, he’s really funny, too. He’s always serious — that’s just the way he is. But he’s really a good teammate and a good person. Maybe from the outside, some people understood him wrong."

Waiters’s backstory makes it hard not to root for him. He grew up in South Philadelphia’s Graduate Hospital neighborhood, born to a mother who was 17 and a father who was in jail. He was an Allen Iverson fanatic who was offered scholarships at an early age and committed to play for Syracuse after his freshman year of high school, but his upbringing was far from easy. He had to deal with repeated tragedies.

When Dion was young, his mother was shot and he missed several weeks of school to tend to her. (She fully recovered; Waiters told in 2013 that she was "in the wrong place at the wrong time.") During his teens, two of his cousins and one of his best friends were killed in unrelated shootings over a one-year span. Two years later, another cousin died in a motorcycle crash. Then, in March 2016, his younger brother, Demetrius Pinckney, was shot to death after an argument and a chase involving men on bikes.

"I done seen it all," Waiters says. "I was one of them kids that was ripping and running, man. You see things and things happen. Luckily I was one of them guys that escaped it, I guess. Philly crazy, man. It’s real. I’m pretty sure it’s tough in different areas, but when you seen it and you’ve lived it? Come on, man, my mom been shot. Gun to my head at 12. But I don’t like to talk about that. That’s over. I’m living life."

Waiters’s life now is very different than it was even a year ago, and his breakthrough season may further alter his fortunes in the near future. His contract includes a player option following this season, conveniently timed when the league’s salary cap seems likely to surge (again) to unprecedented heights. After missing three games earlier this month because of an ankle injury, he returned to the floor on Monday, going 10-of-19 from the field and scoring 23 points in a 116–107 loss to the Magic. If the Heat hope to complete their improbable playoff run, they’ll need more of Dion being Dion.

It’s hard to tell if the tumblers have clicked into place in Miami or if Waiters is just riding a torrid hot streak. He may never be the star he believes he is, but for the first time in his NBA career, he’s being recognized for all of the right reasons. Waiters Island no longer feels remote — it’s suddenly become one of the NBA’s hottest destinations.