Adam Zagoria covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and an award-winning journalist whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide.
After Nearly Leaving ‘Cuse, Waiters Now Targeted by NBA
BOSTON — Hardly a day goes by that an NBA scout or executive doesn’t reach out to Wilson Arroyo about Dion Waiters.
Arroyo coached Waiters at Burlington (N.J.) Life Center and is now with the New Jersey-based AAU program Team Final.
“The San Antonio Spurs, Oklahoma City Thunder and the Utah Jazz have been calling me, and a couple of background-checking people have called,” Arroyo told SNY.tv Friday by phone. “They do background checks for the NBA.”
Waiters, the Big East Sixth Man of the Year this season, nearly left the program after his freshman season over a dispute with head coach Jim Boeheim about his role.
But after accepting his sixth man situation he is now the best player on a Syracuse team that is one win from its first Final Four since Carmelo Anthony led the Orange to the NCAA title in 2003. The No. 1 Orange (34-2) face No. 2 Ohio State (30-7) here Saturday night in an Elite Eight matchup.
Waiters is also poised for a potential huge payday this June should he opt to leave early.
“I’m going to wait until when the season is over and then make my decision,” Waiters said. “After we win the championship, I’ll have my answer.”
He added: “It’s good to know that the hard work you’re putting in is finally paying off and everybody is getting to see how much hard work I put in and it’s showing on the court.”
DraftExpress.com has Waiters listed as the No. 25 prospect in its Top 100 list for this year, but some NBA scouts believe he will go higher.
“Huge upside, athletic combo guard who is great at attacking the basket,” one NBA scout told SNY.tv. “Top 15 guy depending on what other underclassmen declare.”
Added a second NBA scout: “He’s a good one. He shot up the charts. He’s playing well, playing well late [so] that’s going to really help him. Jim Boeheim is very high on him, has been since the day he enrolled there. I believe he’ll be a Top 20 pick.”
It’s impossible to know if Waiters would be poised in this same position had he left Syracuse last spring after a rocky freshman season.
But he nearly did.
“I was like this,” Waiters said, holding two of his fingers an inch apart. “I was close but you know.”
He said there was a good two-month period where he considered departing because he had expected a bigger role going into Syracuse and instead had to share time in the backcourt with Scoop Jardine and Brandon Triche, both of whom returned this season.
“There was times where I played almost a whole first half, had nine points and wouldn’t even play the second half, so that’s frustrating, that’s very frustrating,” Waiters said. “That never happened to me before, so I didn’t know what to do or how to handle it.
“And after a game I would come in and mope, even when we won. A big win and I would still mope and wouldn’t really be happy about the win. That was selfish on my behalf.”
In the spring, Boeheim even went so far as to tell reporters that Waiters might not return for his sophomore season.
Waiters credited his mother, Monique Brown with helping him hang in there. Waiters’ father is not in the picture, but he said he has a stepfather “and a father figure” whom he likes.
“She was there with me, just telling me to get through it, just saying, ‘Don’t let ’em win,'” Waiters said.
“She told me to just stick with it, just continue to work on your game and prove everybody wrong that you can do it, coming off the bench. So powerful words like that coming from your mom, you can’t let her down.”
Waiters said when he came back to campus this fall, he brought a new attitude.
“I just thought I’d come in here this year with a different mindset and just try to adjust,” he said.
Said Boeheim: “I think he’s worked really hard. I think he’s learned, as all sophomores do, that a freshman year is a learning year, and I think he went through a lot of different experiences last year.”
Waiters brings instant offense off the bench.
After checking in midway through the first half against Wisconsin, he keyed a 15-8 run that helped Syracuse take a 33-27 halftime lead. He finished with 13 points.
He also played great defense on Wisconsin’s Jordan Taylor in the game’s final seconds, preventing Taylor from getting a look at an open 3. Taylor’s shot was off and Syracuse held on in a thrilling game.
“I think Dion is getting better,” Boeheim said. “I think he’s still got a ways to go defensively, and that’s normal. He’s still just a sophomore. But I think he’s had a tremendous year, and I think he’s had a great role on this team.”
Syracuse assistant Adrian Autry, who came aboard last spring, said it was natural for Waiters to feel frustrated, but that winning has made it easier to accept coming off the bench.
“When you’re a good player and you know you’re a good player, when you get in the game, you play like that and that’s how he plays,” Autry told SNY.tv.
“So I think with all the winning and the success that we had, I felt as it went on it was easier for him to buy in because he knew he was going to be on the court at the end of the game, he knew he was going to make an impact.”
Said Ohio State coach Thad Matta: “Number one, he’s just a tremendous basketball player. I think you look at every great basketball team, and everybody has a role to play and I’m sure Dion has accepted this role. He’s like my guys; they all want to score 25 points every night.
“But putting winning first, and what he brings when he comes into the basketball game is just a tremendous boost to what they’re doing.”
Not bad for a guy who nearly left the team last spring.
And where would Syracuse be without him?
“You can’t predict the future,” Waiters said. “But I’m here, I’m enjoying every last minute of it. I’m glad on the decision I made on coming back and I think it worked out for everybody.”
Here’s Dion on a few more topics:
ON TRYING TO GET TO THE FINAL FOUR:
“We can’t play with these guys, man, we gotta get this win. So we gotta be locked in and ready to go because we don’t want to let the city down and also ourselves. If we don’t make the Final Four, I ain’t going to say the season is going to be a disappointment, but it would be that much more special if we did make the Final Four. And I think once we get in the Final Four, the sky’s the limit right there.”
ON SYRACUSE GOING TO THE ACC:
It’s not really that tough. It’s not like the Big East. The Big East, you gotta bring your best game every night so in my opinion it’s not that good in the ACC.”
Photo: Daily News
Follow Adam Zagoria on TwitterAnd like ZAGS on Facebook
Adam Zagoria is a New York Times contributor and Basketball Insider who covers basketball at all levels. He is the author of two books and is an award-winning journalist and filmmaker whose articles have appeared in ESPN The Magazine, SLAM, Sheridan Hoops, Sports Illustrated, Basketball Times and in newspapers nationwide. He also won an Emmy award for his work on the SNY mini-documentary on Syracuse guard Tyus Battle.
A veteran Ultimate Frisbee player, he has competed in numerous National and World Championships and, perhaps more importantly, his teams won the Westchester Summer League (WSL) championships in 2011 and 2013.
He lives in Manhattan with his wife and children.