A New and Improved Dion Waiters?


Dion Waiters is one of the most interesting players in the NBA. When asked what if his rating should be higher than Kobe Bryant‘s on NBA2k16, his response, while wearing a white t-shirt, orange cargo shorts and eating a popsicle:

A simple Google search will result in a number of videos where Waiters expects to be passed the ball.

But Waiters was going to be a different player heading into this preseason with a new coach, a fresh start with two of the brightest stars in the league and no clear-cut candidate to start at the off-guard position. In addition, Waiters would be playing for a contract in a season where the salary cap was set to explode to heights never seen before. All signs were pointing to a new and improved Dion.

Preseason came and went, and Waiters was moving the ball, taking open shots and not demanding the ball in situations that didn’t call for it. All of this sparked a conversation among Thunder fans as to whether or not we had seen a new-and-improved Waiters who would be more of a distributor and cut down on the difficult shots. With 20 games gone in the season, it’s time for an update to see whether or not Waiters is really a changed player.

Before showing the data from the previous two seasons, a few of the terms that will be used need to be defined, as defined by NBA.com.

  • MIN – minutes played
  • Passes made – (this one is pretty obvious)
  • Passes received – (also very obvious)
  • Ast (assist) – when a player makes a pass that directly leads to a score
  • FT Ast (free throw assist) – a pass to a player that was fouled, missed the shot and made at least one free throw
  • Secondary Ast – the pass that leads to the assist, also known as a “hockey assist”
  • Potential Ast – a pass to a player that attempts a shot that, if made, would be an assist, also known as a “blown assist”
  • Ast PTS created – points created from the player’s assists
  • Ast to Pass% Adj – the percentage of passes by the player that are assists, free throw assists or secondary assists

Waiters received more passes per game last season than he does this season, as the absence of key players would suggest. Overall, Waiters received about 1.5 more passes per 36 minutes last season, and is making about 1.5 more passes this season, but what he’s doing with those passes is what needs to be evaluated.

As important as assists are, it’s just as important for a player to not turn the ball over and give opponents extra possessions. Young players are encouraged to try new things and take chances with the ball, but Waiters will be 24 for the majority of the season. Players at his age tend to improve, but only slightly as most of the attributes are in place.

Waiters has improved his passing, as the graph indicates. Not only have his raw numbers improved from last season, but his per minute stats are increasing, albeit slightly. But his turnovers have also steadily increased from 1.5 per 36 minutes last season to over 2.0 this season.

Critiquing Waiters’ 2015 season is largely unfair as the Thunder were missing some of their significant players. The return of the most valuable players to the Thunder roster should result in an uptick in Waiters’ production, and that has happened to some degree.

The next evaluating tool is points created by assist and adjusted assist to pass percentage.

There are two ways of looking at Waiters’ production by adding Kevin Durant to the lineup. Waiters could see an increase in production as some of his passes will be going to one of the most efficient players in history. On the other hand, Durant will be taking some of the minutes Waiters was receiving last year with the starters.

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Waiters is contributing less than one more point by assist than he did last season, which might be concerning considering four of his top six lineups in terms of minutes feature at least one of Russell Westbrook and Durant, per nbawowy.com. His 4.8 points created per game ranks fourth on the team, behind Westbrook, Durant and D.J. Augustin (who plays 11 fewer minutes).

His adjusted assist to pass percentage is 2.4 percentage points higher than it was last season, per 36 minutes. Some of the free throw assists that were going to lesser players last season are ending up in the hands of Durant this season.

The question with Waiters has always been whether his play-making and shot creation outweighs some of his decisions in terms of shot selection. It’s inarguable that Waiters is passing the ball better this season, but the degree to which his passing helps the Thunder is up for debate.

Waiters is one of the more divisive players in the league, and due to the expectations for the team he plays for, he is discussed more than the average player. With a contract to play for next season, the evaluation of Dion Waiters will be more thorough this season than ever before.

Next: Durant's Best Skill Is his Leadership