Dion Waiters made it pretty clear on media day he didn’t sign with the Heat to try to fill Dwyane Wade’s shoes.
He didn’t come for the money either — he could have fetched more than the $2.9 million he’s going to earn this season and the $3 million player option he has for next season.
Waiters, 24, came to Pat Riley, Erik Spoelstra and the Heat so they could bring out the best version of himself — he lost 12 pounds and 3.5 percent body fat in three weeks before the start of camp. He wanted tough love and guidance so he could put the bad teammate reputation he earned in Cleveland and Oklahoma City behind him.
Although it’s a small sample size — a month’s worth of workouts with new teammates and Tuesday night’s preseason opener — it seems at least like Waiters is off on the right foot.
“He’s been great,” Justise Winslow said Monday in reference to previous reports about Waiters showing a bad attitude or poor body language when he was with the Cavaliers and Thunder. “We are blocking everything out in the past. Clean slate. He’s been a great leader of this group so far.”
On Tuesday night against the Wizards, Waiters scored 12 points on 6-of-10 shooting and dished out a team-high eight assists in a little less than 22 minutes off the bench.
As soon as he came in for Tyler Johnson with 6:31 left in the opening quarter, Waiters found Hassan Whiteside for a short seven-foot jump hook. On the next Heat possession, Waiter blew past a defender for a layup, drawing a foul in the process. Later in the quarter, he connected with Whiteside again for a finger roll layup and then a dunk.
Each time he touched the ball, Waiters, the guy with the selfish reputation, was often looking to find teammates first.
“He’s been doing that since the first day of training camp,” Spoelstra said of Waiters. “I think he’s made a conscious effort to show this team that he can make plays. That doesn’t necessarily have to be scoring, but in space and in transition, where he can be a handful. Because of his ability to attack and get into the paint, we want him to be aggressive. We don’t want him to settle. We want him to really get two feet in the paint as often as he can.
“For eight straight days, he’s been very unselfish. He’s been consistently finding the open man and making the right play.”
That obviously wasn’t Waiters’ reputation. Last May in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals, critics were quick to point to video clips of Kevin Durant telling Waiters “to pass him the mother [expletive] ball” in the middle of the game.
Although he didn’t start Tuesday, there’s been a feeling since the Heat signed him that Waiters was the frontrunner to start alongside Goran Dragic in the backcourt. Spoelstra could wait until the end of the preseason to ultimately make up his mind. But on Tuesday at least Waiters was the first player off the bench each time.
Dragic said last week he feels like he and Waiters mesh well. Spoelstra echoed that, saying both “can attack in the paint, both can spread the floor for the other guy, and both are very capable three-point shooters.” Dragic and Waiters, Spoelstra said, can handle the pick-and-roll, allowing the Heat to put a lot of pressure on opposing teams — kind of like what Wade and Dragic did together last year in the playoffs.
Dragic said Waiters reminds him a lot of former Suns teammate Eric Bledsoe, whom he said he had great chemistry with. “Better shooter, though,” Dragic said of Waiters.
“I think we still need a little bit more time, but he’s an unbelievable player,” Dragic said of Waiters last Saturday on the team’s final day of camp in the Bahamas. “It’s going to be easy [playing with him]. We just need to talk more so we can be on the same page.”
Spoelstra ultimately sees Waiters as a talent waiting to be put into the right environment for growth. That could very well be here with the Heat.
“He’s improved each year,” Spoelstra said Tuesday. “That’s what I liked or what we liked about him. He averaged more points, got more shots in Cleveland. But last year during a playoff run that was highly competitive, he was playing his best basketball, meaningful minutes and playoff minutes. That really helped him and his growth, to learn how to really be a winning player as a young player in this league.”
▪ The Heat left South Florida on Wednesday to avoid Hurricane Matthew and continue its preseason training in Houston. Miami plays its next game Saturday in Kansas City against the Minnesota Timberwolves.