There have been flashes of the pre-ankle surgery Dion Waiters burst throughout the first two weeks of practice.
Waiters’ quick first step has even been noticeable in the Heat’s first two preseason games. The 27-year-old guard finished Wednesday’s preseason win over the Hornets with a game-high 19 points to go with four assists, all in 16 first-half minutes.
It’s that burst that helped Waiters finish the 2016-17 season ranked 10th in the NBA in drives to the basket per game, which was his final somewhat healthy season before January 2018 surgery on his left ankle. It’s that burst Waiters has been looking to regain ever since, and he believes he has found again after dropping 15 pounds this offseason.
“You can see it with the way he was moving,” coach Erik Spoelstra said of Waiters, who was away from the Heat on Saturday for the second consecutive day due to personal reasons. “He feels good about his health, that quick first step is back. You can see his ability to get into the paint and make plays for others. He really is unique with his power and quickness, when he’s in that kind of condition.”
While Waiters’ quick first step is critical to his offensive game, there’s another part of his skill set the Heat is hoping to showcase this season.
Waiters’ improved three-point shot.
“The three-point shooting, he has really worked on that and he has improved,” Spoelstra said, with the Heat idle until Monday’s home preseason game against the Hawks.
Waiters averaged an eye-opening 9.7 three-point shot attempts over the final two weeks of the 2018-19 regular season, which ranked fourth-most in the league among those who played in multiple games during that span behind only Houston’s James Harden (12 threes per game), then-Oklahoma City’s Paul George (10.6) and Golden State’s Stephen Curry (10.3).
That’s probably more threes than the Heat want Waiters taking, but the emphasis on that part of his game was evident. He made 37.7 percent of his three-pointers last season, which us up from his career-three-point shooting percentage of 34.7.
The Heat’s hope is that threat from deep will help keep defenders off balance and open driving lines for Waiters.
“I worked on my shot a lot,” Waiters said. “Just being able to have that outside-in, inside-out game. Not really having negatives on my game, as far as me not being able to do something. If you back up off me, I’m going to shoot the ball. If you get up on me, I’m going to go around you. It’s pretty much me just putting it together. Not settling.”
Over the Heat’s first two preseason games, Waiters’ success on threes has continues. He’s 5 of 8 on three-pointers.
“I would love for him to have that kind of menu, a lot of attacks and a lot of things in the paint and threes. That’s playing to Dion Waiters’ strengths,” Spoelstra said. “We’re really trying to cut back on those inefficient long twos, and he pretty much eliminated those from his game last year. So I like the idea of him expanding and doing both, and playing to his strengths.”
Waiters is following those instructions, according to his shot distribution this preseason. Of his 20 shots, 10 are from the paint, eight are from three-point range and just two are from the mid-range.
Waiters attempted just 47 mid-range shots, compared to 289 threes last season. That’s a big difference from earlier in Waiters’ career, when he took 296 mid-range shots and 246 threes in 2014-15 — his third NBA season.
But if the mid-range is open, Waiters made it clear he’ll still take the shot. It’s all about keeping defenders guessing.
“If you’re coming off a pick-and-roll and the big is all the way back, and you got a mid-range or elbow jumper, you got to take it,” Waiters said. “You got to mix it up. You make the shot and now it keeps the big at bay, where if I come off and make two in a row mid-range shots, now he’s trying to take that away.
“I know the game is changing with threes. But at the end of the day, you’re a basketball player. As long as you’re putting something in the bank, it don’t matter what it is.”
▪ Heat center Kelly Olynyk continues to be a limited participant in practice, as he recovers from a bone bruise on his right knee — an injury sustained playing for Team Canada in August. But Spoelstra said Olynyk took a step forward Friday and Saturday in practice.
“Just the first step. But it was good,” Spoelstra said Saturday. “He practiced both days for about 20 minutes, did some live stuff today and we’ll see if we can keep on progressing and moving forward. But, look, that’s a great sign. There still is no timetable with him. We’re going to be very smart about it.”
▪ Spoelstra said his plan is to play the Heat’s rotation players in each of the three remaining preseason games, even in the back-to-back Thursday against the Magic and Friday against the Rockets to close the preseason.
“I think we need to play a back-to-back,” Spoelstra said. “That’s why I didn’t play the back-to-back this time, but we have one so early [in the regular season]. I want our guys to at least feel it before then.”