Ask Dion Waiters if the glimpses of near-greatness we saw from him for 25 magical games last season -- during the Heat’s 30-11 second half stampede - is in fact representative of the new Waiters and not merely a flash in the pan, and you get a quizzical look in response.
“C’mon man,” he said good naturedly. “You know what’s up. I don’t need to explain it. Everyone is going to see when the time comes. I got healthy. And I got the opportunity I always wanted and took advantage of it.”
He actually ended the year missing 13 consecutive games with an ankle injury, but the Heat saw enough in those 25 games to feel comfortable rewarding him with a four-year, $52 million contract, and to not feel at all upset when Dwyane Wade this week bypassed a return to Miami.
Waiters averaged 18.4 points and 4.8 assists and shot 49.3 percent from the field and 44.8 percent on threes in those 25 games, not all of which were consecutive but all of which occured between the start of the Heat’s 13-game winning streak and his March ankle injury.
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But teammates and coaches want more. Better efficiency. Improved durability, after playing in only 46 games last season. And better free throw shooting after he closed at an unacceptable 64.9 percent last season (down from his 69.8 career average).
Mostly, Goran Dragic said, the mission is “to be consistent for all 82 games. And I know he’s going to be because now he can play free. He signed a good contract. He’s set for life. The only thing I can give him advice is to enjoy. Play your game, no pressure. We already know what he can do. He demonstrated that last year.”
Pat Riley, after giving him the new contract, conveyed a simple message, according to Waiters: “Congratulations. You earned it and you know what you’ve got to do” now.
Erik Spoelstra is demanding improvement with “everything,” Waiters said. “Spo is going to be on my back. He wants the best for me. The potential I might not see in myself that he sees, how talented he says I am and how far and how much more I can go. Just words like that from someone who believes in you can go a long way. I want to be great.”
The priority is becoming more efficient. And that can manifest itself in several ways.
Though he shot 46.7 percent in February and 44.5 percent in March, he closed at 42.4 percent, barely above his career average. His 2.2 turnovers per game were above his 1.8 career mark. He was very good at home (shooting 47.7 percent) but not so much on the road (36.7). But he expects growth in all of those areas.
“At the beginning of the year, I was learning on the fly,” he said. “Now that I’m comfortable and know the offense, you don’t have to be out there thinking. So the game became easier for me.”
Though Waiters can get to basket as well as anybody and improved appreciably as a finisher in the second half, he made only 50.7 percent of his shots at the rim (116 for 229).
His mid-range game needs work. He shot 15 for 51 (29.4 percent) from 3 to 10 feet and 8 for 34 (23.5 percent) from 10 to 16 feet.
“I ain’t worrying about the midrange,” Waiters said. But “I spent damn near the whole summer working on free throws” and said he should shoot 85 percent from the line.
The Heat will give him another $1 million if he plays 70 games. “That’s the biggest thing,” he said. “That’s the most games I ever missed in my career. I worked on my body. I feel good,” though he added that the ankle is still swollen, but not to the point it should sideline him.
Two things Waiters did really well that he must build on: He shot 39.5 percent on threes, well above his 34.6 career average, and became a better playmaker, pushing his assist average to 4.3 per game, up from 2.7 in his career.
His teammates look at it this way: “Dion has already started to show glimpses of what he’s capable of becoming,” Tyler Johnson said. “We expect huge things out of him and he’s an integral part of what we’re trying to do, because when he’s in the lineup and he’s healthy, we are a much better team.”
Waiters still feels more soreness in the ankle and takes treatment four or five times a week but said he bypassed ankle surgery last March because it would have sidelined him eight to 10 months.