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Why the defense of Dion Waiters might boost Miami Heat playoff chances

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Dion Waiters wasn’t known in Syracuse for his 3-point shooting, but something far different.

Miami Heat v Denver Nuggets Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Locked in a tight race for a playoff spot, the Miami Heat need Dion Waiters to focus on what made him a lottery pick out of Syracuse University.

Here’s a hint: it wasn’t 3-point shooting or being a closer on offense.

Unfortunately before joining the Heat, Waiters toiled for two teams not known for emphasizing defense – the Cleveland Cavaliers and Oklahoma City Thunder.

Getting noticed there meant grabbing headlines from the likes of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook.

That wasn’t going to happen as an ace on defense.

Under Jim Boeheim in Syracuse, Waiters blossomed as arguably his team’s best perimeter defender during his second and final season.

“He had nothing to be frustrated about because he was 100 percent wrong,” Boeheim said. He added: “He played no defense last year. Not some. None.”

“[Later] Waiters cut his body fat to 4 percent from 10 percent and dedicated himself on defense to the point where Boeheim said he was the team’s best defender at times this season. Waiters also agreed to come off the bench, as Boeheim told him there was no way he could start.”

The Orange basketball blog mentioned that Waiters could be as good as he wants to be, when he fully bought into winning.

“Waiters acknowledged that last season, his lack of stamina and conditioning caused him to conserve his energy on the defensive end. During the offseason, he shed 10 excess pounds. And he has determined, through trial and error, that his best defensive virtue these days might be patience.”

“Before, he would see an opposing guard “dribble right in front of my face.” Waiters could not resist such temptation. The tantalizing proximity of the ball prompted him to try for a steal, which could lead to one of his thunderous breakaway slams.”

[NOTE: Heat defenders commit too many reach-in fouls gambling for ill-advised highlight plays.]

“But now, he stays focused on keeping his man in front of him. And he waits.”

“When I got the steal today, I knew his move. I knew what he was going to do,” Waiters said. “When he crossed, I knew he was coming back and I took it right from him. And last year, I was all hyped and just trying to make the big play to get going. It’s a learning process from last year to this year. And I think I got better.”

Scouts and analysts noticed enough to comment on Waiters excellent defense.

Per Bleacher Report:

“The top of Syracuse’s zone defense was a tough nut to crack last year, and Dion Waiters was a big reason for its success.

“He has all of the tools necessary to be a formidable on-ball defender in the NBA. He’s got great quickness, strength and instincts.

“Waiters led the Orange in steals in 2011-12 with nearly two per game, as he created all sorts of havoc at the top of their defense.”

Per DraftExpress:

“Waiters is extremely aggressive on this end of the floor, extending Syracuse’s zone well beyond the college three-point line, being constantly in motion, and frequently picking off balls in the passing lanes to fuel his own transition game. He does a great job jumping out to contest shots and shows very good hustle and focus overall. Waiters also does a good job using his strength to get over picks on pick-and-rolls, and works hard to stay in front of his man on the rare chance he sees a true isolation in Jim Boeheim’s zone, but as always with Syracuse players, it’s tough to get a perfect handle on this aspect of his game from a scouting perspective.”

One reason Cavs general manager Chris Grant choose Waiters as a #4 draft pick was due to his reputation as an ace on defense.

”We kept coming back to this guy,” Grant said. “He can play multiple positions, play pick-and-roll. He can come off a curl in a catch-and-shoot. He was their best man defender.”

“Waiters is known as an aggressive defender. He thrives in transition and can slash to the basket. His jump shot is a work in progress.”

The part about the jump shot being a work in progress hasn’t changed much since his days in college.

The Heat already have Josh Richardson and Derrick Jones Jr. at the top of the key defensively, so adding another player to the mix would bring the team to another level.

Waiters was well-known as a, if not the, prime force in their zone defensive schemes on his #2-rated Syracuse basketball team.

What’s lacking from Waiters at this stage of his career is getting back into a shape good enough to stop unstoppable players like James Harden or Stephen Curry as a member of the Heat.

Starting out on the Cavaliers and Thunder ruined Waiters’ mindset on defense because the headlines there belonged to offensively minded franchises.

Waiters has the talent to become a second-rate scorer in the NBA, per his Orange Farewell Mixtape.

But here’s an audacious concept: what about Dion Waiters getting his act together as an All-Defense candidate to join NBA All-Defensive Team members such as Victor Oladipo or Kawhi Leonard?

I should mention Hassan Whiteside was on the 2015-16 NBA All-Defensive Second Team for Miami.

The thought of having a conditioned Waiters along with Richardson, Jones Jr., Whiteside, Justise Winslow, Bam Adebayo, all of whom are forces on defense, gives hope to having a contending team in Miami with its new-found identity on offense.

Difficult for Heat followers to imagine Waiters leaving Waiters Island and committing himself to reach the conditioning needed for an elite defender in the NBA.

Scoring alone didn’t get him into the NBA: Waiters has to remember what brought him to the dance.