Published January 10, 2012
SYRACUSE, N.Y. – Dion Waiters stared over at George Washington's Dan Guest as the Colonials tried to get a feel for facing Syracuse's stalwart zone defense.
Suddenly, the Orange guard's hands flashed across the seams of the ball and Waiters raced down the court for one of his signature one-handed slam dunks to the roars of the Carrier Dome faithful.
Seconds later, Jabari Edwards had the ball for the Colonials and Waiters snared another of his career-high six steals in the game, this time converting a layup and completing a three-point play.
Five points in 27 seconds gave the Orange a 21-7 lead midway through the first half, and they cruised to an 85-50 triumph last month.
All in a day's work.
"I'm the type of guy, I get mad if I see you keep dribbling in front of me," Waiters said. "I'm going to try to get it eventually. I just got a knack for the ball, I guess."
Apparently, Waiters gets mad an awful lot. He leads the top-ranked Orange (17-0, 4-0 Big East) with 37 steals as they get set to play at Villanova (8-8, 1-3) on Wednesday night. Syracuse's not-so-secret weapon also is tied with fellow guard Brandon Triche for the team lead in scoring in Big East play at 13.3 points per game.
And get this: Waiters has yet to start a game during his breakout sophomore season.
The first man off Jim Boeheim's talented bench, Waiters is fulfilling the promise that often was hidden during his troubled freshman year, when his Hall of Fame coach yanked him for the slightest transgression, one that led to a brief vocal confrontation for all to see.
As a freshman, Waiters averaged just 6.6 points, managing to reach double figures only eight times. This season, he's scored at least 10 points in all but four games, notching a career-high 22 at North Carolina State, and is averaging 12.5 points overall, just behind team leader Kris Joseph (14.1).
"It never was a confidence thing. It's just always how much room you get to make a mistake," Waiters said. "Last year, if I made a mistake, I'd come out of the game. Then, I started playing like, 'Dang, I can't make a mistake.'
"Instead of me just going out there and playing basketball, I started telling myself, 'Man, come on, when you get in the games, just get yourself involved in every aspect of the game.' Toward the end (of the season), that's what I kind of did, which was too late."
After Syracuse lost to Big East rival Marquette in the NCAA tournament last March, the questions began. Would Waiters return to the school he committed to?
"A lot of times you question yourself. Did you make the right decision coming to the school you picked?" said Waiters, a product of the mean streets of Philadelphia who began dreaming of playing for the Orange before entering high school. "You always tell yourself everything will be all right, even though you know that things weren't going to be all right at that time.
"I told (Boeheim) I just had to make the best decision for myself."
His mom, Monique Brown, made that decision a no-brainer.
"She told me, 'I didn't raise no quitter,'" Waiters said, staring across the darkened hardwood floors of the Carmelo K. Anthony Basketball Center before the lights were turned on for a recent practice. "That coming from your mom, that's powerful words. That's all I needed to hear. That just drove me. I just took it in and ran with it."
Into the gym during the summer — three and four times a day — working on his jump shot and moving without the ball.
"Everything to perfect my craft," said Waiters, who also changed his diet, making the 6-foot-4, 215-pound guard a physical force that opposing players have found difficult to contain at both ends of the floor.
The transformation was evident the first day of preseason practice, and it was no surprise to his cousin, teammate Scoop Jardine. The fifth-year senior went through a similar metamorphosis two years ago after some tough times, dropping excess weight in the offseason and excelling coming off the bench.
"For Dion, it was kind of know your role," said Jardine, sort of a big brother to Waiters. "All you can do is get your mind and your body right, play to the best of your abilities. That's what he's doing, and his mom's been great, her being here every game, he seeing her.
"Dion was a baby when he came here. Now, he's maturing, he's becoming a man and his mom is right here to see every step of the way."
Boeheim has a bench that's among the deepest he's ever had in his 36 seasons, and Waiters still hasn't made his first college start — 51 games and counting. To his credit, that has had no discernible effect on his play.
"It's still hard," Waiters said. "I just know when I get in the game, I've got to be instant impact off the bench. It's to the point for me where it don't matter if I start as long as I finish the game. That's the biggest thing, and helping my team get a win. I'm here to be that spark off the bench."
On the season, Waiters is 83 of 157 (52.9 percent) shooting and has hit 15 of 43 shots (34.9 percent) from beyond the arc. He's also averaging 22.1 minutes, the most of any guard, and has 51 assists to go with 24 turnovers.
"I think he's just a better player this year," Boeheim said. "I think his passing is starting to come on now. He's starting to make plays, which is good. I think he is improving."
Finishing the game and helping his team win were traits that were on full display in a gritty 73-66 victory over then-No. 20 Marquette on Saturday. Syracuse scored 19 straight points in the first half, and Waiters punctuated the spurt with a steal before setting up James Southerland for a long jumper.
That gave the Orange a stunning 35-12 lead over a team that beat them twice last season. There was plenty of time for an encore, and Waiters delivered again with perhaps the best play of his college career.
With Syracuse teetering on the brink of a monumental collapse — a 3-pointer by Darius Johnson-Odom had drawn the Golden Eagles within 59-57 with 5 minutes to go — Waiters took over. He streaked to the top of the key and made a stunning block of another 3-point attempt by Johnson-Odom and scored on a breakaway layup.
Seconds later, after a Marquette miss, Waiters drove the lane and appeared ready to put in an easy layup. Instead, as he glided up toward the rim, Waiters passed out to a wide-open Joseph on the wing, and Joseph drained a 3 to give Syracuse a commanding nine-point lead.
"I'm just basically sharing the sugar," said Waiters, who just turned 20. "That's the one thing about the team. If everybody's happy and everybody's sharing the sugar and everybody's getting love from the crowd, that's what makes us a better team.
"This is a team game at the end of the day. It's not just about one player. I'm still the same guy. I've got a better work ethic. I'm mature, just a better person on and off the court. I learned a lot last year. Coming out of high school I was really given everything, never really had to work for anything. I still worked hard, but now I've taken it to another level."
And Brown has been there, every step of the way.
"He's a mommy's boy. There's not too much you can say about a mommy's boy," she said. "He just needs to do what he's doing. I tell him after every game to just stay focused — you're chasing your dream."