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How high can Dion Waiters go?

5/24/2012

LAS VEGAS -- Our NBA draft workout tour kicks off in Las Vegas this year in search of a guy who a number of scouts say is the draft's true sleeper.

I spent the last two days with trainer Joe Abunassar of Impact Basketball in Vegas, looking at a number of prospects.

Abunassar has a great track record with clients like Kevin Garnett, Chauncey Billups, Danny Granger, Rudy Gay and Kawhi Leonard, to name a few.

Once again this year, he has a number of prospects in his gym preparing for the draft.

Here's what I learned:

  • A number of NBA scouts who I really respect have been telling me for more than a month that the real sleeper in this draft is Syracuse sophomore Dion Waiters.

    One GM went even further. "There are really only two potential superstars in this draft. One is a sure thing -- freshman Anthony Davis. The other one is Waiters. He can be an electric scorer in the NBA. There's some Dwyane Wade in him."

    Comparing anyone to Wade is going too far. Waiters doesn't have Wade's elite leaping ability nor does he have his freakishly long wing span.

    Still, very few NBA GMs or scouts doubt his talent, and most of them won't hesitate to compare him to Tyreke Evans. Waiters is one of the draft's best scorers and showed at Syracuse that he can get to the basket at will.

    Evans went No. 4 in the draft two years ago and won Rookie of the Year. Wade has won an MVP award. Waiters is projected as a late lottery to mid-first-round pick by most teams.

    Why the disparity, given the dearth of guards who can really go out and get their points whenever they need it? The chorus from GMs about Waiters is always the same: Character? Defense? Body language? Coachability?

    Waiters has a message for all 30 GMs in the league.

    "I'm not a bad kid. And I can play defense," he says with a smile after completing an hour workout with Abunassar.

    Waiters obviously has his ear to the ground and bristles at the characterization that he's a troublemaker.

    The concerns spawn from an awkward situation last summer when Waiters and head coach Jim Boeheim questioned whether they could coexist anymore.

    Waiters came to Syracuse ranked as a top-15 prospect by ESPN and expected to contribute right away. However, he showed up to school in less-than-ideal conditioning. Boeheim became frustrated with his lack of intensity on the defensive end. The media picked up on some poor body language. By the end of the season, Waiters and Boeheim were at odds.

    "He had nothing to be frustrated about because he was 100 percent wrong," Boeheim told The New York Times. "He played no defense last year. Not some. None."

    Waiters, however, stuck it out. "I called my mom after almost every game crying," he told me on Tuesday. "But she just told me to keep going. To not give up. I'm glad I listened to her. I matured this year."

    "I came to Syracuse a boy," Waiters added. "I left as a man."

    Waiters came back in the best shape of his career. He embraced his role as the team's sixth man. He showed off point guard skills that scouts didn't know he had. He was Syracuse's best player. Coach Boeheim praised him all year. However, the questions persist.

    "A lot of people judge me, but they don't know me," Waiters said. "I'm a good kid. I've never been in trouble. I've never been arrested. I don't hang around bad people. I was immature when I came to school. I was overwhelmed. But I put in the work to get better. Coach and I didn't bump heads all season. I'm very coachable. I just needed a little room to grow."

    Waiters grew up in a tough situation in Philly. He left his family at the age of 15 to attend prep school. The move was traumatic for him. In the last year, he told me, he lost three cousins and a best friend. So if he looks too serious, it's because life, both on and off the court, is serious business for him.

    Waiters also says that people misread his body language on the court. "You don't see Kobe smiling on the court. When I'm out there, it's all business. I want to win. I want to destroy my opponent. That's my focus. Smiling is for after the game, not during it."

    On the court, in Vegas, Waiters is all business. He's in terrific shape, showed off an improved jump shot in workouts and can be explosive with the ball. But the real highlight show began later that afternoon when the five-on-five play began.

    Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs and Florida State's Michael Snaer both took turns trying to guard him, and they didn't have much luck. On Wednesday, he again dominated in three-on-three play.

    Waiters is a solid workout guy. He does enough to impress but not a lot that wows. But when he's actually playing the game, it's all wows.

    He carved through the defense to the rim at will. He hit several 3-pointers, fadeaways, spins to the basket. He initiated the offense and got others involved. He got whatever he wanted and ... yes, he played inspired defense on the other end.

    "I can't wait for the real workouts to begin," Waiters said. He knows that he's currently in a scrum with Jeremy Lamb, Austin Rivers and Terrence Ross and will likely work out with them directly once the Chicago combine is over. He's got a message for them, too. "I'm going to try to destroy them. I love to compete. If I have a weakness, it's that I'm too competitive. But I think once workouts come, that will be my biggest strength."

    Teams still have legitimate on-the-court concerns. He's a bit small for his position. He's struggled with conditioning in the past. He needs to be a consistent shooter and, yes, he still can improve his defense.

    But if he works out well and resolves some of the concerns about his personality, there's no reason he couldn't go as high as No. 6 or 8 on draft night. He's that good.

    • I walked away really impressed with Georgetown's Hollis Thompson. Thompson worked out against Waiters on Tuesday and shot the lights out from everywhere on the floor. He's got an effortless stroke, a quick release and excellent range on his jumper.

    When you factor in that he's a legit 6-foot-8, has long arms, is a good athlete and is technically really sound ... what's not to like?

    Thompson shot 44 percent from 3-point range during his career at Georgetown. While he wasn't a dominant scorer (he averaged 12.8 ppg as a junior at Georgetown), he played within an offense that didn't really give him the freedom to take over.

    He's also a very intelligent player who majored in economics at Georgetown. He had his first NBA workout in Miami on Wednesday and he's been invited to the Chicago pre-draft camp.

    Thompson needs to get stronger and continue to work on his ballhandling, but he should look excellent in workouts and get serious consideration in the second round -- and maybe even late in the first.

    • Two years ago, a number of NBA scouts thought Florida State big man Xavier Gibson could eventually be a lottery pick. And if he had looked as good in games as he did in his workouts here in Vegas, he'd be a first-round pick.

    Unfortunately, Gibson's uninspired play at Florida State (and at the New Jersey workout last week) make him a question mark. He's very skilled for a big man, has soft hands and is a good athlete. But his perceived lack of motor and toughness have teams much more skeptical. Still, I expect a team may want to gamble on him in the second round. There aren't many big men in the draft with his size and potential.

    • LSU's Justin Hamilton has drawn serious interest from scouts as a potential second-round pick. Hamilton played well in Vegas, too. He's not an explosive athlete, but he moves pretty well and showed some nice moves around the basket. He caught the eye of a number of scouts at the New Jersey workout and should see plenty of workouts from teams leading up to the draft.

    • Pittsburgh's Ashton Gibbs may be an undersized 2. But he's drawn a lot of praise from NBA scouts based on performances at both the Portsmouth Invitational and in the New Jersey workouts. He has a very unorthodox jump shot, but it goes in. He looks like a potential second-round pick.

    • Florida State wing Deividas Dulkys most likely will begin his pro career in Lithuania. However the athletic defensive specialist looked really good in workouts and drew some praise from NBA scouts in attendance. He's a very good athlete, can defend multiple positions and has a nice jumper.

    • The NBA has invited 60 players to the Chicago pre-draft camp June 7-8. Here's a look at who they invited:

    Quincy Acy, PF, Sr., Baylor

    Harrison Barnes, SF, So., North Carolina

    Will Barton, SG, So., Memphis

    Bradley Beal, SG, Fr., Florida

    J'Covan Brown, G, Jr., Texas

    William Buford, SG, Sr., Ohio State

    Jae Crowder, F, Sr., Marquette

    Jared Cunningham, G, Jr., Oregon State

    Anthony Davis, F/C, Fr., Kentucky

    Marcus Denmon, G, Sr., Missouri

    Andre Drummond, F/C, Fr., Connecticut

    Kim English, SG, Sr., Missouri

    Festus Ezeli, C, Sr., Vanderbilt

    Evan Fournier, SG, France

    Drew Gordon, PF, Jr., New Mexico

    Draymond Green, F, Sr., Michigan State

    JaMychal Green, F, Sr., Alabama

    Moe Harkless, F, Fr., St. John's

    John Henson, F, Jr., North Carolina

    Tu Holloway, PG, Sr., Xavier

    Robbie Hummel, SF, Sr., Purdue

    Bernard James, C, Sr., Florida State

    John Jenkins, SG, Jr., Vanderbilt

    Orlando Johnson, SG, Sr., UC Santa Barbara

    Darius Johnson-Odom, G/F, Sr., Marquette

    Kevin Jones, F, Sr., West Virginia

    Perry Jones, F, So., Baylor

    Terrence Jones, F, So., Kentucky

    Kris Joseph, F, Sr., Syracuse

    Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, SF, Fr., Kentucky

    Doron Lamb, SG, So., Kentucky

    Jeremy Lamb, SG, So., Connecticut

    Meyers Leonard, C, So., Illinois

    Damian Lillard, G, Jr., Weber State

    Scott Machado, PG, Sr., Iona

    Kendall Marshall, PG, So., North Carolina

    Fab Melo, C, So., Syracuse

    Khris Middleton, SF, Jr., Texas A&M

    Darius Miller, SF, Sr., Kentucky

    Quincy Miller, F, Fr., Baylor

    Tony Mitchell, G/F, Jr., Alabama

    Arnett Moultrie, F/C, Jr., Mississippi State

    Kevin Murphy, SG, Sr., Tennessee Tech

    Andrew Nicholson, PF, Sr., St. Bonaventure

    Kyle O'Quinn, C, Sr., Norfolk State

    Miles Plumlee, F/C, Sr., Duke

    Austin Rivers, G, Fr., Duke

    Thomas Robinson, PF, Jr., Kansas

    Terrence Ross, SG, So., Washington

    Mike Scott, PF, Sr., Virginia

    Henry Sims, C, Sr., Georgetown

    Jared Sullinger, PF, So., Ohio State

    Jeff Taylor, SF, Sr., Vanderbilt

    Tyshawn Taylor, PG, Sr., Kansas

    Marquis Teague, PG, Fr., Kentucky

    Hollis Thompson, G/F, Jr., Georgetown

    Dion Waiters, G, So., Syracuse

    Royce White, F, Fr., Iowa State

    Tony Wroten, G, Fr., Washington

    Tyler Zeller, C, Sr., North Carolina

    A number of international players were not available due to commitments to their teams overseas.

    The only players in our top 60 who weren't invited were Eric Griffin, a senior power forward from Campbell, and Alex Young, a senior shooting guard from IUPUI.