Why We Watch: Dion Waiters, Network Television

All rookies are, in some way, like episodes of The A-Team. The better ones are like better episodes.
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Last weekend, I spent several hours in front of a laptop introducing my nephew to the first season of “The A-Team.” It was fitting in its to-everything-turn-turn-turn way, as when the show debuted in 1983, when I was every bit as much an eight-year-old as Max is now. And there are many ways that “The A-Team,” despite being a one-hour “drama” originally aired in prime time, is custom made for the eight-year old’s imagination. There is virtually no way in which it is anything but that: the team builds stuff, dress up in costumes and lay excruciatingly bare the outer reaches of their limits as actors every week, as Hannibal wince-inducingly plays an Asian laundry owner or Face tacks on a couldn’t-possibly-ever-be-mistaken-for-Texas accent in his con as an oil baron. Also, as viewers will know, “The A-Team” features Howlin' Mad Murdock and Mr. T. “The A-Team” is fantastic. This is not news.

But watching “The A-Team” isn’t so simple these days. The show seems so patently ridiculous now, although there is a chance that it always—or always intended to—seemed that way. To enjoy an episode of “The A-Team” now is a struggle, primarily because virtually every thing about it, from the costumes to the central conceit—bad-asses in a custom van, driving around icing local bad guys—is absolutely contrary to everything you and I and everyone else regard as quality television. I mention all of this only because the sensation of watching an episode of "The A-Team" happens to be what it feels like watching Dion Waiters play professional basketball.

So much of what Waiters does on the court is counter to what I have come to believe is truest and best and most valuable in the game of basketball. Some of this is simply and inevitably the product of Waiters' youth, and his presence in a grown-man's game. So of course at this point in his career, Waiters is practically Sisyphean in his efficiency; think about how crisp your execution was at age 20. In the three games before his recent ankle sprain—though exacerbated, one might argue, by an even greater share of the offensive burden than he had before Kyrie Irving’s finger injury and a relative invisibility to the officials’ whistles when he drives to the basket—Waiters had managed to shoot 24, 38 and 35 percent, which is all horrifyingly right around the 36% he’s shooting from the floor this year. He is (how to put this politely?) subject to consistent failure on defense. The reason I’ve taken to calling my new favorite Cavalier “Bulletproof,” not because he seems indestructible, but because it invariably looks as if he has been hit in mid-air by a sniper’s bullet every time he takes a jump shot. He is young and unfinished and plays like it. So, yes, there are problems. There are a lot of problems.

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But Waiters is also a rookie playing a ton of minutes—10 more per night than he did during his sole season at Syracuse, where, it’s further worth noting, he would have already played nearly a full season’s worth of games. So it's no surprise that Waiters is still figuring out how his game translates to the NBA on a team missing its closer (Irving) if not its anchor (the brilliant, brilliant, so brilliant Anderson Varejao) and playing in front of a fan base that, while bereft of ultimate successes, has also been spoiled by two rookies in the past decade that made the transition to the pros look as simple as putting on differently colored clothing. Waiters will also have games like he did against the Clippers or (my favorite) recently against the Atlanta Hawks in which he is something else and entirely more exhilarating: a young player who is very, very good at basketball, and getting better in real time, and experiencing that getting-better himself, and growing for that experience.

Figuring out how to enjoy watching Waiters, though—and how to watch most rookies and young, developing players—is thus like coming to terms with finding pleasure in watching “The A-Team.” It's like a lot of things about growing up, actually: learning to accept and embrace things that are doofy and dumb, while also drawing lines demarcating what is too-doofy and too-dumb. But because he is so fun to watch—and, also, because he could be great—Dion Waiters makes imperfect basketball perfectly acceptable and enjoyable. “The A-Team” is, accounting for the taste of the viewer, put together in such a way to make it enjoyable, if not quite great. Waiters’ game right now is, accounting for the taste of the viewer, the same thing.

There are windows like this for most players. Think of them, if you like, as the George Peppard/Chris Grant Honorary Window of Loving-It-When-A-Plan-Comes-Together. Based on the player's age and perceived bucket of talent—and on our own patience and sense of humor and emotional stakes—we as basketball viewers can find great and complicated and undeniable enjoyment in watching that not-yet-figured-out player figuring things out.

We can, but we often don't. From the moment a player suits up, we itch to shut that window. The games we are watching are happening, and piling up there in the standings, right now—not next season, not three years from now, not in some hazy realm in which good intentions or capital-p Progress translate into wins or playoff games. I, for one, do not even want to think about how old I’ll be when Waiters is playing at his peak. The answer, of course, is older. Maybe much older.

But in our rush to slam the GPCGHWOLIWAPCT shut sometimes we catch fingers. We shut it on LeBron James, for instance, assuming that a player with his vast talent and less vast experience should have somehow learned how to do what we saw him finally do last season. We were wrong, but mostly we were impatient.  There have been other high picks—Michael Beasley, Evan Turner, Jonny Flynn, Derrick Williams—about whom we have been disappointed, or expect to be disappointed, or are currently sort of disappointed.

But in the case of Dion Waiters, who can play so goofily his age and then play like something so brilliantly different, in this case, we…wait, I know this episode. This is the one where they have to knock out Mr. T to get him on a plane! Man, is he gonna be ticked off when he wakes up! I bet he’ll say “fool” and “sucker” a lot! He and Murdock will have pretend to hate each other at some point. The team will be trapped in a barn and have to turn a go-cart into a tank. Yeah, I’m pretty sure I've seen this one. It's going to be awesome.

Illustration by Scott Henkle.


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