Miami Heat: How Dion Waiters has modernized his game

After a late start to the season, Miami Heat guard Dion Waiters has demonstrated a noticeable and modern adjustment to his game.

Miami Heat head coach Erik Spoelstra very accurately summed up the change in the game of Dion Waiters this season following their recent win over the New York Knicks:

“I used to hate those mid-range, step-back, pump-fake 16-foot jump shots. Now he’s either being super aggressive getting to the rack, which when he gets in the right way, it’s tough to keep a body in front of him, he’s got that first step that’s really explosive. And then, you know, he’s got great touch from behind the 3-point line….I’ve always liked the 3-ball from him.”

Waiters’ 2018-19 campaign didn’t begin until Jan. 2 due to a lengthy rehabilitation process following reconstructive ankle surgery that limited him to 30 games in the 2017-18 season. Naturally with such a layoff, there was going to be an initial struggle in readjusting to the speed and intricacies of the modern-day NBA.

These struggles certainly showed up in the box scores, with Waiters averaging just 19.4 minutes per game in his first 14 appearances, whereby the former Syracuse star shot at a woeful 29.4 percent clip from 3-point range on his way to just 7.9 points per game.

However, the turning point in Waiters’ season came with the Heat’s trade deadline transaction that sent guards Tyler Johnson and Wayne Ellington to the Phoenix Suns. Not only did this free up some future salary cap space for the franchise, it also helped to reduce the surplus of guards on the Heat roster. As a result, the 27-year-old Waiters has since flourished, averaging 29.0 minutes per game following the deal.

In particular, as Spoelstra alluded to, it’s been the manner in which he has transformed his game to become a more efficient and dynamic player. As an indication, the following numbers detail just how much Waiters has modernized his manner of play.

Percentage of field goal attempts between 5 feet from the rim and the 3-point line:

This reduction in low percentage mid-range shots has been a tremendous change in Waiters’ game, especially given the heavy reliance he’s had on this aspect since entering the league.

A prime example of this was during the aforementioned victory over the Knicks, in which Waiters posted a season-high 28 points. For the game, just one of his 23 field goal attempts came between five feet from the rim and the 3-point line, with Waiters launching a career-high 16 attempts from long range.

It has been his proficiency from 3-point range that has been the most noticeable change. While he has shown the ability in past seasons to knock down the long ball, Waiters’ use of it this season has exploded. In his 10 games since March 10, Waiters has averaged 8.4 attempts per game from long range, converting at an excellent 41.3 percent clip.

Additionally during this time, Waiters has led the Heat with 11.4 drives per game, thus further exemplifying the nature of his game in 2018-19: aggressive forays to the rim mixed in with high-volume 3-point shooting.

What makes this even more impressive is the fact that Waiters himself feels that he’s not even close to where he wants to be physically following his lengthy layoff:

“My whole mindset after the playoffs is getting right to it. I took a year and a half off. This season for me is more about getting back in the feel and things like that, trying to find my rhythm and get acclimated by playing.”

With the Heat’s playoff hopes likely to come down to the final game of the season, the continued development of Waiters’ role will be critical in order for the Heat to return to the postseason.