INDEPENDENCE: To hear Byron Scott tell it, the structure of the Cavaliers’ preseason schedule was perfect for this young team. They had just one game over the final two weeks of camp and none over the past six days, allowing plenty of hours before, during and after practice for the rookies and youngsters to grasp both the offensive and defensive concepts.
It was during that time, and more specifically during the team scrimmage Friday, when everything started to fall in place for Dion Waiters. After a miserable preseason, during which he made just 34 percent of his shots, Waiters “dominated” the team scrimmage, Scott said.
As a result, he’ll be in the starting lineup today when the Cavaliers host the Washington Wizards in their season opener. Waiters and Alonzo Gee will start alongside Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao. The average age of the Cavs’ starting five is just 23.7 years, easily one of the youngest in the league. The average age of the 15 guys on the roster is 24.9 years. It won’t be known for at least a few days where those numbers rank around the league.
For Waiters, the start today means a little more. He came off the bench during his two seasons at Syracuse, meaning this will mark his first start since high school.
“You’re going to get jitters,” Waiters said. “It’s a big game, it’s a big step for you as a person and something you’ve dreamed about your whole life. But once the ball goes in the air, you’ve got to calm yourself down. Just play smart, don’t try to do too much and stay within the team.”
A group of younger players, including Waiters, arrived early at practice for the last week to go over the offensive sets. Then they stayed late to do the same. When Irving missed time last week after having his wisdom teeth removed, Scott put the ball in Waiters’ hands during that Friday scrimmage and he blossomed.
Playing with the ball in his hands, of course, has never been a problem for Waiters — it’s figuring out what to do when it’s not.
Scott loved the way he was setting guys up Friday, the way he was coming hard off screens. Scott would look at him with an approving look, and Waiters couldn’t help but smile.
The Cavs are hopeful this was the moment when everything clicked for Waiters, much like the preseason finale against the Indiana Pacers was the first time fellow rookie Tyler Zeller finally stopped thinking and started playing.
Scott believes Waiters has reached that moment, too, but won’t know for sure until the rookie proves it in at least a couple of games. On any other team, Waiters could be considered the point guard. But with the Rookie of the Year holding down that spot for the Cavs, Scott simply considers Waiters a guard with great potential.
“He can make plays like a point guard, but he has a scoring mentality like a 2 guard,” Scott said. “I just look at him as a basketball player at the guard position.”
Waiters has been under fire since draft night, and the scrutiny only intensified when he showed up to summer league overweight and out of shape. A disappointing preseason didn’t help matters, meaning he has a lot of work in front of him.
“It’s a learning process,” Waiters said. “I missed a lot of shots that I normally make. I’m not worried about the preseason anymore. It’s over, I’m glad.”
Scott has been tinkering all month trying to balance the scoring between his starters and his bench, which was one reason he elected to start Gee and to bring C.J. Miles off the bench.
Gee is considered the better defender, but Miles can score a little more. He also came off the bench for the bulk of his seven years with the Utah Jazz.
“That starting lineup will give us a lot of energy,” Scott said. “We have a couple guys who can score. ’Zo did a great job in the preseason, especially on the defensive end. It gives us a better balance.”
Scott has already warned he could make changes to the lineup after the first couple of weeks. He is expecting to use a 10-man rotation, at least at the start of the season.
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