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Without Fab, Who’s Syracuse’s X-Factor? The Explosive & Hungry Dion Waiters

DW’s explosiveness and scoring outbursts may save the Orange’s March.

Kevin Rivoli/AP

Fab Melo is gone and nothing will change that (we assume). So the load of carrying this SU team back to the Final Four falls on the shoulders of the Orange players remaining. There’s still a senior duo of Scoop and K-Jo to step up in big spots. There’s still one of the tourney’s deepest benches. And while no one can replace 7-feet of intimidation inside the zone, there’s still an X factor on the court for SU: Dion Waiters.

For a guy who “couldn’t shoot,” Dion Waiters couldn’t miss Friday night at Madison Square Garden, even when he wanted to. He hit open jumpers. He hit contested jumpers. He hit utterly absurd jumpers that a white hot Kobe Bryant thinks were impressive. Simply put, Dion Waiters was the best player on the floor in the loss to Cincinnati and it wasn’t even close.

That’s nothing new for Waiters though. If you ask him, he’d tell you no one could guard him, and he’d probably be right. Guards that are big enough aren’t fast enough. Guards that are fast enough aren’t big enough. Just ask UConn’s Ryan Boatright and Shabbaz Napier as Waiters abused them time and again Thursday when the undersized duo “held” Waiters to 18.

The sophomore from Philly has pro game and unless he bombs in the NCAA tournament, he’s going to the NBA next year. Orange fans saw the same thing with Jonny Flynn, who helped his stock skyrocket after a great Big East Tournament run in 2009. The difference with Waiters is Dion has a pro body and a pro’s game now, not just potential moving forward.

The comparisons to Dwyane Wade are real. There’s no way to project him being a Hall of Famer like D-Wade, but the comparisons of their games are accurate. Waiters has a unique combination of size and explosiveness. His basketball IQ is underrated. In a game where his senior backcourt mate had 5 turnovers, Waiters had just 1. His season high was only 3. Lost in his 28 points, were 4 assists. He’s unselfish. He’s really good.

Sure he has his off nights, but those are few and far between. Sure there are times his attitude may hurt him, but when has that thought even crossed your mind recently? The maturity Waiters developed this off-season is staggering.

Yes, he still has a swagger that many don’t understand, but it’s not immaturity. It’s misunderstood confidence. It’s not even cockiness. Waiters often tweets “H&H (hungry and humble)” and that’s exactly what he is. He loves his teammates. He appreciates his coaches. He just knows what he is: one bad-ass basketball player who wants to be nothing short of great.

Waiters also knows greatness comes with winning, which is why after a career game that may have made him a lottery pick, he walked off the court beyond upset. He made one too many shots. He tried to front rim a free throw he needed to miss and put too much on it – it went front rim and in. Waiters was the only reason the Orange was in the game, yet in that moment he felt like he lost it. He’s said multiple times that he doesn’t care about anything but winning and it’s sincere. He’s ultra-competitive.

There’s a real chance Dion has just a few weekends left in a Syracuse uniform. If he continues to show out in the NCAA tournament, he’s a lock in the lottery. The one weakness in his game was his shot. Yet under the bright lights, when his team needed him, Waiters went 7-10 from deep. His shot will only get better.

There is also a chance Waiters comes back. With Fab’s career presumptively over at SU, and Scoop and Kris graduating, it would be enormous for Dion to return. There are few players who appreciate Jim Boeheim more because so few have been to the extremes as Waiters. Last year he was a Paul Harris-like headcase. This season there is no one Boeheim trusts more in a big spot. If Dion thinks it’s best to put in one more year to work on his shot and learn from The Per’fesser, he’ll do it.

There’s no denying Dion is ultra-talented and hyper-competitive. A lot of people think he’s also self-absorbed and needs another year to mature. The reality is probably somewhere between that and Dion’s vision of himself as a humble kid trying to make it. You look at his retweet binges as self-indulgent. He looks at them as making people’s day one click at a time. Sure there are times he goes to Planet Dion and we all look on in astonishment, but he’s unquestionably getting it more and more as his star continues to grow.

At the end of the day, Waiters is simply misunderstood. He is a humble kid, he just knows how good he is. He does love the fact that he has fans begging for his attention, but what 19-year-old wouldn’t? And he’s more than happy to make their day. He does look like one cocky SOB on the court, but that’s his way of showing confidence in his ability that he’s developed from an immense amount of hard work.

Orange Nation has spent the last three days bemoaning the lost opportunity to get back to the Final Four. But Dion’s scoring binges means SU has a chance against almost any team. He may only have a few games left in a Syracuse uniform, so enjoy it while it lasts. Even with a team set up for multiple runs in March, you may not see a talent quite like Dion in Syracuse for years to come.

Posted: Craig Hoffman