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Waiters’ contributions to SU this season plentiful

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Dion Waiters has never been afraid to speak his mind.

Not as an enigmatic, yet skillful rookie on the Syracuse University men’s basketball team last season. Or now that he is an established member of the Orange and a rising star not only in the Big East Conference but around the country for top-ranked SU.

So when Waiters describes his freshman season as “a real eye-opener,’’ you tend to believe him. When he calls himself “selfish and too cocky’’ during his first year of major college basketball, it’s hard not to take what he says as the truth.

And when the 6-foot-4, 215-pound combination guard from Philadelphia insists he’s “grown up and learned to be a team player’’ this season, that is certainly evidenced by his significant contributions to the 16-0 Orange. He not only is the team’s second leading scorer coming off the bench (12.6 points per game), he has become an invaluable weapon for Jim Boeheim’s club, not only on offense but on defense as well.

“It’s already been a wild ride,’’ Waiters said recently. “But I know I’m heading in the right direction now.’’

Waiters, like so many heralded high school players, came to college believing he would become an instant star. Ranked 15th overall in the recruiting class of 2010, Waiters figured to step onto the Carrier Dome court and dominate like he had during his prep years at Life Center Academy, where he became a Jordan Brand All-American.

His cousin, SU senior guard Scoop Jardine, warned Waiters that college was much different than high school. Waiters, however, just assumed that his talent would be enough. What a shock when Waiters was relegated to Boeheim’s bench at key moments during his rookie year, and never developed into the star he thought he could be.

He averaged only 6.6 points while playing a little less than 13 minutes a game, had nearly as many turnovers as assists and was constantly chastised by Boeheim for being lazy on defense.

“The more mistakes Dion made, the more he pressed and tried to do too much,’’ said Jardine. “I kept telling him just to slow down and let the game come to him. But he has always gone full speed, and it was tough for him to do that.’’

Waiters now admits he “slacked off on defense too much. In high school, I was a scorer and that was enough. In college, you have to do a lot more things to help your team.’’

His shot selection was often poor, and he didn’t always buy into the team concept that Boeheim preaches.

“He was always thinking shot first,’’ said SU assistant coach Gerry McNamara, who now works with the SU guards. “That may be OK in high school, where he was bigger and stronger than the defenders. But in college, you’re going up against guys who are sometimes bigger and stronger than you are, so you’ve got to be a lot more selective.’’

Waiters did, however, flash his potential at the end of the season. He played well in the Big East Tournament, then scored 18 points on 8-of-10 shooting in SU’s third-round NCAA Tournament loss to Marquette.

“That showed Dion had the talent to become a great player,’’ said Jardine. “But his mind set had to change completely.’’

There were constant rumors during the summer that Waiters’ relationship with Boeheim was poor, and that he was looking to transfer. Waiters says neither was true, and that “the social media somehow got hold of that story and wouldn’t let it die.’’

Instead of feeling sorry for himself, Waiters went to work sculpting his body and polishing his game once the SU season was over.

He dropped 20 pounds by limiting his diet and working out rigorously every day with SU strength coach Ryan Cabiles. He also took 1,000 jumpers a day and did extensive work with McNamara and assistant Mike Hopkins on his defense.

Voila! Waiters came back to school looking like a different player physically and mentally. Coaches and teammates noticed from the first day of non-sanctioned practice he was a different player.

“He was so much more intense, ready to play on both ends,’’ said SU senior Kris Joseph. “Everybody knew what a great talent Dion was. He just had to harness that and keep his focus.’’

In the opener against Fordham, Waiters scored 14 points on 6-for-9 shooting. He hit double figures in five of his first six games, and was always the first man off Boeheim’s bench.

After a 13-point performance Wednesday night at Providence, including a key five-point spurt late in the game that helped the Orange pull away, Waiters has now reached double figures in 12 of 16 games.

Waiters had a season- and career-high 22 points in the big road win at North Carolina State. His shooting percentage is way up (54 percent), he is hitting 37 percent on 3-pointers, his is third on the team in assists (44) and leads the team and is second in the Big East in steals per game (2.1).

He is not only taking and making big shots, Boeheim said Waiters’ defense is “10 times better than last year.’’

That’s the area he takes the most pride in. “It’s not just about scoring any more,’’ he said. “Now, I get even more satisfaction if I can get a steal or pass to a teammate for an easy hoop.’’

Jardine said Waiters “is a lot more at peace with himself and his game. He’s now relishing the college experience and showing that hard work can pay off. The scary part is that Dion can still get so much better.’

Waiters is averaging nearly 22 minutes per game, third-best on the team, and is enjoying his role.

“Whatever I can do to help this team win, that’s it,’’ he said. “My teammates and coaches have been nothing but supportive of me, and I just want to pay them back as best I can.’’

Gavitt’s memory honored

The Big East Conference is honoring the memory of its founder and first commissioner, Dave Gavitt, with a moment of silence at every school’s first conference home men’s and women’s basketball game.

Gavitt, who founded the conference in May 1979, passed away on Sept. 16.

The city of Providence also renamed a street in his honor at a downtown ceremony Wednesday afternoon. Dave Gavitt Way will now run alongside Interstate 95 in downtown Providence, close to the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, home of the Providence College Friars, who Gavitt coached from 1969-1979.

In addition to the moment of silence, Big East referees are wearing a memorial patch in Gavitt’s honor on their uniforms throughout the 2011-12 season.

John Day covers Syracuse University basketball for the Times. He can be reached at jday@wdt.net

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