From phenom to freshman

After a troubled past Dion Waiters finds himself at Syracuse trying to become a star.

The old saying is unless you walk a mile in someone else’s shoes, you don’t know what they have been through. Dion Waiters’ footsteps started in the violent trappings of Philadelphia.  He says basketball was a life line.

“Coming from Philly, it’s hard out here,” reflective Waiters said. “So if anybody is successful, it’s a blessing because it’s a rough neighborhood. I’m just fortunate that basketball kept me out of trouble.”

Photo: Zach Ornitz
Learning the game from the bench will be an important step in Waiters maturation process.

Waiters started playing ball as a 7-year-old, but it was the summer before his freshman year that he knew basketball was his calling. Playing for the Adidas sponsored New Jersey Playaz AAU team, he “destroyed” the competition at a Las Vegas tournament, averaging 27 points. His whirlwind summer did not stop there. Waiters actually committed to SU before he started high school.

“I went up there at the Syracuse Elite Camp, I just liked it,” said Waiters. “The Dome, it was crazy. I never witnessed anything like that before. I just fell in love with it.”

In the fall, Waiters went to John Bartram High in southwest Philadelphia. He was kicked out of school for disciplinary reasons. He transferred to Southern High to finish out his freshman year but did not play. Waiters admits his faults during this period.

“You get distracted, your friends and all that, and I still was immature,” he said. “I didn’t really care about basketball.”

A fresh start

At such a young age, Waiters was at a crossroads. He had a talk with his mother and it was agreed that getting away from Philly was the best thing. South Kent Prep was his next destination.

The college preparatory boarding school for boys in South Kent, Conn., was where Waiters grew up. Gone were the temptations and lure of friends that come with the city life. South Kent is known for their basketball, hockey and soccer teams. Current NBA players Andray Blatche (Wizards) and Dorell Wright (Warriors) walked the halls of the school. 

Waiters speaks fondly of his time at South Kent.

“It was great for me,” he said. “I got to grow up on my own being away from my family. That made me mature even quicker. That was the year I said I was really going to pursue my basketball dreams.”

Finally finishing a full year on the court, Waiters found himself looking for a new home after his sophomore year. This was not because of personal problems. South Kent's head coach, Raphael Chillious took a job with Nike in Oregon. He advised Waiters to transfer.

Waiters found stability for the first time in his career at Life Center Academy in Burlington, N.J. Despite being close to Philadelphia, the structure was still the same. Students are required to attend Bible classes, attend chapel service and go on a senior mission trip.

Life Center head coach Wilson Arroyo knew of Waiters’ past troubles but saw something special in the young man who he recalls used to feed stray cats in the back of the school.

“When I first saw Dion, I thought he was kind of quiet and to himself,” Arroyo said. “He didn’t say much and was just taking in the environment. I could tell he was a player just by the way he carried himself and I was right. We believe in giving people second chances and thought we would be able to help.”

Finishing his two year career for the school this past season, Waiters averaged 21 points, five assists and five steals per game. He was also named a second-team All-American by Parade Magazine.

Cuse connection

SU hoops coach Jim Boeheim knew who he was getting when Waiters committed to the Orange. Waiters is a do-it-all threat. His solid frame fits his aggressive style, allowing him to bully smaller guards on the block and battle for boards. He also possesses the quickness to get to the basket with ferocity. One YouTube video shows him dunking back a missed shot with his head at rim level over an unsuspecting opponent.

Waiters is a welcome addition to what already should be a solid backcourt with Brandon Triche and Scoop Jardine. Waiters and Jardine are cousins. Fans can expect some Philly flavor when the two play together.

“He told me to make the right decisions,” Waiters said of his cousin’s advice. “He said learn from his mistakes. Try to be the perfect kid. Everybody is not perfect, but try to do right. He’s gonna help me and I’m gonna help him. We’re going to feed off each other.”

Waiters also is a part of a top recruiting class that includes highly-touted big man Fab Melo, forward C.J. Fair and forward/center Baye Moussa Keita.

Arroyo thinks his game is perfect for the rugged Big East. He even compares him to a certain pro ball player in Miami not named Lebron.

“Dion is very personable and has that South Philly swag,” he said. “The only adjustment is his work ethic. If he gets focused on his training and work ethic, there is no doubt he can be a pro. I believe he can play one or two year and get drafted. Dion’s biggest obstacle is himself. If he gets determined and focused, watch out.

"Here comes the next Dwayne Wade.”

Waiters is certainly not lacking in confidence. He believes this year’s team can do something last year’s version couldn’t accomplish. Win a national title.

“This year should be fun,” Waiters said. “Wes (Wesley Johnson) left, we got Kris Jo (Joseph). Andy (Rautins) left, you got me. And big Arinze (Onuaku) left, we got Fab. So we didn’t really lose anything. I’m going to try and put on a show every game, help coach win some games, go to the tournament and hopefully win a national championship.”

Waiters does not have to win a championship for this to be a success story. It already is. He is the first member of his family to go to college. The season opener against Northern Iowa on Nov. 12 will be an emotional night.

“When I suit up for my first game in college, I’m going to think about my family and family members that I’ve lost,” he said. “I can’t wait.”

Dion Waiters drives through the lane during an exhibition matchup against Le Moyne Tuesday night. (Photo: Zach Ornitz)

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