It’s not a complete stretch to say that the Cavaliers first-round duo is a little bit of an odd couple. They’d probably agree – (not that they’re old enough to remember who Felix Unger and Oscar Madison actually were.)
Both came from prestigious college programs. But one player grew up in the self-professed mean streets of South Philly and one grew up on a wooded acre of land in Washington, Indiana. One is a man of few words; the other, a guy who can kick back and BS.
Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, like the Class of 2011 that preceded them, got thrown directly into the fire as rookies.
Waiters has started 36 of Cleveland’s 53 games at the All-Star Break; Zeller, 27. At the halfway point, the starting lineup of Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson, Zeller, Waiters and old man Alonzo Gee has easily been the Cavs’ most successful. The combined age of that lineup is 22 years old.
And like last year’s rookies, Waiters and Zeller headed into the All-Star Break as participants, each among the league leaders among first-year players.
“I’m going to bring my family and friends down there to just enjoy it, just to get away for a little bit,” smiled Waiters, who heads to the midseason classic in style – playing one of his best all-around games of the season right before the Break. His step-back 20-footer against the Spurs put the Cavs up one against the league’s top team, before Kawhi Leonard’s trey won it for San Antonio.
“I’ve never been to Houston and I’ve never been to All-Star,” continued Waiters. “This is my first year, so I’m just looking forward to going down there and enjoying myself – playing the game and just having a great time.”
The road to their first All-Star appearance hasn’t been totally smooth or easy for either rookie.
Waiters began the season as a starter, getting the nod in the first 17 games and notching double-figures in all but four. A left ankle sprain sidelined him for eight games in early December and he bounced back strong when he was inserted back in the starting lineup.
At the Break, the former Big East Sixth Man of the Year was the top scoring freshman in the Eastern Conference – at 14.2 ppg – and second in the league behind only Portland’s Damien Lillard. He was tops in the league in minutes (29.5), assists (3.2) and steals (1.07).
Waiters is a cool customer off the court who plays angry on it. And for any critics who wondered if he could be a 17-point-per-night kinda guy – he scored 17 points (to go with three steals) in his first NBA game. Two nights later, in his first game out west, Waiters went 7-for-11 from beyond the arc, exploding for 28 points in a win over the Clippers.
There’s no denying Waiters’ competitive nature. Asked in the postgame locker room – after a Cavs win and the night before Shaq and Charles drafted players for the Rising Stars Challenge – which player he’d most like to go against in the game, he said Kyrie Irving:
“I got to!” he laughed. “That’s my guy!”
“It’s just fun at the end of the day. (Kyrie and I) make each other better, even in practice. We’re trash talking all day in practice.”
For all of Waiters’ confidence, he’s not above this year’s Cavalier rookie initiation – carrying around a pink bookbag and a toy baby in a stroller. (And probably picking up the donuts, too.)
Every night, he and Kevin Jones and Tyler Zeller meet the media, maybe have a bite pizza or sushi, and pick up their stroller and baby parked just outside the trainer’s room. Waiters’ baby wears a Nike headband and a bandaged ankle. Zeller’s name is LaQuisha.
The fresh-faced Zeller joined his Classmate in the starting lineup on December 19, in a hostile environment (Boston) and against a hostile opponent (Kevin Garnett). All he did was score 20 points on 9-for-15 shooting.
Also like Waiters, earlier this season, Zeller had a coming-out party in Los Angeles. Unfortunately, it ended before the ballgame did.
In just his fourth NBA game, Zeller came off the bench to start the night 6-for-10 for 16 points and seven boards before the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan inadvertently elbowed him – knocking him out of that contest as well as his next four. Zeller suffered a concussion and a non-displaced fracture to his left orbital and wore a protective mask for the next five weeks.
Both rookies have had their peaks and valleys – as every first-year player does. Zeller had his mettle tested on a January trip out West that forced him to start against JeVale McGee, Dwight Howard and DeMarcus Cousins in consecutive contests.
Zeller was struggling before the Break, but a strong 16-point, nine-rebound effort against San Antonio helped get him back on track before heading to Houston.
“It’s up and down – kind of depending on who you’re playing – you have good nights and bad nights,” said Zeller. “I’m definitely getting more comfortable seeing what I need to work on, where I fit. But I think this summer I’ll have a lot to work on – I’ll be able to focus on a lot of different things, and I’m looking forward to that.”
Waiters was tightened up when Byron Scott opted for C.J. Miles in the starting lineup for a nine-game stretch.
“That, right there, humbled me,” admitted Waiters. “Getting benched and things like that. Coach wanted to try something different. I was angry, but I used it work harder and take my game to another level.”
Waiters might have been disappointed by his temporary midseason role. But he was still good at it.
Against the Kings on January 14, Waiters netted 16 points in the fourth quarter of a high-scoring loss in Sacramento. He finished with a career-high 33 points in 29 minutes off the bench.
Waiters is just the third rookie in Cavaliers history to score at least 30 points off the bench, joining (former Cavalier All-Star participants) Mike Mitchell and Derek Anderson. That was the first 30-point performance for Waiters. It won’t be his last.
Cleveland’s starting two-guard heads to Houston hoping to meet some of the game’s greats.
“I’ve played against (most of) the players,” said Waiters, whose idol, like most Philly kids, is Allen Iverson. “But I’m looking forward to seeing a couple of the Hall of Famers, guys who played before my time that I looked up to.”
Waiters has been dangerous as a starter or off the bench so far, although it’ll be tough to pry him from the starting lineup these days. Zeller found himself in the starting lineup when Anderson Varejeo went down in mid-December, and Andy’s further complications could keep him there the rest of the way.
“I figured I’d always be off the bench just because of Andy, but it’s something you just have to take it for what it is and do the best with what you’ve got,” said Zeller. “I just try to work hard every day and get better. It’s been a challenge, but it’s been good.”
Zeller’s been successful at every step thus far. Like his older brother, Luke, who plays for the Suns and younger brother, Cody, who’s expected to be a lottery pick in June, they’ve all been named prestigious Indiana Mr. Basketball. After Friday’s Rising Stars Challenge, Zeller is traveling to North Carolina to have his number retired after a prolific career at Chapel Hill.
“I think All-Star will be fun to be a part of, just being able to go through it, really see what happens behind the scenes,” said Zeller. “I think that’ll be really cool.”
Zeller will look to get a couple days’ rest before getting back to it after the weekend.
“I love Saturday night’s festivities,” added the former Tar Heel. “Those are always fun to watch. The game itself is one of those things that you have on while you’re doing something else. I’ll watch the fourth quarter if it’s close.”
When game ends and the second half starts, he and Dion Waiters will resume their roles – along with their young and hungry teammates – as two of the young pillars of the franchise. Life move’s fast in that first year.
“It’s crazy,” smiled the seven-footer, “I never thought I’d be part of something like this. It’s great to be able to grow up with them and the next few years is going to be fun, just because I think we can be a very good team and, obviously, we’ve improved.
“We’re not where we want to be and we have a lot of work to do. But I think we have a chance to be very good.”