Because NBA players are so exposed during play, close watchers embed tons of context on individual performance. We judge not just ever-increasing mountains of data on production and efficiency, but the visual cues that come from watching how players interact with the game. Dion Waiters is a perfect example.
The data suggests Waiters is a fully mediocre player: a scorer who struggles to score, a shooter who can't shoot. The visual cues provide some additional negative context: he's selfish, he's always asking for the ball while doing little to get himself open and he seems to get sullen when ignored.
Waiters also never appears to try very hard on defense, at least not consistently. Those popular assessments of his attitude and the data that suggests he's not very good has destroyed his value. He was the No. 4 pick in the draft three years ago. No one is talking about an early extension because few are sure he's long for the NBA.
Kemba Walker exists on a different plane. His exploits at UConn bestowed an aura of victory. It's hard to see Walker as a Charlotte Hornet and not remember him as a glorious Husky. Walker has the mannerisms of a good teammate: he's positive, he looks like a leader and he gives effort on a consistent basis. No one believes Walker to be greedy or poisonous.
Yet, his production data is strikingly similar to that of Waiters. While Walker is much more likely to net an assist as the point guard of record for Charlotte, he actually shoots worse than Waiters and just as frequently. Walker has never shot 40 percent from the field in a season. His career True Shooting percentage is .495, which is on par with Waiters' .487.
For their careers, both shoot about 16 times per 36 minutes and end up with nearly identical per-minute scoring averages. Walker tries, but he's not a great defender. He rebounds a little more and is a bit more likely to register a steal, but the advantages are small. On paper, with the exception of assists, these are almost identical papers.
Walker is the face of a team. Waiters is a punchline. A year ago, Walker signed a four-year, $48 million contract that kicks in this season. As mentioned, Waiters is extremely unlikely to secure an early extension from Oklahoma City, so he'll be a restricted free agent in 2016. Even with the coming salary cap explosion, hitting eight figures a season is a dream barring some massive improvement.
Is this right? Is it fair?
Well, little in life is truly fair. But I would argue that the visual and psychological context of Waiters as mediocre and Walker as a solid building block is actually accurate in spite of their similar production. Image and style matter. Confidence matters.
Given a team of four average humans, Walker would expect to beat a team of four average humans and Waiters, in part because Walker's average humans would absolutely believe their team could beat Waiters' team. You put an average rookie next to Walker and there's far more likely to be an instant trust and camaraderie, a belief in at least the potential for victory. You put an average rookie next to Waiters and you're going to have a very sad average rookie.
Waiters can't shoot and Walker can't shoot and that matters. Walker is a below-average starting NBA point guard, and he might be a below-average NBA player period. Waiters is a laughably below-average starting NBA two-guard, and he is almost assuredly a below-average NBA player. He might be one of the worst NBA players on a guaranteed contract.
What separates the two is Walker's passing ability and Waiters' awful body language and lack of personal relationship skills. The slumped shoulders after being ignored in the halfcourt matter. The rumors of locker room drama matter. All of that stuff colors the lack of production in a way that makes Waiters untenable as an NBA player.
There are any number of prospective NBA players who can't shoot. You don't need one who also mopes and grouses. So, let the story of Walker and Waiters be a lesson to all the average NBA guards out there: be a positive force and earn $48 million, or be a negative force and put your career in peril. The choice is yours.
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