Dion Waiters is basking in his new opportunity with the Lakers.
The 28-year-old guard signed a deal with the Lakers on March 6, five days before the NBA was suspended because of the COVID-19 pandemic. He didn’t get a chance to play in a game over that period, but now he’s showing he can be a steady presence for the Lakers off the bench.
"I’m armed and ready when my number is called,” Waiters said after Saturday's scrimmage against the Orlando Magic. “It’s me getting back in the swing of things. Just trying to find a rhythm. We’re switching up different lineups, stuff like that. Just being ready, man. Having that confidence that I’ve always had. Just being confident in myself and my shot-making and also for my teammates.”
Waiters, who hadn’t played in an NBA game in nearly six months, had 12 points on five-for-nine shooting and three rebounds in 21 minutes in the Lakers' 119-112 win. Over the last two scrimmages, he scored a combined 21 points.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel has been impressed.
“Dion was really good,” Vogel said. “He just gives us a different dynamic. We have catch-and-shoot shooters, plenty of them. But what he’s able to do, handle the ball, pick-and-rolls, playmaking, making big shots like he did tonight, we’re excited about that as well.”
Without fans, Waiters is feeling the love from his teammates, who cheered for him enthusiastically from the bench.
“Honestly, just the vibe, having that camaraderie,” Waiters said. “The guys cheering you on, calling your name, 'Philly Cheese, Say Cheese' when you make a shot. It’s a little bit of everything. It’s been great since I got here. They welcomed me with open arms. I really can’t complain. I’m really thankful, to be honest, to have a group of guys like that to support me. I’m happy.”
Waiters said his nickname "Philly Cheese" started when he was with the Miami Heat, courtesy of Hassan Whiteside, who was honoring his “Philly swag."
The Lakers have adopted a slightly different variation.
“The team after you take a shot says, 'Say cheese,’ just a bunch of different things they’re screaming,” Waiters said. “It feels good. That’s the only thing I’ve got. Some guys like myself, we like to play off the crowd. But your teammates are there supporting you, so that’s a win-win.”
Waiters had a tumultuous season before joining the Lakers. He was suspended by the Heat on three separate occasions, traded to the Memphis Grizzlies in Feb., and then waived by the team a few days later.
Since joining the Lakers, things have felt different.
“It’s a vibe," Waiters said. "It makes you feel good. You’re excited, especially being around the guys. It’s a great environment for me. I’m so grateful.”
Waiters made two big shots in the final minute of Saturday’s scrimmage -- a fadeaway jumper with 54 seconds left and a three-pointer nearly 20 seconds later.
He believes he can continue making those types of shots and be a key piece for the Lakers off the bench with Avery Bradley opting out of the restart and Rajon Rondo injured.
“I’m not trying to be cocky or anything, but I’ve been there before,” Waiters said. “We have shooting drills and things like that and I scream, 'I’ve been there before.' I’ve hit big shots in real games. I love the moment. I cherish the moment.
“When you’re young, as a kid, that’s when you count down by yourself on the court, `5-4-3-2-1.’ And you shoot it. I always play that in my head every time I have the opportunity to take a shot. I lock everything out. It’s like I’m out there by myself.”
Waiters said there's another big plus of being on the Lakers.
He's reunited with LeBron James.
They played together for a few months on the Cleveland Cavaliers during the 2014-2015 season until Waiters was traded to Oklahoma City in January.
“People don’t even know when 'Bron first got back [to Cleveland], he took me under his wing,” Waiters said. “He was with me everyday. We went out to eat. Everyday, everyday, everyday ... This time around, I’m a little older. I’m a father now. I’ve got a beautiful kid. I’m a little more wiser. I’m a little more older. I understand what’s at hand. We’ve always had a vibe and a bond. There was always love every time we would see each other.”
Waiters said he's grown a lot since his third season in the league.
He's now ready for the opportunity to compete for a championship alongside James.
"When you’re young, you’re still trying to find yourself coming into the league," he said. "I think 'Bron was trying to help me with that, but I was too stubborn back then. Now I’m 28. I’ve been through a lot. I’m at peace with myself. I’m good.”