For Tremont Waters, something didn’t feel right.
LSU’s first shoot around in Hawaii ahead of its November appearance at the Maui Invitational went, by all accounts, as well as could be hoped. First-year head coach Will Wade had been plotting the Tigers’ opening game against reigning Big Ten Tournament champs Michigan since the day the draw was announced, even spending several summer workouts working on some the Wolverine’s sets. He agonized over every detail of preparation, from what the team would eat before the game to what temperature their thermostats would be set on in their hotel rooms the night before. So far, everything had gone according to plan – until they rolled the balls out at Lahainaluna High School.
“Coach,” Waters said. “These balls are awful.”
Editor’s note: This story appears in the latest edition of Tiger Rag Extra, “The Money Issue,” out on newsstands in Baton Rouge this week and available for purchase online here. You can also subscribe to Tiger Rag here.
Waters didn’t like the Adidas basketballs the Tigers would play with in Maui. He preferred the Nikes back home in Baton Rouge, the same ones he’d used to drop 27 points on 9-of-13 shooting in his dazzling debut for LSU, the most points by a freshman in his first game in 40 years, a more productive debut than Shaq, Jackson, and Simmons.
“I said, ‘No, Tre, they’re great shooting balls, you’re going to love them,’” Wade recalls. “He said, ‘I just don’t like the feel of them.’ So he asked our manager. Our manager took one from the high school where we practiced – I probably shouldn’t say this – and Tre walked around with the ball for two days. He slept with it. Just so he could get a feel for it.
“That’s the type of player he is. That’s who he is.”
Fans didn’t see Waters steal that ball – correction: “I borrowed it,” Waters says, “and gave it back to the high school” – but they did see the benefits of that decision: against Michigan, Waters went for 21 points, 15 of which came in the second half and nine of which came in the final six minutes, as he outscored the entire Michigan squad by two points over that stretch to help deliver a signature 77-75 win for LSU on a nationally-televised game over a team fresh off a Sweet 16 berth the season prior.
They saw a 5-foot-11, 165-pound freshman take the game by the scruff of the neck and secure victory from a nine-point deficit. They saw him net the top two plays on SportsCenter’s Top Plays the next day: one a spinning circus shot bounced high off the glass tossed up over a forest of long arms while Waters was perpendicular to the ground; the other, a game-tying step-back jumper followed by the game-winning steal and, from a seated position with his back to the LSU goal, no-look pass to Skylar Mays for the win’s decisive dunk.
Tremont Waters. ?. Part Three. Holy cow. pic.twitter.com/gnm2mxES3K
— Cody Worsham (@CodyWorsham) November 21, 2017
“How did he see that!?” exclaimed former LSU coach and current radio color commentator John Brady from the sideline. “He was down with his back to him. How did he see him over his head?”
Then, though he did not know yet about Waters’ borrowed bedtime partner from the night before, Brady answered his own question: “He just had a feel.”
It’s that feel – even more than his 18.0 points on .500/.432/.815 shooting, 6.0 assists, and 1.5 steals per game, all team bests after six games – that has spearheaded LSU’s surge back into college hoops relevancy in Wade’s first season. When he took over the program in March, Wade inherited a 10-21 team that won just two SEC games and had suffered a school-record 15-game losing streak in 2016-17.
The first position he knew he needed to address was point guard, and fortunately for Wade, LSU wasn’t the only school undergoing a coaching change, and there would soon be a point guard available whose game was years in the making.
ED WATERS HADto laugh. What else could he do? Fate can be cruel sometimes, a fact he knows all too tell, but it can also, occasionally, be funny.
It was just a few days after his son’s national coming out party in Maui – which included, in addition to his late-game heroics against Michigan, a 39-point outing two days later against Marquette, the fourth-best single-game scoring output by any player in the tournament’s history – that his wife found, buried under piles of mail from schools across the country, a letter LSU had sent to Tremont his sophomore year of high school. It was the sort of customary recruitment letter most high-profile prospects receive, a required but impersonal and seemingly fruitless gesture from a school in the Southeast reaching out to a blue-chipper in the Northeast.
“Letters were pouring in from everywhere,” Ed Waters recalls. “My wife just saw the LSU letter a couple of days ago.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, but that’s the old coach.’”
Tremont traveled a long and winding path to Baton Rouge from his hometown in New Haven, Connecticut – university cities so similar in their demographics and violence that the FBI scores them within two points (89.9 and on its 91.7) on its 0-100 Violent Crime Index scale – and it started with a pair of broken ankles.
Long before Tremont was born, Ed Waters was a promising young three-sport prep athlete at Hamden High, a freshman on the varsity football squad with plenty of talent but little discipline. “I didn’t have a dad,” he recalls, “so the guys I took to were coaches.” It was a freak accident in a practice that ended his career prematurely. A pair of linemen fell on his legs, breaking both ankles at once. Ed still remembers the “very fine drizzle” of the day, weeks later, while running rehabilitatively around the school track, when he decided it wasn’t worth it and walked away.
“I always was gifted and played up, but I just walked away from it,” he says. “I didn’t have the discipline for myself. Living with that regret allowed me to always be there for Tremont. I know how easy it can all be over.”
He was also armed with firsthand knowledge of the consequences of paternal absence, so Ed vowed when he became a father to be, first of all, there. He also promised to be involved, to make sure his sons didn’t endure what he endured, to make sure his wife didn’t go through what his mom went through.
So when five-year-old Tremont, enamored with basketball by family games of 3-on-3 in the yard and not at all discouraged by a broken wrist suffered at two when he fell over a basketball, told his dad he wanted to pursue the sport seriously, Ed dove in headfirst, sight unseen.
“I’m the type of guy who, if my son came to me and said he wanted to do something, I’m all in,” he says. “I would be online Googling anything I didn’t know how to do so I could teach Tremont or my other sons.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” ” cite=”” link=”” color=”#461D7c” class=”” size=””]
“Tremont grew up, and he finds it funny, but he was a 30-30 kid,” Ed says. “What that means is, Tremont would get in the game if we were up 30 or down 30.”
Fortunately, he found offline, real-world help nearby, the first of a series of coaches who helped Ed groom Tremont as a player. Tarrol Stafford was coaching a fourth-grade team when Ed approached with an offer to be his assistant. In exchange, Tremont – then just a kindergartener, too young to play in any local leagues – could practice with Stafford’s team to work on his game. Tremont, his father says, already had a workout regimen inspired by Internet searches and older siblings, but needed the organization only a team can offer – even if that team had little playing time to offer in return.
“Tremont grew up, and he finds it funny, but he was a 30-30 kid,” Ed says. “What that means is, Tremont would get in the game if we were up 30 or down 30.”
Life on the bench frustrated Tremont, and his father shared in his pain. “Tremont turned to me one day,” Ed recalls, “and said, ‘Dad, am I ever going to get in the game?’ And he didn’t understand at the time how much I loved him and how much it hurt me to hear him say, ‘Dad, I want to go. I’m ready.’ I couldn’t ask the coach. I had given him my word. I wasn’t going to ask the coach for playing time. We were going to utilize the practices for Tremont to get better. So I said, ‘Okay. That’s it. Take the uniform off. You’re not ready.’ I wasn’t being mean to Tremont. I was actually trying to ease my pain.”
But at least a part of Ed appreciated it, too. Stafford offered him “a platform,” the elder Waters says, leverage with which he could motivate his young son to work hard at his craft: “The reason I thank Tarrol Stafford is he allowed a father like myself the platform for me to go home and say, ‘Tremont, you gotta do your pushups. You gotta do your sit ups.’” A motivated Tremont shot a four pound, sand-filled ball to his dad in the living room, using perfect BEEF form – Balance, Eyes, Elbow, Follow-through – to develop proper shooting mechanics. He worked on ball handling drills with both hands. While other kids played with action figures and video games, Tremont woke up before school for workouts and hit the court as soon as the final bell rang. He traded Teddy Bears for rounder, oranger nighttime companions – a habit he’s still yet to break, apparently.
His work proved worthwhile. The next year, Stafford made Tremont the starting point guard on the fourth grade team. Though he was three years younger than the rest of the competition, Tremont dazzled with his quickness, handles, intellect, and shot-making. He relished being on the court instead of on the bench, and his family did, too, taping every second. (The cassettes still fill boxes in the Waters home.) They weren’t alone in their wonder, either. “Everyone came to the gym,” Ed says, “and said, ‘Hey, who’s that little kid?’”
“In first grade, Tremont’s name got local,” he adds. “By third grade, Tremont’s name was as far as Hartford and New York – ‘Yo, there’s this young guy…’ By fourth grade, Tremont was literally known probably from here in Connecticut to Florida by coaches.”
Not just basketball coaches, either.
ED CAN STILL remember the arguments. Grown men, fully matured, adult Homo sapiens, bickering like children over actual children.
“If you came to New Haven, and you talked to the football coaches, there was a time when Tremont was the number one draft pick in Pop Warner in football,” Ed says. “Grown men would argue: ‘No, he’s a better football player than he was a basketball player.’ ‘Nah, the kid’s better at basketball.’”
As devoted to hoops as he was, Tremont didn’t specialize too early. His father wanted to ensure he didn’t get too burned out on the hardwood and, knowing the benefits that come with being a well-rounded athlete – as well as his son’s natural love for playing any and every sport – made sure he played as many as he could.
“I played three sports when I was younger,” Tremont recalls. “Basketball, baseball, and football. Baseball, I stopped playing because it was boring. Football, I was actually a lot better at football than I was basketball around age 12 or 13. Then I just stopped playing football because I liked basketball.”
There’s more to that story, too. Tremont was a terror on the gridiron, a star running back and linebacker who won so many trophies at the end-of-the-year banquet that the coaches repeatedly called Ed, who labels himself a “workout guy” who is “not big on banquets,” to make sure his son would be there to receive them. Dad would fill punching bags with water, and son would tackle them, stand up, and run several steps before putting them down, which made tackling ball-carriers a breeze.
Football wasn’t all sunshine and rainbows for Tremont, though. One day, he came home upset from a game in which he’d scored multiple touchdowns and registered a similar number of sacks. When Ed inquired as to why, then, his son was so gloomy, Tremont offered a simple enough retort: “Well, I had a fumble.”
“Those are the things that define Tremont Waters,” Ed says. “With everything that everyone else was cheering about, his mind was on that one fumble. I had to tell him, ‘Tremont, it’s okay to have one fumble.’ But I was the guy who taught him to be meticulous with his stats, take pride in everything you do.”[perfectpullquote align=”right” bordertop=”false” cite=”” link=”” color=”461d7c” class=”” size=””]
Waters on pro comparisons and his favorite players:
“I always heard people say I played like Chris Paul. I personally like Kyrie Irving and Steph Curry. I like the way Kyrie Irving, his handle is ridiculous, and Steph Curry can shoot the ball. They both have great IQs. They see the game five plays ahead. Those are the guys I model my game after. This Celtics Kyrie, I think that’s who I want to model my game after a lot.”
He’s also the one who, with his son’s agreement, decided it was time to focus on hoops. It was fueled equally by Tremont’s love for basketball as it was Ed’s disgust with football coaches. “A lot of these guys around here, they were using these kids to make it seem like they were good guys, just to have a relationship with the moms,” he says. “And that’s pretty much disgusting to a guy like me. The coaches here, they were doing it for all the wrong reasons.
“I was trying to make a man, and they didn’t understand my plan.”
There was another obstacle: football tied them down geographically. Unlike basketball, where players can join travel teams from basically anywhere, football required players to play for their hometowns. And the Waters family had reason to want Tremont out of New Haven that went beyond creepy coaches. One day, when Tremont was in middle school, a classmate threatened to shoot him. At first, Ed just wanted a police report, to document the incident and to send a message to his son’s peers: don’t mess with Tremont. But when the police arrived, Ed says the school principal became upset with him. In his estimation, she would’ve preferred to bury the incident, rather than address it. “Then,” he says, “I just wanted Tremont’s transcripts, so we could get him out of there.”
The Waters family couldn’t exactly afford private school, but if he was to fulfill the promise he made himself to protect his son, Ed saw no other alternatives. He hoped Tremont’s skill on the court and, more pertinently, his high marks in the classroom would earn him a scholarship at Greens Farms Academy, a private school in Westport, Conn. that costs $34,000 annually, and his hopes were answered. “That’s what changed Tremont’s life,” Ed says. For nearly two years, Tremont took a 45-minute train to Greens Farms during the week, while balancing pre- and post-school workouts with his dad, team practices during the winter, and travel ball in the spring.
Ed, meanwhile, became so focused on keeping his promise to be an always-available father that, he says, “I forgot about me.” He “ballooned” up to 400 pounds, leading to “all types of health issues.” He struggled to financially provide and worried his lack of basketball knowledge would hurt Tremont’s chances to become a truly elite player.
Like Stafford before, another coach came along at the right time. This time, it was Michael Hardwick, who became part-coach, part-chauffeur, and part-friend to the Waters family. Though Hardwick lived 40 minutes away from New Haven, he’d backtrack the entire distance to pick the family up for tournaments, before driving an hour back past his hometown to get them to a tournament, and repeat the effort afterward to drop them off.
Most importantly to Ed, in a day and age where predators descend on talented prospects in the hopes of ingratiating themselves and someday yielding some sort of profit off their talents, Hardwick never attempted to take advantage of the Waters family.
“There was a time when I wasn’t able to do as a father should and financially provide,” Ed says. “I had gotten really sick. And this man went above and beyond. And the beauty of Mike Hardwick – he was not the type of guy to become friends with Tremont and try to build a wedge between us. He always made sure Tremont and I were able to enjoy the father and son stuff.”
WILL WADE WONDERED how this four-star free agent he, suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere, appeared to have a chance of signing, seemed so mature for an 18-year-old. Wade’s recruited dozens of teenagers of varying maturity levels at his various stops in college basketball. None impressed him with a presence exceeding his years quite like Tremont Waters did, and Wade – less as a coach, and more out of genuine human curiosity – wanted to know why this undersize, highly-skilled point guard possessed such poise.
Then, he met his family.
“He’s very, very mature for his age,” Wade says. “As soon as you talk to him, as soon as you meet him, he’s very, very wise beyond his years. As a coach, as a person, you try to figure out, well, why is he like this? You meet his father and you meet his mother, and you see why.”
It makes sense, then, that when he began recruiting Waters in full this spring – after LSU fired Johnny Jones and hired Wade, and after Georgetown fired John Thompson III and released Waters from his signed letter of intent to play there – Wade’s conversations with the elder Waters focused on fatherhood. Wade was on the brink of becoming a dad to his firstborn, a daughter; Waters was on the brink of seeing his son’s hard work and his personal sacrifice pay off.
“When Will Wade came into the picture after Georgetown, it was a lot of conversations about being a father,” Ed says. “Here’s my thing: anyone who knows Mr. Waters knows how much I love my son. My thing to Will was, ‘Understand: this is not a basketball player I’m sending you. What I’m sending you is my child. Who’s going to be there when my son’s having a bad day? Are you going to support him, or is your relationship indicative of how perfect he is? He’s perfect, then you guys laugh and joke. If he’s not perfect, now all of a sudden, you don’t have time for him?’ We talked about family, father stuff. I wanted to feel I would be able to call and ask him a question, and not have this man look at me like, ‘How dare you ask me a question?’ Will Wade never gave me that feeling.”
Tremont remembers the same thing. He’d previously considered places with a better basketball reputation than LSU – Duke, Kentucky, Indiana, among other college basketball blue bloods – but landed on LSU because of his dynamic with Wade. “After I de-committed from Georgetown, I looked at Coach Wade’s coaching style, what he did at VCU, Chattanooga,” Tremont says. “I liked how he studied the game. He doesn’t just look at plays and have you run things that everyone runs. He knows his P’s and Q’s.
“He reminds me of my father.”
Fittingly enough, Tremont reminds Wade of his father, too. In moments of great pressure, Tremont keeps his cool. In moments of mistake, he self-corrects. In moments of success, his celebrations are self-contained, team-directed rather than showboating. “His father has molded him to be really a lot of what he is, not only with his on the court skills, but his leadership skills, the way he handles himself, the way he carries himself,” Wade says. “That’s what makes him able to perform at the level he’s able to perform it.”
Through the six games LSU played before this magazine was printed, that proved to be a very high level. Waters’ baseline stats already alluded to were impressive enough, but a deep dive into his advanced metrics reveal a player well ahead of the curve. His SEC-leading assist percentage (34.2) and steal percentage (5.1) show his value on both ends of the floor. His 30.5 Player Efficiency Rating (third in the SEC) and 128.0 Offensive Rating (10th nationally and second in the SEC among high-usage players) show his efficiency on it.
And he has to be on the floor for LSU, to be sure. The Tigers outscored opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions in the 317 possessions Waters played through those six games. When he was out, opponents outscored LSU by 21 points per 100 possessions, a massive 39-point swing which shows how well the Tigers function with their freshman point guard, and how poorly they function without him. “You’ve all seen how we look when he’s not out there,” Wade says. “There is really no alternative.”
The only real slip-up was a game that didn’t count, an 84-74 exhibition loss that served as Waters’ unofficial LSU debut. He didn’t score a point or hand out an assist in 13 minutes off the bench, admitting afterward he was “rattled.”
Since, though, he’s been nothing short of stellar. Wade is ready for the drop off nearly every freshman endures eventually, particularly as conference play approaches, but is also working with Waters to prevent it. They’ve already begun self-scouting him to anticipate how future foes will defend him and attempt to limit his effectiveness.
Still, inconsistency consistently plagues first-year players. Wade knows this, though he has adjusted the calculations when it comes to Waters. Before the season, he predicted his freshman’s play would follow a rule of thirds: one superb game, one decent game, and one bad game.
After Maui, the math changed.
“For every bad game, he’s going to have eight good games,” Wade says.
“There’s going to be some rough games, games where we get beat and he doesn’t look very good. That’s just part of it. We’re going to be better for it as a program long-term. I don’t think there’s any question he gives us the best opportunity to win now.”
Waters, meanwhile, continues to adjust to college life. The game is faster. The athletes are better. For a player used to facing older foes, that’s the easy part. “I’ve been playing up,” he says. “I started off playing basketball in kindergarten, and I played on a fourth grade AAU team. All my life, I’ve played up. It’s not really a matter of playing against the competition. It’s the pace and the flow of the game. It’s a lot different.” He is learning how to, in Wade’s words, “conduct an orchestra, not a rock band,” and he remains his own harshest critic, still the kid who harped on the fumble and not the touchdowns.
“He’s very hard on himself,” Wade says. “He’s one of those guys, he knows when things don’t go right. Sometimes you want to get in there and correct him, and he already knows before you start trying, because he’s so sharp and on top of it.”
He’s also learning how to deal with the increased spotlight. Students who once passed him unrecognized now stop him on campus and marvel at his talents. Media ask him questions about his play, and he stumbles over the necessarily self-complimentary responses. (“I guess I’m breaking records,” he says, almost a question more than an answer.) After the Michigan game, Wade took the team’s phones for the night to keep them focused on basketball and off social media after an emotional high. When Waters got his back the next day, it took a while to go through all the notifications.
“I had a few messages,” he laughs. “A few likes on Instagram. A few SnapChats. Stuff like that. It was just a scrolling sensation.”
The attention isn’t just limited to social media. NBA scouts are taking notice. He was, according to an NBA source, “the talk of the league” after his Maui showing. His size will be a natural inhibitor on his being one-and-done, and his fast start isn’t guaranteed to extend for the rest of the season. But part of Wade’s pitch to land him in Baton Rouge was his plan to get him out of Baton Rouge and into the league.
“If you’re a 5-9 point guard, in Tre’s case,” Wade says, “how are you going to differentiate yourself from the other guards in the draft, especially being a smaller guard? You’re going to differentiate yourself by winning at a program that wasn’t winning before you got there.”
Help is coming, too. Waters has already formed an excellent backcourt partnership with Skylar Mays – the pair outscores opponents by 19 points per 100 possessions – and will team up with fellow blue-chippers Javonte Smart on the perimeter and five-star Naz Reid on the inside next season. Should explosive wing Brandon Sampson come back for his senior campaign, LSU could earn considerable preseason attention as an NCAA Tournament sleeper, with Waters’ ability to run the show chief among the reasons for those high hopes.
That’s the plan, at least, and if it comes to fruition, the world will join LSU fans, who have already seen the glimpses, and watch Waters in astonishment, marveling at his step-backs and cross-overs, his 25-foot range and arsenal of spinning finishes at the rim, wondering how this sub-six foot sensation became the rarest of combinations: electricity and stability, combustibility and composure, fire and ice, a hot heart with a cool head.
His dad will watch with them, but he won’t share in their surprise. This was all a part of the plan, a long-followed, thoroughly thought out blueprint, the fulfillment of a father’s promise to be a better man, and, with a little help, to make a better man, too.
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