The Bright Side of Whiteside

A Strong Beginning For A Young Center
Hassan Whiteside
Issac Baldizon
by Couper Moorhead
HEAT.com

Less than an hour after the best game of his young career – it’s not close – Hassan Whiteside is sitting at his locker. There’s a large pool of reporters and cameras waiting nearby, but there’s always a large crowd of reporters and cameras waiting nearby. Chris Bosh’s locker is right next door, and Bosh speaks to the media after every game, rain or shine.

So, Whiteside ties his shoes and stands up, leading to this exchange:

“You’re not leaving are you,” asks a local reporter.

“Um, I was just going to…”

“We’re here for you.”

“Oh…”

The joke is that Whiteside is a rookie in all but age and status. Drafted early in the second round by the Sacramento Kings four seasons ago, Whiteside’s career never really started. Between short-term contracts and assignments to the Developmental League, Whiteside has been part of 12 separate transactions during two-plus seasons in the pros – and that’s not even counting multiple stints playing in China and Lebanon. With regards to basketball life, Whiteside was a man without a home.

Sitting with two contracts in hand this summer, Whiteside took the chance at finding that home over the financial security of continuing his travels abroad.

“I had to really make a big decision for myself to go back to China or to really pursue my dreams in the NBA,” Whiteside said. “Growing up I always said I was going to be an NBA player. I didn’t have a backup plan.

“It wasn’t about the money. That’s why I went to the D-League. [I said] I’m going to give it all I got this year, and make it back to the NBA. It’s paying off right now. I really had to dig deep into myself and go all in.”

Whiteside is effectively betting on himself, and so far it appears to be a prudent investment. Labeled as something of a developmental player when he first signed with the HEAT, Erik Spoelstra made sure to remove that label a couple of weeks ago once Whiteside starting earning more and more minutes in the big leagues. Now the man who was still chasing a distant dream two months ago is sitting in the rotation.

It’s not a position Whiteside was handed by default, either. While there’s no mind-blowing metrics showing that Miami is suddenly the best defensive team in the league when he’s on the court, Whiteside is just as important for what he can be as for what he is now. Because for every missed rotation, there’s an opposing guard finagling his way into the paint and having no idea what to do once he gets there.

“I told the guards to just believe in me,” Whiteside said. “It might not look like I’m there but I’ve got your back. I’m there for you.”

While the HEAT don’t have the easiest defensive system to learn – not many teams do these days – they’re keeping things simple with Whiteside. Even though it’s been dialed down this year, you’re probably familiar with the aggressive style of Miami’s defense. With Whiteside, the rules are a little different. When opposing guards come off screens, they’re not dealing with hard blitzes or long, flat shows. As you expect from the Hibberts and Gasols of the world, Whiteside sits back at the entrance to the paint and waits for the ballhandler to pay the toll. A similar schematic change Spoelstra made when incorporating Greg Oden last season.

It might mean giving up a somewhat-open jumper off the dribble, but some of the league’s elite defenses are constructed around forcing teams to shoot from the range of inefficiency.

“If we play to our strengths and keep it simple and he continues to work, hopefully he’ll continue to break down some barriers,” Spoelstra said.

It’s easy to point to Whiteside’s career-high five blocks as a sign of his true impact, but you’ll also have to note that with as much one-on-one offense as the Nets sometimes play, they were a good matchup for a player adept as waiting out help-side blocks. The less you move the ball, the easier it is for a paint-protector like Whiteside to key in on the eventual shooter. He has instincts and length to be an impact player on that end, but the shots Whiteside forces opponents not to take will be just as important as those he contests and blocks.

“Defensively, he’s a game changer,” Wade said. “He had five blocks but he altered [shots] and he made guys think about going down into the paint.”

What’s doubly encouraging is that Whiteside shows potential as more than a one-way player. He’s not a dump-it-in post-player, skyhooks aside, but he doesn’t need to be. The HEAT already have a perfect vertical-spacing template in place with starter Chris Andersen, and while the spacing has yet to show up Whiteside has the combination of soft hands, deft touch and athleticism – he also keeps the ball high around the rim – that hint at greater impact.

“He’s got a unique skill set and it fits with our players,” Spoelstra said. “Not only does it fit with Dwyane, obviously, when he attacks and has the ability to throw it up there, but he fits with [Chris Bosh]. So if you put two bodies on him, [Bosh] now becomes a recipient.”

There’s a lot of noise in Whiteside’s numbers given that he’s played in a few games that weren’t entirely competitive, so while it’s great that he’s shooting over 60 percent it’s best to focus on what we’ve seen for now. Clearly, Whiteside’s teammates are beginning to trust him more and more, with Bosh throwing the pass of the season around his back to Whiteside the other night – many big men would have fumbled the ball out of bounds – and Wade throwing a lob his way late in a close game against the Nets.

No, the connection didn’t work out. It’s Wade’s willingness to attempt it in the first place that’s as encouraging as anything else. Between practices and shootarounds, teammates and coaches see a player far more than we do. So when there’s only so much visual and numerical data to work with, it’s fair to trust the actions of those whose success depends on him.

“You got to put it up there. More than likely, he’s going to come down with it,” Wade said.

Still, this is a good, promising start. Nothing more, nothing less. Letting expectations run out far ahead of a player’s actual developmental curve doesn’t help anyone. There’s a fit and a role for Whiteside with the HEAT if he continues on this path, but there will be bumps. And that’s half the fun with young players. You can recognize their mistakes and watch them try to avoid repetition.

So enjoy the dunks and the blocks for now, but remember that behind the scenes this is a player who may get scored on by the Dwight Howards of the world. He just also happens to be a player that immediately asks for video of his worst moments for study, as he did at halftime of the Rockets matchup.

Whiteside is more than willing to take the bad with the good in service of the process. We should be, too. And maybe someday it’ll be ordinary to have a bunch of cameras and tape recorders waiting at his locker.

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