BOSTON – An NBA front office is a well-oiled machine. There is a general manager, an assistant general manager and assistants to the assistant general manager. In many organizations there is a President who oversees all of them. These well-paid, well-trained executives devour hours of film, deploy numerous scouts and hopscotch the world in search of talent.
Yet ever so often, all of them whiff.
Hassan Whiteside is hard to miss. At 7-foot, 265 pounds -- with a 7-foot-7 wingspan -- Whiteside, the Heat center, is frequently the biggest player on the floor. His wide base makes him difficult to box out (7.7 rebounds per game) and his length and natural shot-blocking skills (2.4 per game) make him a menace in the paint. His offensive game is raw, but he has good hands, a surprisingly nice touch from mid-range and is currently No. 3 in the NBA in Player Efficiency Rating.
Not bad for a player with recent stamps from Lebanon and China on his passport, for a 25-year old nearly every team in the league took a pass on.
Whiteside’s NBA story began in 2010, in Sacramento, where the Kings tabbed him with the No. 33 overall pick. They almost didn’t. Ownership wanted to sell the pick; the Kings basketball staff had to persuade them to keep it. Sacramento recognized his potential -- the shot blocking, especially, was enticing -- but Whiteside, who played just one season at Marshall, just wasn’t ready. Too skinny, Kings coaches said. Too immature to grasp the nuances of an NBA defense. Whiteside shuttled back and forth between the NBA and the D-League for two years, before eventually being waived in 2012.
A free agent, Whiteside had one of his first workouts with Miami. In 2010, the Heat had strongly considered drafting Whiteside; they wanted to give him a second look. The workout didn’t go well. The Heat, said Whiteside’s former agent, Brian Samuels, didn’t think Whiteside was totally invested in becoming an NBA player. According to Samuels, Pat Riley suggested Whiteside take a year off, get his head on straight, and decide what he wanted to do.
“This kid has always had an immense amount of talent,” Samuels said. “He just needed to wrap his head around the idea that this was a full-time job. Back then, I don’t think he was there yet.”
His NBA options evaporated, Whiteside went overseas. For two years he split time between Lebanon and China. He experienced the good (a championship in China), the bad (disorganized leagues) and the ugly. He heard a car bomb explode. He saw a dead body in the street. He watched, stunned, as bloody fights broke out in the stands during games. “It put things in perspective,” Whiteside said. “It’s different watching this stuff happen on the news than it is when it’s right down the street.”
Through it all, Whiteside, remarkably, got better. He packed needed pounds onto his lower body. He practiced hard to improve his conditioning. He learned to read where double teams were coming from and what play to make when they do. “Doing it every day was great experience,” Whiteside said. Through it all, his confidence never wavered. “It’s been NBA, NBA, NBA since I was little,” Whiteside said. “Being over there didn’t change anything. Other people probably thought I wouldn’t get back. But I did.”
Last fall, Whiteside signed a training camp deal with Memphis. He was waived near the end of it. He joined Rio Grande in the D-League and was promptly traded to Iowa. He signed in Memphis in November -- and was cut a day later. Dogged by doubts created during his days in Sacramento, Whiteside was on a nomadic journey that seemed destined to continue. Miami, though, was lurking. The Heat -- specifically assistant GM Adam Simon -- had been keeping tabs on him. Miami has a history of taking chances on low risk/high reward players (Eddy Curry, Greg Oden and Michael Beasley are recent examples). In November, the Heat signed Whiteside, plucking him from the Iowa Energy roster. Immediately, Miami personnel saw a difference in the player they passed on in 2012. Said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, “He’s much more disciplined than he used to be.”
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In Miami, Whiteside has been a force. He pushed himself into the Heat rotation in December and put up some eye-popping stat lines in January. There was the 23-point, 16-rebound effort against the Clippers; a 16-point, 16-rebound output against Milwaukee. Whiteside averaged 13 points (on 67 percent shooting) and 10.6 rebounds in January while swatting 3.4 shots per game.
"He is a rebounding machine, he blocks shots, and if you give him an angle around the rim we don’t have anyone who can counter that,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “You can’t shoot through [him]. You have to either go around him or drive and kick it to someone else. He’s too big.”
Spoelstra has tried to bring Whiteside along slowly, but the numbers -- Miami is a +2 offensively with Whiteside on the floor (-4.9 off) and is 3.2 points per 100 possessions stingier defensively -- have made pulling him difficult. He has tried to ease the pressure by downplaying expectations, but the better Whiteside plays, the more attention he gets. Consider: Spoelstra spent two-thirds of his pre-game media availability in Boston this week answering questions about Whiteside’s development.
“I get it, I understand why everybody’s looking at the numbers and everything,” Spoelstra said. “My eyeball-to-eyeball conversation with him the first time at the end of November was about the program and embracing the work. He’s been very committed to that work. You like to see residual from that work. It doesn’t guarantee anything, but now with the success you don’t want to throw that out the door either.”
For his part, Whiteside isn’t interested in downplaying anything. He’s bought into Spoelstra’s philosophy (“I’ve got to keep improving, never get complacent,” Whiteside said) but is fueled by years of rejection. To Whiteside, every opponent is a skeptic. After dominating the Clippers, Whiteside took a shot at Doc Rivers for refusing to bring him in for a workout. Before a win over the Kings, Whiteside noted that the staff that cut him was no longer there. Not even video game companies are safe: After posting a triple-double against Chicago, Whiteside said he was “just trying to get my NBA2K rating up.”
For Whiteside, Miami has given him the opportunity he has been craving.
“Every day is a new day to get better,” Whiteside said. “I want to make people remember my name.”