White-side Story

If you’ve been paying attention to the NBA in the last two weeks, chances are that, by now, you’ve noticed the way Hassan Whiteside is playing for the Miami Heat.

If you haven’t heard of Hassan Whiteside before now, or even to this point, that’s OK, really. The Heat are currently struggling to stay afloat in the Eastern Conference, and until his recent tear––which has included a point/rebound/block triple-double against the Chicago Bulls––Whiteside was essentially anonymous to everyone but hard-core basketball nerds.

Now, just about everyone knows who he is, as Whiteside has suddenly become a force of destruction at both ends of the floor for the Heat. In his last 15 games, Whiteside is averaging 13.6 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 3.4 blocks per game despite playing just under 25 minutes per. In short, he’s been a revelation.

Much like the fans, most of the front offices around the league are wondering how they missed this guy as well. Coming out of Marshall, Whiteside was drafted in the second round, 33rd overall, by the Sacramento Kings in 2010, and spent two years pinging back and forth between the NBA and the D-league. While Whiteside’s athleticism was obvious, so was his lack of discipline and patience, and the Kings felt ready to move on after trying their best to instill good habits for a couple seasons.

Even back then, Miami kicked the tires on the young big man, only to draw the same conclusion as Sacramento: while Whiteside certainly had ability, the mental side of his game lagged far enough behind that the team was convinced he wouldn’t be able to handle the speed of the NBA game.

So Whiteside went overseas, playing for teams in both China and Lebanon, both of which he said were eye-opening and learning experiences for him, on- and off-court. In Lebanon, Whiteside has said he witnessed a car-bomb explosion that affects his mentality to this day.

Such difficult times helped shape an immature young man, however, and Whiteside’s focus on basketball intensified during his time overseas. He worked on honing fundamentals, as footwork and timing make up the foundation of big-man defense. He also worked on utilizing his best assets, an absurd 7-foot-7-inch wingspan and pogo-stick hops that make him look Brow-esque.

Upon returning to the NBA, Whiteside was a changed player, and although the Grizzlies signed him immediately, the team missed out and cut him––not once, but twice. Even though it was the result of normal and necessary roster reshuffling for a contending team, you can bet the Memphis front office is kicking themselves for not giving Whiteside more of a look.

By that point, the Heat and Eric Spoelstra were in need of another big man, and based on their interest in Whiteside from a couple years earlier, they wanted to take a look. Obviously, they’re glad they did––Spoelstra has said he noticed the change in the big man’s game immediately. Still, Whiteside didn’t take the court immediately for Miami, spending a little more than a month as an emergency reserve before he showed Spoelstra enough to give him some extra minutes.

Since then, he’s not only been the Heat’s most productive players, but one of the most productive players in the entire league. Looking simply at his on/off data from Basketball-Reference, Miami’s offensive rating falls from 108.6 to 102.2 when Whiteside sits, while their opponents have an easier time scoring and their offensive rating rises from 106 to 108. That means Whiteside accounts for a full 8-point swing for the Heat in their raw lineup data, and ESPN’s individualized plus-minus data backs that up. Their real plus-minus has Whiteside fourth in the league at the center position grading out at +4.6 points per 100 possessions.

The eye test backs up Whiteside as well. Spoelstra has been cautious about increasing Whiteside’s minutes, especially given his predictably sky-high foul rate for a young big man (4.6 per 36 minutes). With the slow rise in his playing time, however, seems to have come a slowing of the game itself, as that number has fallen a tick recently despite the bump in minutes. Whiteside has shown a unique ability to avoid body contact with drivers, which allows him to get his hands on otherwise shielded shot attempts. His absurd vertical leap and reach are obviously huge factors, but Whiteside has now harnessed them. For a literal illustration of just how unique his combination of those two physical traits is, check out this chart from Real GM.

That’s true even on offense, where, thanks to Miami’s spread-floor system, Whiteside has thrived rolling to the rim out of the pick-and-roll. When the Chris Bosh camps out in the corner, it leaves the lane wide-open, and Whiteside has feasted both in basic sets with Dwyane Wade and even in simple put-back cleanup work that comes out of frantic defensive rotations and closeouts. Chris Andersen has eaten this way for years in the Miami offense, and Whiteside is twice as good an athlete and should be twice as effective. He’s not LeBron, but Whiteside bends opposing defenses in other ways that, when combined with the savvy of Wade and a bevy of shooters, create other dynamic opportunities on offense.

NBA: DEC 19 Wizards at Heat

Real Deal!!

So the question everyone wants to know: is Whiteside for real, or is this simply Linsanity 2.0?

Lin has never been the dynamic scoring sensation that he was during his winter with the Knicks, but he’s been a solid NBA player since then, so if that’s the worst case scenario for the Whiteside and the Heat, they’d probably be OK with that. Even rock-solid big men are hard to find at the right price in this league.

Considering Whiteside’s current trajectory, though, that seems like a hypothetical Miami won’t have to worry about. Whiteside has steadily improved not just during the last few years, but even during his time with the Heat, which should give them encouragement about his ability in the future. As Zach Lowe mentioned on Twitter, we seem to learn something new about Whiteside every game, which is both predictable given the small sample size and exciting given that talent alone can only take a player so far.

That sheer athleticism, along with Whiteside’s sudden ability to control it, is perhaps the biggest difference between Whiteside’s story and Linsanity. While Lin could always score the ball, he had clear limitations and a lengthy body of work from which to make evaluations. With Whiteside, he barely played even at Marshall, and since he’s only begun to tap into his extraordinary athletic ability, there’s no telling when the upward trend in his progression will end. Thankfully for the Heat––who are struggling to make this year count––he’s already under contract for next season, at least.

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