Hassan Whiteside’s ascent to stardom is one of the best modern stories in all of professional sports. It’s an underdog tale that probably would have trouble being adapted to a movie because it seems too good to be true and, quite frankly, would probably seem unrealistic to non-sports fans.
Whiteside entered the NBA with a ton of potential after just one collegiate season at Marshall. He was a raw player, but it was clear he had talent and a ton of upside. After all, as a freshman, he averaged 13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds and 5.4 blocks in just 26.1 minutes per game. Because of his inexperience and, some say, his ego, he slipped to the 33rd pick in the 2010 NBA Draft.
After two forgettable seasons with Sacramento Kings in which he appeared in just 18 games (averaging 1.6 points, 2.2 rebounds and .8 blocks), Whiteside was out of the NBA altogether. He was understandably frustrated that he wasn’t playing more in Sacramento. It also didn’t help that Whiteside entered the league with the Kings, an organization that has become known for its dysfunction, and Sacramento’s decision-makers gave him a limited opportunity to prove himself and weren’t very patient with him.
Before long, Whiteside was playing in Lebanon, China and the D-League. It seemed like his NBA days were over, and he had nearly come to terms with that fact. When he surfaced in the Lebanese league (which isn’t exactly notable), it made headlines simply based on how far Whiteside had seemingly fallen in just three years – especially since was considered such a promising prospect entering the NBA.
In November of 2014, he was playing in the NBA D-League – hoping that he could do well enough to catch an NBA team’s attention and get his career back on track. Whiteside did exactly that while playing for the Iowa Energy, averaging 22 points, 15.7 rebounds and 5.3 blocks in 28.7 minutes while shooting 85.7 percent from the field. The Miami HEAT were decimated by injuries and, quite frankly, desperate. They decided to bring in a number of players on short-term deals to see what they could do, including Whiteside, Tyler Johnson, Henry Walker and Michael Beasley. Whiteside was back in the NBA, although he was on a 10-day contract.
Ever since, he has taken advantage of his opportunity with Miami and exceeded all expectations. The HEAT signed him for the rest of last season after being impressed with his production, and he finished the 2014-15 campaign averaging 11.8 points, 10 rebounds and 2.6 blocks in 23.8 minutes per game.
The story could’ve ended there, with Whiteside returning to the NBA and becoming a productive role player. That would’ve been an impressive accomplishment since the NBA no longer seemed like an option for him. However, he has continued to improve this season and emerged as one of the best centers in the NBA. Through 60 games, Whiteside has averaged 13.5 points, 11.7 rebounds and an NBA-best 3.8 blocks in just 28.8 minutes per game.
He ranks fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.7) behind only star centers Andre Drummond, DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard. He also ranks third among all players in field goal percentage, shooting an extremely efficient 60.5 percent. In addition to those impressive stats, he is ninth among all NBA players in PER, trailing only the league’s superstars (Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Chris Paul, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and James Harden). By emerging as a dominant force after exiting the league and going through everything he did, his story became a completely unique and unprecedented one. There simply hasn’t been an ascent to stardom like the one Whiteside has experienced.
Even when head coach Erik Spoelstra has tinkered with his rotation and brought Whiteside off of the bench (to team him up with fellow young defenders Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson), he has continued to thrive. Take the last 10 games, for example, in which he has averaged 16.8 points, 12.7 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in 29.6 minutes off the bench. Because Whiteside has been so productive in so few minutes, his per-100-possession stats are jaw-dropping: 24.1 points, 20.8 rebounds and 6.7 blocks.
“I come in and try to bring value every minute I’m out there,” Whiteside told The Boston Globe. “I feel like every game [I’m] getting more and more comfortable each time I play on the court. I feel like I’m getting better as an NBA player.”
While he’s certainly right about improving, traditional statistics don’t tell the full story with Whiteside.
Not only is Whiteside leading the NBA in blocks, he is also ranked first in Defensive Rating (94) and block percentage (10.2 percent). That means Whiteside blocks 10.2 percent of all two-point attempts when he’s on the floor; to put that in perspective, no other NBA player has a block percentage above 5.9 percent.
Whiteside is second in the NBA in rebound percentage, grabbing 23 percent of all available rebounds when he’s on the court, and second in Defensive Box Plus/Minus (3.8). Whiteside also ranks fifth in the NBA in Defensive Win Shares – which estimates how many wins an individual player has contributed to their team due to their defense – with 4.4.
Whiteside’s 3.8 blocks per game not only leads all NBA players, it’s more blocks than three NBA teams currently average per game (Detroit, Dallas and Cleveland). He has rejected 226 shots this season, while no other NBA player has blocked more than 152 shots.
He has recorded four point-rebound-block triple-doubles since January 2015, while no other NBA player has recorded a single one in that span. As Ira Winderman of the Sun Sentinel noted, only four others players in NBA history have recorded more point-rebound-block triple-doubles than Whiteside – Dikembe Mutombo (10), Hakeem Olajuwon (nine), David Robinson (nine) and Shawn Bradley (six) – and he has posted all of his in a little over one year. Also, no NBA player in the last 19 seasons has averaged four blocks per game, but Whiteside very well could end that drought this year.
What Whiteside is doing this season would be incredible if it was a superstar player putting up these numbers. When you consider that he was out of the NBA just 16 months ago, it’s even more insane.
It’s also somewhat crazy that Whiteside isn’t getting more recognition for his fantastic defense. It’s safe to say that he’s the best shot-blocker in the NBA and his interior defense is extremely disruptive, yet his name is almost never mentioned when discussing the Defensive Player of the Year race.
For much of the season, the Defensive Player of the Year debate has been centered around San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Golden State’s Draymond Green. This is understandable since both players are fantastic defenders, and are leading their respective teams to terrific heights. It also makes sense since they finished first and second in an extremely close Defensive Player of the Year race last season (with only 16 voting points separating them), and there was controversy at the time since Leonard won the award despite Green receiving more first-place votes (45) than Leonard (37). Nobody is arguing that Leonard and Green are outstanding, game-changing defenders.
With that said, shouldn’t Whiteside at least be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year as well? He’s literally leading the NBA in Defensive Rating and is near the top of just about every relevant defensive stat category, yet there are people who act like Defensive Player of the Year is a two-player race between Leonard and Green.
Last season, Miami ranked 19th in the NBA in defense (allowing points per 100 possessions). This season – Whiteside’s first full year with the HEAT – Miami has the NBA’s sixth-best defense (allowing 101.1 points per 100 possessions). Coincidence? I think not.
Regardless of the recognition Whiteside receives for his strong play, one thing is clear: He’s going to get a huge pay day this summer. NBA executives are noticing just how dominant the seven-footer has been and he’ll have a long list of potential suitors this offseason.
Whiteside will be an unrestricted free agent in July, and he’s hitting the market at the perfect time since the salary cap is set to skyrocket due to the NBA’s new television rights deal. As our Steve Kyler recently noted, 17 teams currently project to have enough cap space to offer a full maximum contract (and five teams will have the ability to offer two full maximum contracts). There could be as many as 24 maximum salary slots available this summer, and Whiteside will certainly be one of the top free agents on the market.
This season, Whiteside is making just $981,348, making him one of the best bargain contracts in the NBA. In all likelihood, his next contract will be a max deal – especially with so many teams with money to spend. Big men get paid, especially 26-year-olds who put up the kind of stats Whiteside is this season.
That has to be exciting for Whiteside, who has only made a little over $2 million in his NBA career. This will be his first big contract. But give him credit because as his free agency approaches, he is saying all the right things and trying not to become a distraction.
“I just try to focus on the season,” Whiteside told the Sun-Sentinel. “I can’t control anything that’s going to happen in free agency. I just try to be the best teammate and the best guy I can be and I think everything else is going to take its place.
“[My inner circle and I] really don’t talk about it. It’s really like, ‘Whenever the time comes, it comes.’ We focus on making a deep playoff run and everything else is in due time.”
However, HEAT team president Pat Riley recently made some candid comments about Whiteside’s development and free agency – seemingly making it clear that re-signing Whiteside this summer is one of his priorities.
“I’ve never been around that kind of turnaround,” Riley told reporters, according to the Palm Beach Post. “We’ve had some players that we’ve opened our eyes up on, but I think what Hassan did last year and what he’s doing now, his level of play – it’s just all about more experience, more reps, understanding how important he is for us.
“But in my 50 years in the NBA, I have never seen that kind of phenomenon. I know this is hurting me right now as far as his free agency goes because I’m complimenting him, but he’s grown a lot.”
Complicating things for Miami is the fact that they don’t have Whiteside’s Bird Rights – he only spent two years with the team, meaning they can’t offer him a longer contract than other suitors this summer and they can’t go over the salary cap to retain him. Instead, Miami will be in the same position as every other team pursuing the center, using cap space to sign him and offering essentially the same contract as everyone else. And if Miami ends up attracting a different max-level free agent (let’s say Kevin Durant, just as an example), they’ll have to decide between adding the star or re-signing Whiteside (unless Riley could somehow get extremely creative financially, but it seems very unlikely).
League sources have said that Whiteside wants to remain in Miami and his comments have suggested the same. Even when he was recently asked if he’d like to be a “leading man” rather than playing in the shadow of Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he was honest in his response, but steered his answer back to loving Miami and recruiting other players to the HEAT.
“That’d be nice,” Whiteside told the Sun-Sentinel. “I feel like a lot of people want to be that. But I want to win more than anything. I don’t really want to be the face of a losing franchise. You want to be a face of a winning program. And it’s always easier to get people to come to Miami.”
This lines up with what Whiteside told our Jesse Blancarte a few months ago when asked about free agency.
“I want to go to a team that’s about winning, that has a good understanding of what it takes to win and a good city with a good fan base,” Whiteside told Basketball Insiders in January. He added that there are “a lot of good things” about playing in Miami, including the fact that “you get to play alongside NBA champions, it’s a great city and the fans really embrace me.”
Miami is currently 40-29, and they have overcome many injuries (including the still-unclear status of Bosh) and a brutal stretch of their schedule to remain in the Eastern Conference’s fourth seed. Buyout addition Joe Johnson has thrived since joining the HEAT and provided the squad with new life as well as another perimeter scorer, making Miami an even scarier draw in the playoffs.
These next few months will be some of the most important of Whiteside’s life, with the postseason on deck and free agency to directly follow. But considering where he’s been and what he’s experienced in recent years, he’s not feeling any pressure at all. He’s essentially playing with the house’s money at this point.
“I live for big moments; I’m ready for any pressure,” Whiteside told the Sun Sentinel. “I’ve faced pressure my whole life. I feel like this pressure is a lot easier than [the pressure of], ‘If you don’t make this team, you get cut and you go back home.’ That’s the pressure I’ve faced trying to get back to the NBA.”
Make sure to follow Basketball Insiders on Twitter at @BBallInsiders.