The Miami HEAT had been searching for a solution to their interior defensive issues, and now they may have found their answer.
The HEAT have had their share of defensive struggles this season. The team ranks 23rd in the league in defensive efficiency and are 22nd in opponents’ field goal percentage, holding teams to just 46.2 percent from the field. Perhaps one of the worst areas in which the HEAT need to improve upon is in the paint – where they’re allowing opponents to shoot 41.4 percent within 10 feet of the rim, which is sixth-worst in the league.
The team addressed their frontcourt over the offseason by signing Josh McRoberts to a four-year, $22.6 million contract. McRoberts had shown potential for the team, but he got hurt after only 17 games and will miss the remainder of the season with a knee injury. Without McRoberts, the HEAT didn’t have many reliable options for Erik Spoelstra to use.
Udonis Haslem is a solid defender, but hasn’t proven to be an effective offensive weapon. Shawne Williams has shown that he can light up the scoreboard at times from behind the three-point line, but his defense leaves much to be desired. Chris Andersen is 36 years old and can’t be counted on to play more than 20 minutes a game and also remain productive long-term. The last big man on the roster is Justin Hamilton; he’s played in only 19 games and doesn’t appear to be an option Spoelstra wants to rely on.
Enter Hassan Whiteside.
The HEAT signed Whiteside back on November 24, but he didn’t see much time at first. The team even sent him down to the D-League for a game before calling him back up. Shortly after rejoining the team, Whiteside began to see a gradual increase in minutes. Fast forward nearly a month later and Whiteside is averaging 21 minutes per game in January, while contributing 12.1 points, eight rebounds and three blocks per game. He’s become a true force inside for the HEAT, limiting opponents at the rim and playing very well in spurts. Prior to leaving Tuesday’s game early with a sprained ankle, Whiteside recorded at least two blocks in nine-straight games, including five against the Lakers last week.
“He’s a talented guy,” said Donnie Jones, Whiteside’s head coach at Marshall. “I’ve been around a bunch of big guys who have been pros with [Joakim] Noah and [Al] Horford and he’s just as talented as any guy that I’ve coached. He’s now in a good system with the HEAT with Pat Riley and Erik Spoelstra, who can coach him. I told him just to stay close to Haslem, Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade and those guys that can help him learn to be a pro on how he handles himself on the floor and off of the floor because he’s got the talent and his upside is incredible with what he can be.”
Whiteside’s potential was evident back during his lone season at Marshall. Whiteside led the nation during the 2009-10 season in blocks with 174, or 5.44 per game. He also finished 37th in the country in total rebounds with 295. Following that season, Jones left Marshall to take the head coaching position at UCF and Whiteside opted to enter the NBA draft following his departure.
Despite his potential to be a productive big man in the league, something seemed to hinder his chances of playing big minutes.
The Sacramento Kings selected Whiteside with the 33rd overall pick in the second round of the 2010 draft, but he only played two minutes all season. He played in 18 games during his sophomore campaign, but was cut after that season. From there, Whiteside bounced around from the D-League to overseas (even playing in Lebanon). Reports surfaced around the draft that Whiteside was arrogant and immature during some of his pre-draft meetings, which apparently turned some teams off.
Whiteside played overseas last year before returning to the NBA in a brief stint with the Grizzlies. He would eventually return to the D-League with the Iowa Energy. After averaging 22 points, 15.6 rebounds and 5.3 blocks per game in three games, he signed with the HEAT.
Despite his quick start in Miami, Spoelstra’s main priority with Whiteside was his player development.
“I know everybody is getting caught up in [his impressive start], but when I met with him it was about the commitment to work, the commitment to the player development,” Spoelstra said, according to the Miami Herald. “After a very good road trip, he came in, did an hour and half of player development. He is just responding to all of the work. That’s what’s encouraging.”
Spoelstra rewarded Whiteside by inserting him into the starting lineup. He had made three consecutive starts prior to missing Wednesday night’s game with a sprained ankle. Whiteside is averaging eight points, five rebounds and two blocks as a starter and scored 10 points on 5-of-5 shooting before leaving early against the Thunder.
Whiteside’s numbers through 17 games haven’t been off of the charts given his 15 minutes per game, but he remains efficient when he’s on the court. According to ESPN, Whiteside’s 26.01 PER is sixth in the league, putting him in a class with players like James Harden, DeMarcus Cousins and LeBron James.
“He’s big and he plays big,” Wade said. “He protects the basket for us and he catches and finishes. If you keep doing that then you’ll have a long career and be very successful. Hopefully he gets back as soon as he can. It seems like every time we get another [player back from injury] another one goes out. It’s unfortunate but we’re a better team when he’s in the ball game.”
The HEAT hope his strong play can continue as the season heads into a critical stretch where teams really begin to battle for playoff positioning. Whiteside’s ankle injury is said to be a minor sprain, which means he’ll be back out on the court sooner than later for the team.
With each passing game, Whiteside continues to become more comfortable on the court and has shown improvement in each outing. Teammates are already impressed with what he’s done, but they could be in for more as he seems to just barely be tapping into his potential that has always been immense.
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