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NBA Sunday: Hassan Whiteside Rises

In Miami, Hassan Whiteside is dispelling the myth that you can’t win with a traditional center.

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Nestled away in a corner of the Miami HEAT’s locker room, Dwyane Wade, clearly caught off guard by my question, sat and thought for a moment. He sighed and raised his eyebrows as he thought about his response.

“When I look up and down the centers in the Eastern Conference, I can’t say too many have made a bigger impact at this point,” Wade told Basketball Insiders.

Wade had just finished putting on one of his finer performances in years and, afterward, all everyone wanted to discuss was what had gotten into him. I, on the other hand, had other ideas.

“What kind of revelation has Hassan Whiteside been?” was the question.

To anyone who has been watching, the answer is quite obvious.

* * * * *

Only eight players in NBA history have averaged four blocks per game over the course of a regular season with Dikembe Mutombo having last accomplished the feat during 1995-96. Whiteside is currently on that pace. What is most astonishing about him, though, is the impact he has already been able to make on the game despite a dearth of experience. After playing a total of 19 games over the course of his first two seasons in the league (2010-12), Whiteside bounced around from the D-League to Lebanon to China before returning to the NBA last season.

HassanWhiteside_InsideAfter being waived by the Memphis Grizzlies, he was picked up by Pat Riley and is now just the most recent example of things that Riley has gotten right.

And he also happens to be the most promising center in the entire conference.

In a league being dominated by floor-stretching big men and three-point shooting, Whiteside is a bit of a throwback. He attempts 87 percent of his shots from within 10 feet of the basket and has never attempted a single three-point shot in his NBA career. He possesses a rare combination of size, agility and strength and has timing and instincts that are remarkably similar to Dwight Howard when he was similarly experienced.

Whiteside, though, keeps things in perspective and is determined to take it one day at a time.

“My teammates make it easy for me,” he told Basketball Insiders. “When I’m down low, they give me the ball, and when they see something, they know I can finish really well around the rim. They make it easy for me.”

In return, he makes things a bit easier for them as well.

“He’s been great,” Wade said. “He’s been a pleasant surprise for a lot of people and now he’s consistently putting games together where he’s a dominant force for us. We all understand he’s one of the best centers in our league.”

And with him, the HEAT once again find themselves in the conversation of conference contender.

One of the inevitable truths about the NBA is that playoff basketball is a different animal. Over the course of a long and grueling seven-game series, coaches and scouts have the opportunity to study their counterparts and learn how to slow down high-octane offenses and take advantage of exposed weaknesses. In that regard, having a versatile and defensive-minded presence like Whiteside will pay major dividends for the HEAT when it counts most.

But between now and then, I wonder if it will pay dividends in another way: All-Star votes.

Back in October 2012, as a result of teams playing smaller and a seeming lack of gifted centers, the NBA announced that it was removing the center designation from its All-Star ballots. At the time, Stu Jackson, the NBA’s Vice President of Basketball Operations, said that having the designation was “a little outdated” and “didn’t represent the way our game has evolved.”

While there is no doubt that the game has evolved, there is also no doubt that Whiteside is bucking the trend of what the modern NBA center looks like, especially in this era of “small ball.”

The success of the Golden State Warriors and teams employing offenses built on similar principles has led many to question whether a team playing a “traditional” style of basketball—marked by inside-out play—can still be successful in today’s NBA.

The HEAT, partially with Whiteside and partially with Chris Bosh, are proving that they can.

“Basketball is basketball,” Bosh told Basketball Insiders. “You can play big. We play big and the Spurs play big and they’re pretty successful. It’s all about spreading the floor and playing to your strengths and getting the job done.”

“There’s moments and pockets in games where you need to play that small ball, but it’s also good to have a good big man,” Wade told Basketball Insiders. “Some people might not be able to play that way because they don’t have a good big man. But even Golden State, they have a good big man. Andrew Bogut is a starting big, he plays big for them down low, he protects the paint, he just doesn’t play 40 minutes.

“You don’t wanna take away the strengths of your team and the strength of our team is making sure that Hassan can be on the floor and be dominant when he can.”

Dominant is a good word to describe some of Whiteside’s performances this season. Entering play on December 20, he has recorded seven games with at least five blocks. On November 17, in amassing 22 points, 14 rebounds and 10 blocks, he recorded the league’s first points, rebounds, blocks triple-double of this season.

With the success of Erik Spoelstra’s team, don’t try telling these guys that you can’t win in today’s NBA with a traditional paint presence.

“I just think it depends on the big man,” Whiteside told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like I can go on [the] perimeter. I’m defensive minded and I don’t think I’m like any other center in the league. I really pride myself on defense and being able to move on the perimeter and being able to block shots.”

As it relates to Whiteside, that much is obvious. What is a little less obvious, though, is whether there will be an appreciation for the impact he has on the game and whether there will be any love thrown his way when the Eastern Conference coaches cast their votes for All-Star game reserves. If Whiteside continues his fine play, it would be hard to argue against him deserving a free trip to Toronto.

* * * * *

“Hopefully, that’s taken into consideration when the ballots come out,” Wade said of Whiteside’s contributions to a winning culture in Miami.

“Hassan is playing well,” Bosh told Basketball Insiders. “We know what he’s capable of, we know how he can help this team and he’s playing well. All-Star, that’s up in the air. Yes, you can play like an All-Star but he still has to get chosen. He’s playing at an All-Star level, but we need him to do that every night – that’s the key.”

So far, so good.

“That would be a blessing,” Whiteside told Basketball Insiders of the prospect of being named an All-Star.

But as he finished tying his shoes and putting on his jacket, he was quick to remind me that the season was much closer to the beginning than it is to the end. With Whiteside set to hit free agency on July 1, 2016, he, be it in Miami or elsewhere, seems destined to find a permanent home for his basketball talents.

With the right personnel, mindset and work ethic, finding success in the NBA while employing a traditional center is still possible. And in Miami, Hassan Whiteside is proving that.

Moke Hamilton is a Deputy Editor and Columnist for Basketball Insiders.

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