Miami Heat

Hassan Whiteside the center of attention on eve of Heat training camp

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside talks with the media during the Media Day for the 2015-16 NBA season at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 28, 2015.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside talks with the media during the Media Day for the 2015-16 NBA season at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 28, 2015. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

Hassan Whiteside flew to Rome this summer and got a chance to visit the Coliseum.

A fan of the movie Gladiator, the Heat’s 7-foot, 265-pound center said he left a little disappointed from the experience.

“I hate that I couldn’t go in the middle of the Coliseum [like actor Russell Crowe] and say ‘Are you not entertained?’ ” Whiteside, 26, quipped Monday on the eve of the start of training camp. “But everybody is not that fortunate, I guess.”

Whiteside’s fortunes have certainly changed over the past 12 months.

A year ago, he was “a camp guy” in Memphis. Now, the well-traveled journeyman is entering his first full season in the NBA needing only to replicate what he did in 48 games last season for the Heat (11.8 points, 10.0 rebounds, 2.56 blocks in 23.8 minutes) to command himself a big pay day (reportedly between $12 to $20 million a year) next summer.

“I wonder what you all are going to [call me] a year from now,” Whiteside said in response to how he was “just a camp guy” 10 months ago before the Heat picked him up as a free agent after he was released by the Grizzlies. “Each year I get better and better. We’ll see what you say.”

If the Heat can get more from Whiteside, who finished fourth in the NBA’s Most Improved Player award voting last year, most pundits believe Miami will get back to being a legitimate title contender. Whiteside said he’s entering the start of camp Tuesday at Florida Atlantic University fully embracing those championship expectations and feeling less pressure than he did a year ago when he wasn’t even sure he would have a spot on an NBA roster.

“I sat down with Zo, and he said I should focus on being the Defensive Player of the Year,” Whiteside said of talking with Alonzo Mourning, the Heat’s vice president of player programs who was a two-time winner of the defensive award. “I think that’s one of my big focuses right now, just being the best defender in the NBA.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra praised Whiteside for being in “tremendous shape.”

Whiteside said he trimmed his body fat percentage down “from about eight to 9 percent to around 7 percent.”

“He’s able to run up and down the floor and not get tired and do it like a guard could do it,” said Spoelstra, who wants the Heat to play with better pace this season by running up the floor and getting into their offense faster. “He’s now able to leverage his strengths near the basket with his post-up ability, with his rebounding and being able to handle dishes and plays like that better. He’s really worked on his game, probably as consistent as anybody this summer.”

Chris Bosh, set to make 22 times what Whiteside will earn this season ($981,348), has been playing a series of one-on-one games most of the summer against Whiteside as Bosh makes his comeback from the blood clots that cost him the final 30 games of last season.

“He did win the last [one-on-one],” the 6-11, 235-pound Bosh said. “It’s 2-2 overall in the summer series. It was like a heavyweight bout. I was so tired. We played for about a good 45 minutes. He’s competitive. I’m competitive. Nobody wanted to lose. I think we were on game point for about a good 20 minutes. Nobody could score. Anytime he had an open shot, I would just foul him, and he had to take the ball out.”

Both players are looking forward to playing with each other this season. Bosh’s shooting and pick-and-roll work with point guard Goran Dragic could help open up the paint for Whiteside offensively. Whiteside, who said he has primarily focused on becoming a better free-throw shooter this summer, said Bosh’s jumper “is still smooth.”

“I really missed him out there,” Whiteside said of Bosh. “He really makes things a lot easier for me.”

Bosh, 31, said he’s seen growth and maturity from Whiteside, who was suspended a game and fined $50,000 last year after skirmishes with Suns center Alex Len and Celtics forward Kelly Olynk in a span of a week. Bosh said he and Whiteside are now locker mates, and he plans to be on the young center every day “because I see his ability in what he can do.”

“Everybody is going to want him to think ahead [to next summer],” Bosh said. “I think this is a unique opportunity for both of us to push each other to greatness.”

Bosh said the next step for Whiteside defensively is becoming better playing against the pick and roll.

“Let’s be frank, I’m sure there’s a lot of guys out there that feel overlooked at the center position and then this guy comes along and is getting all the attention,” Bosh said. “[Whiteside is] going to have to deal with that, too.

“As long as he knows that and gets it in his head, he’ll be all right. We all have goals, and we all say we want to do things. We always have to back it up when it’s time. I’ll remind him of that. ‘Defensive Player of the Year?’ Come on man, do it.”

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