Miami Heat

Center Hassan Whiteside bright spot amid Miami Heat slide

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside prepares to shoot a free throw against the Orlando Magic at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Dec. 29, 2014.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside prepares to shoot a free throw against the Orlando Magic at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Dec. 29, 2014. NBAE/Getty Images

After Pat Riley’s arrival nearly two decades ago, the Heat demonstrated an ability to transform unproven, young big men into quality rotation pieces, most notably with Ike Austin in 1996 and Udonis Haslem beginning in 2003.

That developmental pipeline essentially dried up in recent years, with the Heat opting for veteran-heavy rosters during the LeBron James era.

But Hassan Whiteside offers hope in that regard, flashing the potential to perhaps become something that Mickell Gladness, Jarvis Varnado and Josh Harrellson could not here in recent years: a young, developmental center who warrants regular minutes and can legitimately impact the game.

Admittedly, the sample size is small; Whiteside, 25, has appeared in only nine games for the Heat since signing on Nov.24.

But the past three have been particularly encouraging, with Whiteside corralling 21 rebounds (seven in each of the games), scoring 16 points and blocking five shots in 56 minutes against Memphis, Orlando and Indiana.

“Very pleased and encouraged by how much he has grown in the last five weeks since he’s been with us,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday. “It has been a specific, detailed plan. He’s embraced the work.”

Most importantly, the 7-foot Whiteside has given the Heat rim deterrence, something the second unit needed with the insertion of Chris Andersen into the starting lineup.

“It gives us a different look than we’ve had here,” Dwyane Wade said. “Obviously, we get some [rim deterrence] with [Andersen]. And once Bird goes out, to be able to bring Hassan in, it’s big. It changes a lot of things. He’s a rim protector. It’s good for us.”

Whiteside, who grew up in Gastonia, North Carolina, led the nation in blocked shots (182, or 5.4 per game) and averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds in his one season at Marshall before turning pro. Sacramento drafted him 33rd overall in 2010, but he played just 19 games in two seasons for the Kings before being released.

During the past two seasons, Whiteside had two stints in Lebanon, one in China and played for three teams in the NBA’s Development League. But the time in Lebanon was unsettling off the court, to the point that he left last April to join a team in China.

“It had to be done for my safety,” he said. “I was MVP of that league [in Lebanon]. They didn’t want me to leave. But toward the end, I got a little nervous. You see guns and the army and tanks every day.”

What was most disturbing in Lebanon, Whiteside said, was “seeing someone die in a car accident. He drove off the highway. The car flipped over, and I watched the guy die.”

Whiteside spent training camp with the Memphis Grizzlies, was released before the season started, re-signed with the Grizzlies on Nov.19 but was cut a day later when Memphis needed to open a roster spot. The Heat plucked him off waivers days later, after a two-day stint in the NBDL.

“For the minutes I’m getting, I’m playing pretty good,” he said. “I feel more mature” than a year ago.

Haslem sees such upside that he says “in time, with work, he can be somewhat of DeAndre Jordan, probably,” referencing the Los Angeles Clippers’ starting center.

“There’s a lot of talent there,” Haslem said. “He brings something to us we don’t have, 7-foot, shot-blocking ability, the way he’s able to go get lobs and finish at the rim. And he can shoot, too, [up to] about 15 feet.”

Though they never met until late November, Whiteside followed former Heat All-Star and current team executive Alonzo Mourning’s career closely and took it to heart when he once heard Mourning say “that a shot blocker can’t be scared to get dunked on.”

Assistant coach Juwan Howard is handling a lot of the skill development with Whiteside, just as Haslem was taught a decade ago by then-assistant coaches Spoelstra, Keith Askins and Bob McAdoo.

“We take a lot of pride in our player development program,” Spoelstra said. “You find somebody that is a talent like Hassan and see his upside and develop him as much as possible and play through the ups and downs.”

The Heat hopes 7-footer Justin Hamilton, who is still limited in practice because of a concussion, can become another developmental success story. But Whiteside’s ability as a rim protector makes him the more intriguing prospect.

▪ The Heat (14-19) enters the New Year having lost three in a row and stands at five games below .500 for the first time since the 2007-08 season.

“None of us feel good about what happened in 2014 and the first couple of months of the season,” Spoelstra said. “But we do see some positives.”

Spoelstra seems inclined to stick with the current lineup because “we’re just trying to find some consistency.”

Said Chris Bosh: “We’re struggling with lineup changes and consistency with certain lineups and second groups. Maybe we just need to stop trying to finger-point. That’s coach’s job. He’ll figure it out. It’s on us as players to get the job done.”

▪ Wade sat out of much of the contact work during practice but is expected to play Saturday at Houston.

Saturday: Heat at Rockets

When/where: 8 p.m.; Toyota Center, Houston.

TV/radio: Sun Sports; WAXY 790, 104.3 FM; WAQI 710 (Spanish).

Series: Heat leads 28-27, but Rockets won 108-91 on Nov.4 in Miami.

Noteworthy: Dwight Howard had 26 points and 10 rebounds, and James Harden added 25 points and 10 assists in that early season Rockets win against the Heat, with Chris Bosh scoring 21 points and Dwyane Wade adding 19. … Forward Josh Smith, who picked the Rockets over the Heat and a few other suitors after being released by the Pistons, is averaging 8.5 points, 6.0 rebounds and shooting just 34.1 percent in four games for Houston.