Miami Heat

Miami Heat looking to future with infusion of youth

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside goes to the basket to score against Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez in the second quarter during a game at AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside goes to the basket to score against Brooklyn Nets center Brook Lopez in the second quarter during a game at AmericanAirlines Arena on Sunday, Jan. 4, 2015. el Nuevo Herald

PORTLAND, Ore. — Even with seven-foot NBA defenders there are baby steps.

Center Hassan Whiteside isn’t technically a rookie, but the emerging defensive game-changer for the Heat still knows off the top of his head how many NBA games he has played in his career. Thursday night’s late game at Portland’s Moda Center against the Trail Blazers was just Whiteside’s 31st on-court appearance in an NBA uniform since his rookie season in 2010 — a fact he pointed out before the team left Miami for Oregon on Wednesday.

Whiteside is the latest youngster for the Heat to receive heavy minutes in the first half of the season. Before him, rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, and second-year pro Justin Hamilton all had their chances to break into the team’s rotation at some point. When the Heat began this first season in five years without LeBron James, there was a clear emphasis by the team’s front office to develop younger players for the future. That plan has been amended slightly, but as the Heat begins a difficult five-game road trip through the West Coast the team’s commitment to the future still appears to be a point of emphasis despite the recent release of rookie shooter Andre Dawkins.

The Heat released Dawkins on Wednesday to make room for a veteran presence to replace injured power forward Josh McRoberts. Using the NBA’s Disabled Player Exception on McRoberts forced the Heat to release Dawkins, but the team’s youth movement is at the same time breaking new ground with Whiteside’s new role and a commitment to develop point guard Napier.

On Thursday, Whiteside was set to protect the rim against one of the best attackers in the league, Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, and Napier rejoined the Heat after another stint with the team’s D-League affiliate. With Whiteside, Napier, Hamilton and Ennis now all likely with the team for the remainder of the season, considerable resources are being pumped into the future as the Heat plods through a difficult stretch of the season.

“This year, with nine new guys, we have to be a lot more careful defensively, and that’s where the inconsistency has come in,” Heat co-captain Udonis Haslem said. “But the guys’ minds and hearts are in the right place, and there is no doubt about it that we will get it.”

Recently, Whiteside’s presence in the paint has taken some pressure off of the Heat’s perimeter players and settled the team’s overall defense. Whiteside began this five-game swing on the heels of his best game as a professional. Last Sunday, he had 11 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots against the Brooklyn Nets.

“Hassan and his emergence has been huge the last couple games, and it’s only going to continue to get better,” Haslem said.

NAPIER RETURNS

In addition to Whiteside’s breakthrough, Napier, who last appeared in a game with the Heat on Dec.17, rejoined the team on Thursday after another brief stint with the team’s D-League affiliate in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Napier’s move back to the NBA coincided with the release of Dawkins.

Napier has gained some experience with the Sioux Falls Skyforce recently, but he said Thursday that he would much rather remain with the Heat full-time than split time between Miami and South Dakota. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said the biggest reason for Napier’s relegation was to “get minutes.”

“I hadn’t played him in a few games, and it was an opportunity to play and stay in rhythm for a short period of time,” Spoelstra said. “That’s what the league is for.”

Napier has made two trips to Sioux Falls in the past month to work on various skills with the Skyforce’s coaching staff, which includes former Heat point guard Chris Quinn. Spoelstra said Napier has been working on his “leadership and defense” as well as “getting the team organized and making people better.”

“Down there, you have a little bit more of an opportunity to be a point guard and can control the team,” Spoelstra said. “Here, we still expect it, but it’s sometimes a little more of a challenge when you’re a rookie and doing that, so it’s an opportunity to have a little bit more of the role he had when he was in college.”

HEALTHY AGAIN

Hamilton, the Heat’s oft-injured reserve center, was cleared for action on Wednesday before the team left for the West Coast. He was available on Thursday in Portland for the Heat’s game against the Trail Blazers.

Hamilton was sidelined for seven games after experiencing symptoms related to a concussion against the Celtics on Dec.21. He had appeared in 17 of the Heat’s first 35 games entering the current five-game trip.

this and that

▪ The Miami Herald confirmed on Thursday a report that the Memphis Grizzlies inquired recently about a trade for Luol Deng. A source told the Herald that the Grizzlies only contacted the Heat to gauge the team’s interest in trading Deng. Deng said on Thursday he was happy in Miami.

▪ The Heat’s trip to Portland on Wednesday took almost 14 hours after the team’s charter flight was forced to land in Memphis for about four hours for mechanical repairs.

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