There is a team-wide concern among Heat players and coaches that their new starting center is somehow going to allow the tiniest bit of success corrupt his potential.
The Heat is on Hassan Whiteside humble patrol these days like it’s a full-time job.
It’s no secret at this point in the Whiteside Redemption Tour that one of the reasons the Heat’s out-of-nowhere, 25-year-old center bounced around the world playing basketball for the past two years is because some team executives didn’t think Whiteside had the mental makeup to survive in the NBA.
That’s seems like a ridiculous notion at this point for Heat fans — especially with Whiteside making his first start on the Heat’s home court Tuesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder — but consider that one former assistant director for basketball operations recently called Whiteside a “jackass” on the radio.
“If you’re a jackass, rubbing away that reputation is very hard,” said NBA analyst Amin Elhassan, who before working for ESPN was employed by the Phoenix Suns. “It’s very easy to ruin your reputation and very hard to rebuild it. Hassan Whiteside, for lack of a better word, was a ‘jackass’ when he came out of college. He was delusional and would say things that were not commensurate with how great he was as a player.”
Whiteside played college at Marshall, where he recorded the most blocks in the nation as a freshman. He declared for the draft after that season, and the Sacramento Kings used their 33rd pick in 2010 to select him in the second round. Much earlier in the draft (fifth overall), the Kings selected DeMarcus Cousins.
Cousins made the NBA All-Rookie First-Team for the 2010-11 season. Whiteside was cut during the middle of summer league in 2012.
Elhassan described Whiteside as arrogant during some pre-draft interviews. According to Elhassan, Whiteside told one NBA head coach that he didn’t need to improve at anything to be an elite center.
“It turned a lot of people off,” Elhassan said on ESPN Radio. “His work ethic wasn’t very good. He had to hit rock bottom and figure out that, ‘Oh my gosh, my approach in life has not gotten me where I want to go,’ and credit to him that he did that.”
Aside from a dig at the Sacramento Kings’ former front office last week, Whiteside has been understated and genuinely appreciative of his opportunity with the Heat. The team would like to keep it that way.
Ever since picking up the center in November, coach Erik Spoelstra has continually stressed the importance of Whiteside embracing the Heat’s culture of hard work and exacting preparation.
Heat fans on social media are already projecting Whiteside as an All-NBA center, and media buzz locally has latched onto Whiteside’s uplifting story, but Spoelstra is more concerned about keeping Whiteside grounded. When asked Monday how excited he was about the breakout of his young center, Spoelstra downplayed Whiteside’s success.
“It’s not about all that right now,” Spoelstra said. “I know everybody is getting caught up in that, but when I met with him it was about the commitment to work, the commitment to the player development…
“After a very good road trip, he came in [Sunday], did an hour and half of player development. … He is just responding to all of the work. That’s what’s encouraging.”
Beginning with the Heat’s victory against the Los Angeles Clippers on Jan.11, Whiteside has given the team a new outlook on the season. Dwyane Wade, who expects to play against the Thunder after two games with a pulled leg muscle, admitted as much on Monday when he said the emergence of Whiteside “has been big in us having an opportunity to even think about turning this season around.”
Whiteside is averaging 12.4 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in his past five games. During that stretch, all of which came on the road against Western Conference teams, the Heat’s defense allowed opponents 90.2 points per game (third in the league) while limiting opposing players to 41.4 percent shooting (fourth in the league). Miami went 3-2 on its West Coast trip.
That’s a vast improvement from where the Heat’s defense was for two weeks between November and December when it first signed Whiteside. During a seven-game stretch from Nov.25 to Dec.9, the Heat went 2-5 and allowed five opponents to shoot over 50 percent from the field. Miami was outscored 103.0 to 92.3 during that stretch.
Hidden behind all the humble rhetoric, there is a sense that Whiteside can possibly be an important piece after this season and into the future. You won’t catch anyone saying that in public, though.
How protective of Whiteside’s psyche is the Heat being right now? Chris Bosh doesn’t even want fans to clap for the new center on Tuesday.
“I don’t want him to get the big head or anything,” Bosh said. “I just want him to keep playing well.”
THUNDER AT HEAT
When/Where: 7:30 p.m., AmericanAirlines Arena
TV/Radio: Sun Sports and NBA TV/FM 104.3, AM 790 and WAQI 710AM (Spanish)
Series: Thunder leads 31-21.
Of note: Dwyane Wade is listed as questionable officially, but he expects to play after participating in a full contact practice on Monday. Wade is the Heat’s only injured player other than Josh McRoberts, who is out for the season. Luol Deng missed practice on Monday with an illness, but should be available on Monday. Chris Andersen, who missed last Friday’s game against the Kings with an illness, is available. Mitch McGary is out for the Thunder.