Miami Heat

‘Sky is the limit’ for Heat’s Hassan Whiteside

Tough down low: The Heat’s Hassan Whiteside battles the Bulls’ Joakim Noah for position Sunday.
Tough down low: The Heat’s Hassan Whiteside battles the Bulls’ Joakim Noah for position Sunday. NBAE/Getty Images

He’s not a secret anymore.

Heat center Hassan Whiteside already was a local sensation in Miami before Sunday, but his breakout performance against the Chicago Bulls on network TV catapulted him into the national basketball consciousness overnight. The upshot: there’s a buzz around this underachieving Heat team now that certainly will raise its profile and its expectations from this point forward.

Whiteside’s “triple-dozen” of 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks in the Heat’s 96-84 victory against the Bulls was the first of its kind in the NBA since 2000, and Whiteside joined Hakeem Olajuwon, Shaquille O’Neal, David Robinson, Dikembe Mutombo, Mark Eaton and Shawn Bradley as the only other players to have a triple-dozen (at least 12 points, 12 rebounds and 12 blocks) since the 1985-86 season, according to basketball-reference.com.

That’s a pretty exclusive club, but young NBA fans really knew Whiteside officially arrived when the hugely popular video game NBA 2K changed Whiteside’s player rating after Sunday’s game to better reflect his abilities in real life. Whiteside was rated a 59 before his “triple-dozen,” but the game makers corrected that after a public request from Whiteside himself.

During his on-court interview at United Center, and just moments after recording four blocks in the final 91 seconds of the game, Whiteside said the reason for his big game was simply to improve his video-game profile.

“I’m just trying to really get my 2K rating up,” Whiteside said.

NBA 2K programmers heeded the call and changed Whiteside’s rating to a 77, which is also the skills rating for players such as Kevin Garnett, Mason Plumlee, Jeremy Lin, Vince Carter and Andrew Wiggins.

All joking aside, when Whiteside first began impacting the Heat’s offense and defense a few weeks ago, there was an element of flukiness to the sudden spike in his numbers and the Heat’s defensive rating that kept many people skeptical. How could someone with this much apparent potential fall through the cracks? Surely there was a catch.

But Whiteside has steadily improved since then, and his familiarity with the NBA in general and, more specifically, his role with the Heat is transforming the team.

“He gives us a confidence both defensively and offensively,” Heat guard Dwyane Wade said. “It puts pressure on a defense knowing that if they make a mistake, the big guy is going to catch it and dunk it.”

Whiteside told Heat coach Erik Spoelstra in November that he could be the franchise’s next Alonzo Mourning. That goal doesn’t seem so outlandish now that Whiteside shattered Mourning’s franchise record for blocks in a game (nine) in less than 25 minutes as a reserve. According to the Elias Sport Bureau, Whiteside’s triple-double combination of points, rebounds and blocks came in the fewest minutes for any player. Previously a starter, Whiteside came off the bench against the Bulls after missing two games with a sprained ankle. He said he “re-tweaked” his ankle in the second half against the Bulls but still went on to have eight points, seven rebounds and five blocks in the fourth quarter.

“It’s special,” Wade said of Whiteside’s skill set. “We didn’t have that through our championship runs. That was the one missing piece. Obviously, when we got [Chris Andersen] that gave us a lift, but a guy like Hassan, he’s special.

“You can’t teach what he has. He has great timing, he has the tenacity to be aggressive down low, and it’s on both ends of the floor. You see him. He gets it. He’s going up to dunk it every time.”

Wade knows all about the sudden rise of a player’s talent. He took that same journey his rookie season. Wade seemed to improve almost every week that first season. He said learning the game and gaining the confidence of teammates and former coach Stan Van Gundy was the hard part.

“Once all that started coming about, I just started playing the game like I always knew how,” Wade said, “and I think Hassan is at that point right now where he understands that he’s comfortable around here now. He knows his role. He knows how important he is for this team. He can see it whenever he gets two fouls.

“I’m always talking to him: ‘Your job is to stay on this court. You have to figure out how to stay out here. We’re better when you’re out there.’”

So, how good can Whiteside actually be?

“The sky is the limit,” Wade said.

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