Barry Jackson

Whiteside gains teammates’ respect, ready for next step of evolution

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside poses for the picture during the Media Day for the 2017-18 NBA season at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 25, 2016.
Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside poses for the picture during the Media Day for the 2017-18 NBA season at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Monday, September 25, 2016.

Hassan Whiteside went from journeyman to NBA force three years ago, won the league’s blocked shots title two years ago, and posted monster numbers on the boards beginning early last season, en route to a league rebounding title.

But do you know when Whiteside gained the most respect from teammates? During the 30-11 second half stretch, when he did things that are difficult to quantify numerically but were enormously appreciated by everyone around him. Let Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson and Erik Spoelstra explain:

• Dragic, on what changed with Whiteside: “Everything. He was all in. He had those stitches [in the webbing of his hand] but he said, ‘I'm not going to let my team down.’ He was playing through some tough injuries.”

• What changed mostly with Whiteside, Johnson said, is he played the best team defense Johnson ever witnessed from him. And this changed, too:

“Sacrificing for the betterment of the team,” Johnson said. “Some of his numbers went down, but the effect he was having went way up. Some of his block numbers went down [but] he could have easily had the block title. It wouldn’t have been easy for the team to do what we did if we didn’t have him in a [defensive] stance as low as he can be, bothering [opponents], while being a dominant rim protector, while understanding the importance of screening, rolling hard, sealing, all the little things he could do to really dominate a game” – things that he didn’t always do as diligently previously.

• And Spoelstra put it this way: “I think he made his biggest strides from the New Year on last year of all the time that he’s had in a Heat uniform. He really learned how to impact winning. It had nothing to do with his stats, even though he’s going to do that no matter what. But it really became about learning how to make winning plays, learning how to make his teammates better and caring more about the guys in the locker room than he cared about himself. That’s the best thing I’ve seen. We can build on that.”

The upshot, Spoelstra said, is “he can now lead in a different way because he has the respect of the locker room.” Bingo. Early on, that respect was not universal, one former Heat player said.

Whiteside acknowledges the maturity, asserting that making the playoffs supersedes individual accomplishments. But he’s still clearly annoyed about not being named first, second or third team All NBA after leading the league in rebounding (14.1), along with averaging 17.0 points and 2.1 blocks. Those honors went to Anthony Davis (first team), Rudy Gobert(second) and DeAndre Jordan (third).

“Nothing I can do about it,” he said. “What more do you want from your center than rebound and block shots and lead the league in those categories? As a center, I don’t really know what more you want.”

But if he doesn’t win awards, “I don’t get as mad as I used to or let it frustrate me as much as I used to.”

He’s likely not going to post the offensive numbers that Karl Anthony Towns and DeMarcus Cousins do because he won’t get as many shots. But that “doesn’t matter if we’re winning,” Whiteside said. “Guys can average 20 plus and if they’re not going to the playoffs or anywhere near the playoffs, it don’t matter.”

He said he will continue with his jump shoot free throw technique even after dropping from 65 percent in 2015-16 to 62.8 percent from the line last season.

Though he has extended his range, more work is needed. He shot 38.3 percent on 335 jumpers last season, 39.8 percent from 10 to 16 feet (41 for 103) and 37 percent (27 for 73) from 16 feet to the three-point line.

His floor game, while no longer utterly dismal, must continue to evolve; he had 154 turnovers, 57 assists last season. Curiously, he also missed 11 of 174 dunks and according to probasketballreference, missed 97 of his 235 shots directly under the basket.

He said he spent the summer polishing “drop steps, turnaround jumpers. It’s a lot of stuff I worked on. I can even shoot threes, but if I shoot the threes, who’s going to get the rebound?”

And for all the maturity and intangible growth, Spoelstra still cites the importance of Whiteside’s statistically quantifiable contributions.

“Of course, we still want him to dominate in all of those areas,” Spoelstra said. “Why not? Why not lead the league in rebounds and blocks, have the best defensive team and go get that Defensive Player of the Year award and really earn it?”

This is my sixth post Monday. Click here for a bunch of my Dolphins stories, filled with news, and some Marlins/Derek Jeter hot-stove news.... Twitter: @flasportsbuzz