Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: Flaws and all, Hassan Whiteside's start has been full speed forward

Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015.
Hassan Whiteside of the Miami Heat reacts after a play in the fourth quarter against the Minnesota Timberwolves at AmericanAirlines Arena in Miami on Tuesday, Nov. 17, 2015. dsantiago@elnuevoherald.com

There had already been plenty of doubles associated with Hassan Whiteside on Tuesday night.

Double-digit points in each half. Double-digit defensive rebounds, 10 of the 14 rebounds in all. Double-digit blocks by the end of the third quarter, including two on two different possessions. The double-digit lead that the Timberwolves built, on their way to a 103-91 victory in Miami, as they fouled Whiteside intentionally, and then — after he missed 3 of 4 — compelled coach Erik Spoelstra to take him out.

And then, after an evening that illustrated his importance while identifying an area to continue addressing, the 26-year-old center said something that made you do a double take.

And made you double check.

“What’s this, my 73rd game in the NBA?” Whiteside said. “I ain’t fully completed a season yet. So I’m still learning.”

It was actually his 77th, 58 with Miami, the first 19 with Thursday’s Heat opponent, the Sacramento Kings. Still, that’s a remarkably light allotment. And he’s right. He hasn’t completed a full season yet, not a full one by NBA standards, not if you compile all of his appearances dating back to his first two minutes on Oct. 10, 2010.

He is, by that measure alone, still a rookie. A rookie who has averaged 9.7 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.4 blocks in 20.2 minutes in those 77 NBA games — numbers juiced by the 15.3 points, 11.9 rebounds, 4.6 blocks and 29.9 minutes he’s averaging in his first 10 starts this season. A rookie who might go from a minimum contract to a maximum contract in one offseason, which may be unprecedented.

But a rookie nonetheless.

That should be factored into all evaluation. Yes, there is a price for progress, for rising from novelty to necessity. That price is the inflation of expectations. So, sure, we will nitpick those foul-shot struggles (47.2 percent this season when he promised 75), bemoan the half-hearted screen-setting, and reject block-hunting if it comes at the expense of team defense.

Still, though, we shouldn’t lose sight of Whiteside’s evolution in many areas already. He’s playing smarter, and nicer with officials, which has cut his foul rate from 4.1 to 2.5 per 36 minutes. That’s keeping him on the court, and he’s more consistently engaged when out there.

On Tuesday, his presence was an overwhelming plus. Consider that, in his 34 minutes, the Timberwolves shot just 32.9 percent, compared with 48.1 percent in the other 14, with a much lower ratio of points in the paint. His blocked shots weren’t just for show, either. Not on this night. After watching tape of Hakeem Olajuwon, Dikembe Mutombo, David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning, he has endeavored to keep the ball inbounds, even if it means catching it, as long as that won’t draw a goaltending call. But usually, as he said recently, “I’m just trying to smack them to my teammates and start the fast break.”

That’s what he did Tuesday. Yes, he smacked short jumpers from Gorgui Dieng and Karl-Anthony Towns to the sideline. But six times, his blocks propelled transition chances for the Heat. Once, against the always-attacking Andrew Wiggins, Whiteside blocked the shot to himself. Another time, he left Deng to blow up a lob for Nemanja Bjelica. He had blocks as the helper. He had blocks as the primary defender, which is harder.

“I really wanted to let them know you’re not gonna just come in this paint without meeting me,” Whiteside said of the Timberwolves.

He was friendlier to Minnesota when uncontested himself, at the line. But his free-throw foibles ranked roughly fourth among reasons why Miami lost, behind 22 team turnovers, a no-show from the reserves and off nights for Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Yes, the Hack-A-San, on a pair of possessions, stunted Miami’s rhythm as the Timberwolves’ lead started to swell. But no, this wasn’t a substantial enough sample size to say that every team will, or should, try this tactic, as many do with DeAndre Jordan and Andre Drummond, both worse from the stripe.

Whiteside’s focus seems more an issue than his form, though he acknowledged he needs to hold his follow-through more, to replicate practice. Or, at least, come closer, since “in the games, you get hit in the face, you get smacked, you are getting scratched up,” and need to gather oneself.

But this is a guy who has been smacked plenty, figuratively, since trying to stick with Sacramento.

“This ain’t the first time I faced something that didn’t go my way, obviously,” Whiteside said. “I’m gonna stay positive like I always do. I’m not a perfect basketball player. It’s not the end of the world.”

It’s not. His play has been a net-positive through 10 games, even if he misses the net from 15 feet a few times.

“We want him on the court at all times,” Wade said.

That, more than anything, is what Tuesday showed. His missed shots didn’t hurt as much as his missed time. On early season Whiteside, flaws and all, no one should have any problem doubling down.

Ethan J. Skolnick: 305-376-3483, @ethanjskolnick

Thursday: Kings at Heat

When, where: 7:30 p.m.; AmericanAirlines Arena.

TV, radio: SUN; WAXY 790, WAQI 710 Spanish.

Series: Heat leads 36-17.

Scouting report: The guy to watch is Hassan Whiteside, who will be facing his former practice sparring partner, DeMarcus Cousins. Whiteside got in early foul trouble last January and played only 15 minutes. For all their ongoing turmoil, the Kings entered Wednesday night with a three-game win streak and were 4-3 when Cousins plays.

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