Ethan J. Skolnick

Ethan J. Skolnick: After 82 games, Miami Heat still learning what Hassan Whiteside can be

Hassan Whiteside is still an enigma for the Heat. The center has played well, but hasn’t always been as focused as the team would like him to be.
Hassan Whiteside is still an enigma for the Heat. The center has played well, but hasn’t always been as focused as the team would like him to be.

Nothing about Hassan Whiteside’s journey has been easy, so reaching this milestone wouldn’t be either.

Sunday in Washington, Whiteside dominated on defense, adding six more blocks to his league-leading total. Then, on the brink of completing the equivalent of a full NBA season — 82 games — as a member of the Heat, the 26-year-old center banged his knee.

He sat out Monday’s win against Indiana. But then he did get to 82 against the Knicks. And, for a player being measured inside the Heat organization — and surely by other potential suitors — by his commitment to a cause, gutting it out would seem to be forward progress.

So was it, even if he produced modest numbers (eight points, eight rebounds) and the Heat lost?

I asked two of the Heat captains, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Their responses again offered a reminder of the Heat’s tough love approach, and the uncertain footing on which Whiteside still stands. He’s still pledging the Heat fraternity and the brotherhood has lofty standards for initiation.

Wade spoke of how Whiteside “took a good step to get out there,” but added, “you got to learn to play through it. That’s the NBA. Hopefully he can learn. When you’re not feeling great, you’ve got to have certain bursts at certain times when you can still do what you do.”

Bosh initially paused.

“I mean, yeah,” he said. “But he’ll have to work on being effective when he’s out there, with the pain. That’s the next part. Because nobody’s going to shed a tear for you, that’s the tough part about this league. If you’re out there, guys are going to go at you no matter what.... I do applaud him for playing. But the next step is to have the same production when you’re out there.”

Why so much talk here about Whiteside? Because he’s become the individual embodiment of the Heat’s collective quandary as the team heads out on a six-game trip — starting Friday in Phoenix — with plenty of positives but legitimate concerns. This Heat squad, after 35 games, still doesn’t know what it is. And, in Whiteside, even after 82 games, the Heat organization — from front office to the floor — doesn't really know what it has.

Here’s the good:

In those 82 games, Whiteside has averaged 26 minutes, 12 points, 10.5 rebounds and 3.1 blocks, while shooting 62.1 percent from the floor. His starting statistics are even better — 13 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.2 blocks. Those are excellent numbers for any modern center, and unfathomable ones from someone who was swatting shots in Lebanon, Sioux Falls, and the Charlotte YMCA not long ago.

Money may not fall from trees, but centers with endless branches apparently do —before money falls on them.

The Heat never thought it would get this much from him.

So at times, it does seem unfair that many expect even more improvement, especially after he’s made some in some areas.

He’s dropped his foul rate from 4.1 to 3.1 per 36 minutes. He’s kept his cool more often, committing two technicals in 34 games after committing seven in 48 games last season. He’s tried to screen better — and cited that as his proudest area of — though he and Goran Dragic still appear disconnected.

He’s even taken Erik Spoelstra’s challenge to defend out to the perimeter, so he can play late in games against smaller lineups, and was dynamic doing so against Washington.

But there’s always more.

As Wade said, that’s the NBA. That’s this organization, which values conformity and maturity.

Heat leadership may merely shake its collective head if you spend nights on Snapchat, but it will shake you loose if you can’t keep your head in the game. Just ask Michael Beasley. About all three times.

So, yes, the Heat wants more. More frequent and precise passing out of the post, which would help Miami’s spacing and improve Whiteside’s points per possession in those situations — he ranks 43rd of 44 players with at least 50 attempts.

More attention paid to guarding his own man, so guys named Lopez (Robin and Brook before him) don’t get loose.

More restraint, so he doesn’t launch an early jumper even if he’s made one.

What the Heat wants most is to convince him that his point, rebound and block totals matter less than the win total, and his role in that.

“Every day is a learning opportunity with these guys,” Whiteside recently said.

Every day is an opportunity to learn more about him. His first 82 games were beyond the most optimistic expectations. This season's next 47 may show whether he is a good story but a replaceable piece, or can become a great player and a centerpiece.

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

Friday: Heat at Suns

When/where: 9:30 p.m.; Talking Stick Resort Arena, Phoenix.

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

Series: Suns 31-22

Scouting report: Goran Dragic makes him return to Phoenix and is expecting boos, though he heard worse when he used to play for Slovenia in Serbia. The Suns have been a disappointment, with Markieff Morris banished to the bench, and Eric Bledsoe out for the season. Brandon Knight, averaging 19.6 points per game, is a graduate of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale.

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