Ethan J. Skolnick

For Hassan Whiteside and Heat, the work — strenuous and subtle — is showing

Why someone works says much about them. What has mattered. What may continue to matter, even as circumstances change.

So what was it for Hassan Whiteside, during a journey that has taken him across the deep blue sea, and into the deepest depths of the D-League?

“There were times when I’m looking at the TV, and I’m looking at other NBA guys,” the Heat center said late Tuesday night, after he posted his sixth straight double-double. “No offense to them, but I’m looking like, ‘I can dominate these guys, and I can play with these guys, and I can play against these teams.’ And that just kind of kept me motivated. I always watched NBA games, and I was like, ‘Why can’t I be out there?’ 

He is out there now, and in a rather remarkable zone. Since missing the Heat’s first game following the All-Star break due to suspension, he has averaged 20 points, 15.7 rebounds and 4.0 blocks in 32.3 minutes, all off the bench, while shooting 61.8 percent from the field and a mind-boggling 81.3 percent from the line, “snuggling up” and sinking free throws so proficiently that he quipped Tuesday was a “tough night” because he missed one of 11. He has also made immeasurable improvement in less measurable areas: setting screens for teammates, jumping out on shooters, keeping his composure when tested by officials and opponents.

This isn’t occurring by accident, no more than Whiteside’s stunning emergence last season.

“Some people think it just happened,” Whiteside said, laughing. “Like I just fell out of the sky.”

No, he didn’t.

“I mean, you don’t go the path that I came, and work back to the NBA without being a hard worker,” Whiteside said. “Ask anybody in the Heat organization, ‘Does Hassan work hard?’ Nobody’s gonna say I don’t work hard.”

I did ask a few. I didn’t find one.

“You know, I come to the gym, I lift weights, I try to do everything right,” Whiteside said. “Just try to give my best.”

After Tuesday’s shootaround, he stuck around for an hour, to take jumpers and jump hooks, and extra free throws.

“Just kind of work on different moves, and different things,” Whiteside said.

His tinkering has been fruitful. Take the free throws.

“It just came to me in a workout,” Whiteside said. “I would shoot jumpers, and I’d go 10 for 10, 10 for 10, 10 for 10. Then when I would shoot free throws, I would shoot 8 for 10, 7 for 10. And I was like, ‘Why don’t I just shoot a jumper?’ 

The coaches thought it “weird,” but he has been so solid from the stripe that Whiteside has a new goal: “To get to a point where you really don’t want to foul that guy.”

Still, even after all this work, the Heat has viewed him as a work-in-progress, largely due to his lack of experience in a structured NBA environment. Erik Spoelstra has made Whiteside a personal project in a manner virtually unprecedented during his head coaching tenure. Sure, Spoelstra would throw passes to Mario Chalmers, and would try, with others, to keep Michael Beasley on course. He has afforded even more individual attention to Whiteside, with the hope that the prodigy will go beyond working hard, to working smart, and working with.

The latter covers such subtle things as shaking hands with coaches and joining teammates for workouts rather than just pumping iron alone. As Whiteside has appeared more invested, others have responded in kind, evident when Dwyane Wade raced over to pick a hustling Whiteside off the TD Garden floor in Boston. Later, Wade told reporters he hoped that he could someday boast he’d been there for the start of Whiteside’s “Hall of Fame career.”

Whiteside has initiated more of the interaction. The Snapchat star admits that, while “off the court, I don’t stop talking,” he didn’t communicate much on the court until recently. “I was like, ‘Yo, I got to talk to these guys, they’re my guys,’ ” Whiteside said. “So I’m a better speaker now on the court. I’m telling them things. They embraced it. We all want to win. So that’s basically what I’m trying to do.”

He has proved that one way more than any other. It seemed unlikely that he, on the verge of a major free agent payday, would welcome a move to the bench. Maybe he’d check out. Instead, he has changed the game every time he checks in. And while he attributes his swelling statistics mostly to more touches in Chris Bosh’s absence, he insisted that he’s “not gonna pout” about not starting.

“I’ve seen way worse than this,” Whiteside said. “Look at this locker room, it’s beautiful. I’m still playing a lot of minutes. Coach said it’s not long-term. It [doesn’t] really matter to me. So whatever you want to do, I’m just going to try to come in and be that spark plug.”

That paragraph suggests that all the work — his and the Heat’s — is paying off.

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

Thursday: Suns at Heat

When, where: 7:30 p.m., American Airlines Arena, Miami.

TV, radio: Fox Sports Sun; WAXY (790), WAQI (710, Spanish).

Series: Suns lead 31-23.

Scouting report: Phoenix has been reeling, losing 28 of 31, and now without several players (the traded Markieff Morris, the injured Brandon Knight) who were projected as key contributors at the start of the season. Miami, which won the teams’ first meeting, is in a typical trap scenario. That’s why Erik Spoelstra brought the team in for practice Wednesday, even coming off a franchise-record shooting performance, and prior to three soft games (Phoenix and then two with Philadelphia).

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