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The Growing Legend of Hassan Whiteside

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 10, 2015

USA Today

Embracing the legend of Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside requires a willing suspension of disbelief.

Players of his ilk are rarely seen at any level, NBA included. Guys with this combination of size (7'0", 265 lbs), length (7'7" wingspan, per DraftExpress) and athleticism hardly ever come along, and when they do, they certainly don't traverse the path Whiteside took.

Despite the delays in his ascension, the production has been every bit as special as his natural gifts say it should be.

His 28.5 player efficiency rating is topped only by MVP candidate Anthony Davis' 31.7. If it holds up, Whiteside's 26.7 rebounding percentage would tie for the second highest in NBA history (minimum 1,000 minutes played). His 41.3 field-goal percentage against at the rim ranks third among players who have faced at least five such shots per game.

That's why his journey, while perhaps the most unbelievable portion of his story, isn't the most exciting one. As memorable as his rapid rise has been, it's the road still ahead that carries the most intrigue.

Slipping Through the Cracks

Players with Whiteside's physical tools don't slip, but the potential lottery pick obviously did. It's hard to say exactly why 32 names were called before his that night, though he reportedly had an ego as large as his towering reach.

"In the 15 minutes or so I spent with him one-on-one he projected a confidence that bordered on naive arrogance," ESPN Insider Chad Ford wrote of Whiteside in May 2010. "He compared himself to everyone from Dwight Howard to Hakeem Olajuwon ... and was insulted that our scouting report didn't have more on his 3-point shooting ability."

There are two immediate takeaways from that quote.

The first is that Whiteside had larger-than-life confidence, which doesn't exactly separate himself from a lot of his NBA peers. The second is that he was 20 years old at the time and perhaps struggling with immaturity. Again, that hardly put him in a class of his own.

Still, his reputation as a combustible prospect surfaced and did immediate damage.

His video-game numbers during his lone season of college hoops—13.1 points, 8.9 rebounds, 5.4 blocks in only 26.1 minutes a night—earned him nothing more than the 33rd pick of the 2010 draft. For a little context, Whiteside's selection came sandwiched between those of Dexter Pittman and Armon Johnson, neither of whom have an NBA home in 2014-15.

Two forgettable seasons with the Sacramento Kings, during which Whiteside played only 19 games, did nothing to change his image.

TARRYTOWN, NY - AUGUST 17:  Hassan Whiteside #33 of the Sacramento Kings poses for a portrait during the 2010 NBA rookie photo shoot on August 17, 2010 at the MSG Training Facility in Tarrytown, New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agre
Joe Murphy/Getty Images

He was waived by Sacramento in 2012, then embarked on a two-year journey that took him all across the basketball world—except where he wanted to be, as ESPN Insider Tom Haberstroh explained:

Labels like 'immature' and 'low basketball IQ' kept him from being taken seriously. There were rumored D-League fights that tarnished his résumé. Whiteside was forced to do two stints in China. ... Whiteside went to Lebanon -- not once but twice -- to play professionally and try to get his career back on track. There, he witnessed a car bomb explode.

Before Whiteside had even broken a real NBA sweat, he'd been served a career's worth of reality checks.

One of those lessons bothers him to this day. He learned how powerful public perception can be and how difficult it is to change.

"It got to a point where ... 'He's this, he's that,' and a lot of people listen to that instead of finding out for themselves," Whiteside told Grantland's Kirk Goldsberry. "They said I wasn't willing to work. They said I wasn't really professional."

But after years of monitoring Whiteside from afar, the injury-riddled Heat decided they were ready to witness him firsthand.

Opportunity Knocks

In November, Miami gave Whiteside his first true NBA break, though the franchise safeguarded the investment by extending only a partially guaranteed two-year contract.

Still, the opportunity was great enough to give the big guy exactly what he needed. Not only did Miami have some frontcourt minutes potentially available to him, but it also approached him with the clean slate so many teams had been reluctant to wipe.

"We didn't try to imagine what it could be necessarily," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said, per Jerry Zgoda of the Star Tribune. "What we were was open-minded. We were open-minded to him, and he was open-minded to us and our culture. It was good timing for both sides: We needed a big body and he needed a place that values what he does."

All of that's true, though not quite as simple as it sounds. Now that it's becoming apparent what exactly Whiteside does, it's hard to think of a team that wouldn't value the different layers to his game.

Already, he's established himself as both a top-shelf rim-protector and rebounder. His offensive arsenal, which has produced three 20-point outbursts in the last month, seems to expand by the day.

"With his length and his wingspan and jumping ability ... he's doing everything with ease," Chris Andersen said, per Jason Lieser of The Palm Beach Post. "It looks like a video game deal where you create your own guy and he gets in there and just does what he does. ... You can imagine what his career's gonna be like."

That's where this story becomes terrifying. Whiteside might be in the infancy stage of his NBA career, but he's getting enough games under his belt to start buying his sustainability.

As his sample size has grown, so, too, has his production. His first venture over the 20-minute mark included 11 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks. His next brought 23 points, 16 boards, two blocks and two steals.

On Jan. 25, against a Chicago Bulls frontcourt widely regarded as one of basketball's best, Whiteside had the NBA's first points-rebounds-blocks triple-double in almost two years. During the six games since, he has posted career highs in points (24) and rebounds (24) while tallying multiple blocks in four of those contests.

"He is a rebounding machine, he blocks shots..." Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens told Sports Illustrated's Chris Mannix. "You can't shoot through [him]. You have to either go around him or drive and kick it to someone else. He's too big."

With Whiteside on the floor, the Heat have the same net efficiency rating as the Chicago Bulls (plus-3.1 points per 100 possessions). Without him, they have a worse mark than the 13-win Los Angeles Lakers (minus-7.2).

And that's just one of several areas where Whiteside's presence provides such an obvious lift.

Defensively, Whiteside is an invaluable insurance policy, providing constant protection behind perimeter defenders who can increase their pressure knowing he has their backs. He can alter offensive sequences with a block, finish them on the boards or, as Heat.com's Couper Moorhead observed, disrupt them without even laying a finger on the ball:

Couper Moorhead @CoupNBA

Whiteside just induced an air-ball floater.

At the opposite end, Whiteside's ability to live above the rim adds several new elements to this attack.

He's always a threat as a lob receiver, whether slipping behind a snoozing defender or exploding out of ball screens. And he's showing an increasing comfort level with creating shots from the low post or burying them from mid-range.

As quickly as his profile has climbed, it's frightening to think where it could be headed next.

Building the Foundation Today for a Better Tomorrow

The things that Whiteside is doing are nearly unprecedented. And despite his small number of games played (24 on the year), this doesn't feel like a flash in the pan.

The warning sirens that blared during Jeremy Lin's "Linsanity" run with the New York Knicks a few seasons back (unsustainable shooting and a mountain of turnovers) are almost muted when it comes to Whiteside.

He isn't going to shrink or become less menacing at the rim. At 25 years old, he's still ascending toward his athletic peak. The more film he digests and moves he adds will only decrease his reliance on athleticism, anyway.

And it's hard to imagine his ego dangerously inflating with the veteran Heat well-equipped to keep it in check. Miami has champions on its roster (including perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh) and legends on its staff (team president Pat Riley, vice president of player development Alonzo Mourning and assistant coach Juwan Howard).

PORTLAND, OR - JANUARY 8:  Assistant Coach, Juwan Howard looks at film with Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat before the game against the Portland Trail Blazers  on January 8, 2015 at the Moda Center Arena in Portland, Oregon. NOTE TO USER: User expr
Sam Forencich/Getty Images

"They have such a great core, and their environment and culture is so strong that they're willing to take a risk and a gamble," said former NBA coach Eric Musselman, who coached Whiteside in the NBA D-League, per USA Today's Sam Amick. "And then when that risk and that gamble comes in, and they're surrounded by that culture that coach Spo has, now all of a sudden it makes it easier for the player."

There's a certain comfort in South Beach, something Whiteside traveled the globe to find. Now that he has it, he can fully tap into that massive potential that has tantalized the basketball world for years.

So, what does that mean for his future? That his basketball story is closer to the introduction than the conclusion. His legend is growing at an exponential rate, and it doesn't appear likely to slow down anytime soon.

Unless otherwise noted, statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com.

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