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Hassan Whiteside: Fluke or Force?

Heat fans are, and have every right to be, excited about this upcoming season. After finishing with a disappointing 37-45 record and missing the postseason for the first time since 2007-08, the Heat are now equipped with one of the best rosters in the NBA, at least on paper. Complementing the talented, efficient backcourt duo of Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade, the spot-up shooting and cutting prowess of Luol Deng, and the floor-spacing ability of Chris Bosh is young, enigmatic center, Hassan Whiteside.

Or, you could call him the NBA’s Randy Orton because he really came out of nowhere this past season (credit to my good friend @goatchak for this one):

Outta Nowhere

After being drafted 33rd overall by the Sacramento Kings in 2010, Whiteside didn’t get much run at all. He was immediately sent down to the D-League before being recalled in January 2011. He appeared in one game with the Kings before his season ended with knee surgery to repair a torn tendon. He appeared in 18 games with the Kings the following season, but was later waived.

Whiteside floated between D-League stints and overseas stops in China and Lebanon. To his credit, he was an absolute force overseas, especially during his run with the Blue Whales in China. In 27 games in 2013, Whiteside averaged an absurd 25.7 points, 16.6 rebounds and 5.4 blocks en route to winning Defensive Player of the Year and Center of the Year before eventually leading the team to a championship (with a Finals MVP to boot).

Whiteside finally made his way back to the NBA in 2014, kind of.

He was signed, waived, signed, then waived again by the Memphis Grizzlies before the Miami Heat signed him on Nov. 24 after their own Shannon Brown signing didn’t quite work out. Whiteside didn’t play until December, but in nine December games he averaged 3.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in only 10.3 minutes per game — good enough for the Heat to keep him around to take a further look at him.

Once he truly cracked the rotation on Jan. 3, he didn’t look back. At all.

It started with an 11-point, 10-rebound, five-block performance in a four-point victory against the Brooklyn Nets — Whiteside’s first double-double:

Exactly a week later, he ripped the Clippers’ frontcourt to shreds with 23 points (a career high at the time), 16 rebounds (also a career high), two steals, and two blocks in a 14-point win:

His next signature game, and one that put him in the Heat record books, came on Jan. 25 in an ABC game against the Chicago Bulls.

Whiteside had missed the previous two games with an ankle sprain that he suffered against the Thunder, so as a way to ease him back, head coach Erik Spoelstra decided to bring the big man off the bench. He absolutely crushed the spirit of the Bulls, finishing the game with 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 — 12! — blocked shots. Not only was that his first career triple-double, but he set the Heat franchise record for blocks in a game while also joining Shawn Bradley (good news, Phil Jackson!) and Larry Sanders as the only players in the last 25 years to have a points/rebounds/blocks triple-double off the bench.

You can see all 12 of his blocks here:

Whiteside kept blocking shots, rebounding, dunking on people, sprinkling in hooks on the block — you know, all the things needed to get his 2K rating up. As his confidence grew, his minutes and production did as well. Here are his point, rebound and block averages by month (from Jan. 3 onward):

Hassan monthly breakdown

So, yeah, Whiteside was REALLY good last year, and outplayed some of the better centers in the NBA during his run. Whiteside seems to be just what the doctor ordered for a franchise that hasn’t had a good, two-way center since the corpse of Jermaine O’Neal “graced” the court. However, while Whiteside was impressive, his 48-game sample size last year was pretty small. Once you add that to the fact that he only played a total of 19 games in a Kings uniform, it’s fair to say that 67 career games isn’t the best indicator of who a player is — even if he performed as well as Whiteside did.

The real question is simple: How sustainable is the production we saw from Whiteside last year?

Luckily for Heat fans, most of the skills Whiteside showed us last year are not only consistent with what we’ve seen from him throughout his college, D-League and international career, but are translatable virtually anywhere compared to the “overnight sensation” that people tend to bring up — current Hornets guard Jeremy Lin.

While Lin is a solid guard who’s very good when running the pick-and-roll, his surprise run in New York — a 26-game stretch during the latter part of the 2011-12 season where he averaged 18.5 points and 7.7 assists — was a bit inflated due to the circumstances around him. Carmelo Anthony was out for most of his run, which freed up Lin to dominate the ball (26.7 usage during the aforementioned 26-game stretch). Combine that with the PG-friendly, pick-and-roll heavy system that then-coach Mike D’Antoni ran, Lin had everything he needed to put up (fringe) All-Star-caliber numbers. In more traditional or slower offenses, or playing alongside other ball-dominant players (Anthony, James Harden, Kobe Bryant), Lin has struggled to adjust to playing off the ball because of a shaky perimeter jumper (career 36.5 percent from 15 feet or further).

Enter in Whiteside, who has skills that aren’t necessarily system-dependent. While Wade and Bosh missed their fair share of games (combined 40 games missed after Jan. 3, excluding the season finale), Whiteside’s usage percentage of 21.7 and only 9.5 shot attempts per game in his 39-game run are both significantly lower than Lin’s usage (26.7) and shot attempts per game (14.0).

Obviously point guards have the ball a lot more than centers do, and with Bosh, Wade and Dragic in the fold, don’t expect Whiteside to be featured as a focal point of the offense. The good news for the Heat is that Whiteside doesn’t have to have many plays ran for him, if at all, to score effectively, for several reasons.

1. HE’S A GREAT OFFENSIVE REBOUNDER

His 15.6 offensive rebounding percentage (the percentage of offensive rebounds grabbed while on the floor) ranked third in the NBA behind DeAndre Jordan (16.2) and Andre Drummond (18.3) among players who played at least 40 games. Via Synergy, Whiteside scored 1.22 points per possession (PPP) on put-backs, which ranked sixth in the NBA among players with at least 100 possessions. His 67 percent shooting on put-backs ranked second in the NBA only to LaMarcus Aldridge (68.1 percent), and his 152 total points on put-backs ranked tied for 16th in the NBA despite only playing 48 games. To put that into perspective: the only other player ahead of him who didn’t play at least 60 games was DeMarcus Cousins, who had 183 points in 59 games (~3.1 points per game off put-backs compared to Whiteside’s ~3.2 points per game off put-backs).

2. HE’S AN ABSOLUTE MENACE ABOVE THE RIM

Whiteside loves dunking on people, and the only thing he probably loves more than dunking on people is telling you about how he dunks on people. One of the bad moments from Whiteside’s year was his ejection in a game against the Suns after getting into it with Alex Len after, well, a dunk:

Aside from the exclamation of “Fisticuffs!”, the best thing that came out of this was one of the many great quotes we got from Whiteside last season. When asked what may have led to the altercation, Whiteside had this to say in a postgame interview (via Palm Beach Post)

“It was the fourth or fifth time I dunked on [Len] and I could tell he was frustrated,” Whiteside said, acknowledging he should’ve restrained himself but said Len was mad “because I just kept dunking on him.”

Whiteside did a good bit of dunking last year: he threw down 86 dunks in only 48 games, with 27 of those coming via alley-oop. If you want to waste some time, laugh at Len, or feel even more sorry for Pau Gasol, you can check out all 86 of them here:

Whiteside measures well (7’0, 7’7 wingspan, 9’5 standing reach), has soft hands, brute strength and has pretty impressive jumping ability for a man of his size (31.5-inch vertical leap, via DraftExpress) to complement that. That makes him one heck of a target diving to the rim in pick-and roll. Sure enough, he was right on par with some of the premier pick-and-roll big men in the NBA last season despite the smallish sample size:

P&R chart

*It should be noted that Blake Griffin took a lot of mid-range jumpers and long twos out of P&R, which likely skewed his percentage quite a bit

Teams will certainly start to crowd the paint a little more when Whiteside dives to the rim, which speaks to his gravity and how dangerous he is as a roller. With more games (health permitting), Whiteside will score a lot more as the roll-man this upcoming year, but don’t be surprised if there’s a bit of a dip in FG% on those plays just by virtue of him sucking in defenders.

With that said, that could have a positive effect on the Heat’s offense, because the attention Whiteside will likely draw can open up the floor for everyone else. As a point of reference, there’s a reason why, despite not being an offensive threat on the block, the Clippers were a whopping 16.4 points better per 100 possessions with Jordan on the court as opposed to him being on the bench, per Basketball-Reference.com. Jordan diving to the rim sucked in defenders, which gave Chris Paul and others more room to operate.

3. EVEN WITH LIMITED TOUCHES, HE CAN GET HIS ON THE BLOCK

In addition to being a great roller in P&R, what made Whiteside such a tough cover was his ability to score down low. Whiteside shot 51-100 on post-up plays last season, via Synergy. His combination of strength, length and touch around the basket made him effective.

He absolutely loved going over his left shoulder for the righty hook. Heck, he loved hook shots period — via Basketball-Reference.com, Whiteside made 45 of the 83 hook shots he attempted last year (54.2 percent). Only seven players were more effective with the hook, with a minimum of 75 attempts: Kevin Seraphin (70.3 percent), Marcin Gortat (67.1 percent), Roy Hibbert (61.4 percent, led NBA with 129 made hook shots), Jonas Valanciunas (60.5 percent), Donatas Motiejunas (56.1 percent), Amir Johnson (55.6 percent) and Thaddeus Young (55.1 percent). The pecking order in Miami’s offense will be Wade, Bosh and Dragic in some order, but the Heat can afford to dump the ball down low to Whiteside 2-3 times a quarter if necessary.

Defensively, we all know how gifted of a shot-blocker Whiteside is:

His 123 blocks were tied for 14th in the league with Derrick Favors, and his 2.6 blocks per game mark would’ve been second in the NBA behind Anthony Davis (2.9) had he played enough games to qualify for the leaderboard. Of course, being a great shot-blocker doesn’t always mean you’re a great defender, and Whiteside certainly wasn’t a great defender last year.

He chased a fair amount of blocks when a simple shot contest could’ve done the trick, and he was baited into a good bit of fouls either on shot fakes on the block or by aggressively chasing down shots. While he only fouled out once last year, he had three or more fouls in 26 games, with 23 of those coming during that 39-game stretch. Opponents shot 51.7 percent inside of six feet overall, per SportVU, and 30-63 (47.6 percent) against Whiteside in the post, placing him in the 43rd percentile as a low-post defender (via Synergy). The Heat were actually 2.9 points better defensively with Whiteside on the bench, despite his shot-blocking prowess, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Jordan (yes, him again) had similar issues earlier in his career, but he’s improved mightily in that area. Working with Heat assistant Juwan Howard, watching and breaking down film, and more playing experience in general should go a long way in the maturation process of Whiteside as a defender. Less responsibility offensively may lead to him focusing more on the defensive end than he did last year.

I expect Whiteside to be game-planned for more by opponents; he certainly isn’t sneaking up on anyone this season. With that being said, Whiteside does have natural talent as a finisher offensively and as a shot-blocker defensively that can’t necessarily be schemed out by the opposition.

Whiteside getting more attention will probably limit the amount of clean looks he gets, but a full offseason and training camp under his belt could mean we’ll see a better overall player this season. This could be a win-win for both parties; the Heat could have their center of the future, and Whiteside could be in for a lot of money next summer if he produces.

In other words, this isn’t another case of Linsanity, folks.

Stats Prediction: 12.1 PPG, 11 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 57 FG%

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