April 4, 2016

SHATZMAN | The Rise of Hassan Whiteside

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I first heard about Hassan Whiteside in early 2010. Then a 20-year-old freshman center playing for the Marshall University Thundering Herd, Whiteside dominated the Conference USA, and his head-turning statistics made up for the lack of national attention that a mid-major program like Marshall typically received. Whiteside led the nation in blocked shots, and his per-game averages — 13-9-5, points, rebounds, blocks — earned him increasing attention from NBA scouts.

For mid-major players who dominate conference-play, the NCAA tournament can serve as a showcase on a national stage — an opportunity for the underestimated to prove themselves versus the top programs. Stephen Curry is one example. Playing for Davidson, Curry scored 40, 30 and 30 in the NCAA Tournament against Gonzaga, Georgetown and Wisconsin, respectively. He became the most recognizable face in college basketball and his draft-stock benefited from his March-heroics.

When Morehead State upset Louisville in the 2010 tournament, Kenneth Faried earned a nationwide reputation as a tenacious rebounder, and the Nuggets selected him in the first round of the draft the following season. Unlike Morehead State, Marshall did not make the NCAA Tournament in Whiteside’s lone season at the school. So, while NBA scouts and diehard college basketball fans knew about Whiteside, many of the more casual fans had yet to meet the goofy, lanky seven-footer from Gastonia, N.C.

After his freshman season at Marshall, many believed that Whiteside had lottery-pick potential if he were to return to school for a second season. Some mock drafts predicted him to be the first-overall pick in the 2011 draft, but after his college coach left Marshall to take another job, Whiteside declared for the 2010 draft. The Sacramento Kings selected him early in the second round, No. 33 overall.

Whiteside’s fall out of the first round was largely attributed to questions surrounding his maturity — both on the court and off. ESPN analyst Jay Bilas, following the Kings’ pick, said, “He could wind up being an outstanding pro. It just depends on how he matures and how he grows up.”

The trajectory of Whiteside’s career following the 2010 draft seemed to corroborate the doubts: the reasons as to why a skilled, promising center with a 7-foot-7 wingspan could be selected in the second round. Until early 2015, Whiteside had yet to play significant minutes in the NBA. Instead, he bounced around the Development League. He played in Lebanon. Then China. The Kings waived him, and so did the Grizzlies. The potential was evident, but Whiteside, for whatever reason, seemed unsuited for the NBA. However, when he signed with the Heat, and got an opportunity to see the floor, Whiteside made clear he would not be returning to Lebanon, China, or Sioux Falls.

Today, with just a handful of games remaining in the 2015-16 NBA regular season, Hassan Whiteside is arguably the favorite to win Defensive Player of the Year. Whiteside is to blocked-shots what Stephen Curry is to three-pointers. His 251 blocked shots — 3.75 blocks-per-game — rank first in the league, 81 blocks ahead of the person in second, DeAndre Jordan (170 blocks, 2.3 BPG). On top of that, Whiteside only plays 29 minutes per game, compared to Jordan’s 34.

The last player to average more than 3.75 BPG for an entire season was Alonzo Mourning in 1999. Whiteside is the only player in the league to record more than 10 blocks in a game this season. He’s done it three times already. And he recorded triple-doubles in all three of those games. Whiteside also ranks fourth in the league in rebounding — again, in fewer minutes than the three players ahead of him — and is third in the league in field goal percentage. He is on pace to become the first player since Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to finish a season with over 250 blocks while shooting over 60 percent from the field. Whiteside is having a legendary season — one of the greatest seasons in league history. Abdul-Jabbar-esque, literally. Whiteside’s rise from bottom to top — from the Lebanese Basketball League to NBA DPOY candidate — is quite remarkable.

Whiteside still has his “moments.” He’s been ejected from three games in two seasons, but he’s controlled his emotions over the last couple of months, leading the Heat to the playoffs in the absence of Chris Bosh. He’s also a likable, funny dude. Discussing a dubious goaltending call, Whiteside said that the block was “…cleaner than my grandma’s floor”. He comes off as someone who has been humbled by his journey — someone who is grateful to be where he is today. He left Marshall in part because his coach was leaving, but also because he wanted to provide financially for his family.

Whiteside will be among the most sought-after free agents this summer, and should command a max-contract. Remember how big of a deal DeAndre Jordan was this past offseason? Rim-protectors of Whiteside’s caliber are rare, and shot-blockers with offensive prowess like Whiteside — he’s solid from the charity strike, and improving — are almost nonexistent. Whiteside is going to get paid and will likely have a chance to be the face of a big-market team like the Lakers.

It’s been nearly six years since Hassan Whiteside left Marshall, and after stops in Asia and beyond, Hassan Whiteside is a force in the NBA. And he’s not leaving anytime soon.