He just so happened to take two in the wrong direction the other day. That was when Whiteside was pulled aside by Alonzo Mourning, the Hall of Fame center and current Heat executive, at practice the morning after Miami’s current big man struggled in a season-opening win against Charlotte.
Whiteside thought the conversation had ended, so he took two steps away as Mourning sat in a chair just off the court at the Heat’s practice facility. But Mourning wasn’t done teaching, preaching and encouraging, so his bone-chilling baritone voice yanked Whiteside back for more.
“He was just saying, ‘Keep working,'” Whiteside said of Mourning. “He was just talking about coming in and just putting in the hard work every single day.”
Less than a week later, teammate Dwyane Wade drew comparisons to his time with Shaquille O’Neal as he explained how lethal his pick-and-roll partnership with Whiteside can be after the two combined for 45 points and connected on a handful of dunks as Miami rallied from a 21-point deficit to beat Houston.
Constantly shifting between Mourning’s prodding and Wade’s praise is a promising player who holds the key to unlocking the Heat’s true potential this season. It’s largely predicated on Whiteside’s progress. And that improvement continued even in defeat on Tuesday, as Whiteside made 11-of-12 shots and finished with 23 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in the Heat’s 98-92 loss to the Atlanta Hawks.
Through four games, Whiteside is shooting 76.3 percent (29 of 38) from the field, which is the best four-game start of any NBA player since the 1986 season, according to BasketballReference.com. If last season was about Whiteside showing flashes of breakout potential, then this season revolves around the 26-year-old becoming consistently dominant in what technically is his fourth NBA season. That process starts with deliberately stringing together games when the Heat can rely on his contributions.
“His conditioning level was great, as you can see,” said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, as he drew on one of the few positives from the Heat’s otherwise lethargic performance on Tuesday. “He made some plays at the end of the offense when we got stuck. That’s where a lot of his offense came from, either on put-backs or end-of-our-possession post-ups, and he was very efficient in those situations.”
The chemistry between Whiteside and Wade, particularly on pick-and-roll sets that have resulted in dunks for the athletic center or floaters for the crafty veteran, has been a priority for both players this season. Since he sputtered through the opener with four points and six rebounds in 20 minutes against the Hornets, Whiteside delivered 11 points, nine rebounds and six blocks against Cleveland and a career-high 25 points, 15 rebounds, three steals and two blocks against Houston.
Entering Tuesday’s game against the Hawks, Wade shed light on recent conversations with Whiteside about how effective the two can be when they execute in the paint. For Wade, getting a screen from Whiteside at the top of the key, then lobbing the ball high to Whiteside for dunks, brought back memories from a decade ago.
“He basically told me, ‘This is how I used to get a lot of lobs to Shaq,'” Whiteside said of Wade, who partnered with O’Neal for Miami’s first title in 2006. “I just kind of listened to that and try to do it that way. It’s crazy. I remember watching them in high school. Now I’m playing with him. Who didn’t watch Shaq and D-Wade? I was practicing on a little hoop outside, but it’s crazy that it’s actually happening.”
The Hawks kept a defensive body on Whiteside and prevented him from finishing at the rim with the same success he had two nights earlier against Houston, when Whiteside had four dunks and was the target on seven of the eight assists Wade had in that game. But on Tuesday, Whiteside spent more time attempting to initiate his own offense from the post.
Wade was limited by migraines on Tuesday and spent much of the second half in the locker room taking medication before he returned in the fourth quarter to finish with 21 points in 27 minutes. He has dealt with the painful headaches for stretches throughout his career and will be reevaluated during the Heat’s “treatment” day before they leave for a two-game trip to play Minnesota and Indiana.
But for Wade to even mention Whiteside in the same sentence when referring to O’Neal and Mourning is an indication of the expectation level the Heat have set for their rising center.
“I’m just trying to get Hassan to understand that, and know that the game can be very deadly,” Wade said of the impact Whiteside can have on both ends of the court. “He showed no emotion when I said that. But for him, I think it’s a compliment. I played with two Hall of Fame centers, with Alonzo and also with Shaquille. For him to know that I’ve done it before with those guys, and this is the recipe for success, just follow the blueprint. No reason to change nothing up.”
There were legitimate concerns entering the season about Whiteside’s conditioning after he missed most of training camp with a strained calf. But the Heat’s primary issues are now elsewhere, with the team searching for consistency after alternating wins and losses through the first four games.
But Bosh has seen steady strides in Whiteside’s approach to the season. A day after Whiteside’s breakout game against Houston, Bosh was more thrilled to talk about his work at the free throw line after practice, where Whiteside claimed to have made 46-of-50 attempts from the line in an effort to correct his struggles there during games.
“[Wade] basically told me, ‘This is how I used to get a lot of lobs to Shaq.’ I just kind of listened to that and try to do it that way. It’s crazy. I remember watching them in high school. Now I’m playing with him. Who didn’t watch Shaq and D-Wade? I was practicing on a little hoop outside, but it’s crazy that it’s actually happening.”
“Free throws have been a huge deal for him, so get him a prize,” Bosh joked earlier this week of Whiteside, who is shooting just 55.6 percent from the foul line. “I’m going to go take him to get a Happy Meal. Hassan knows, man. He knows what he’s capable of doing. He’s starting to figure out where his spots are. If he gets there, we’re going to get him the ball, and he can take advantage of all of that stuff.”
Whiteside’s stock is rising right along with his confidence. This week marks the first time in his NBA career that Whiteside has scored at least 20 points in consecutive games. And it comes at the start of what shapes up as a seismic season for Whiteside, who is earning just $981,348 in the final year of a two-year deal with the Heat after arriving last December from the D-League.
Even a modest improvement in his game this season could land Whiteside a deal in free agency next summer along the lines of the three-year, $50 million payday the Bucks gave center Greg Monroe or the four-year, $80 million contract DeAndre Jordan got from Los Angeles in July.
But right now, that may as well be Monopoly money for Whiteside. Amid an impressive start to the season, consistency is his focus. Currency comes in the form of constructive chats with mentors.
He embraces the attention he commands on and off the court.
“They’re double-teaming me a lot more than they did last year,” Whiteside of the defenses he is facing. “I’m just trying to impact that game. If it’s not points and rebounds, it’s blocks. I try to affect the game in something, and try to help us win games.”
Whiteside didn’t get a win on Tuesday to show for his efforts.
But he took another steady step on his potential path to prosperity.
If he hits a stride over the course of the season, Whiteside just might soon be able to afford his own Happy Meals.