Appreciative Whiteside making most of opportunity with Heat

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside put on a dominating performance in Sunday night's 104-90 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers.

Gary A. Vasquez/Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

In sports, there is a tendency at times to frame too much of the present in the context of the past or the future. If Dwyane Wade has a good game, it is referred to as a "vintage" performance, for example. Sometimes words like "promise" and "potential" get tossed around for a young player who is suddenly exceeding expectations.

For Hassan Whiteside, however, the present is all that matters as he continues his improbable rise since he signed with the Heat in late November from a global journeyman to becoming a valuable contributor in a position of great need.

He is not a rookie, even though Dwyane Wade still teasingly calls him one, and he has limited NBA experience. But he is a grown man at 25, just a year younger then LeBron James was when he joined the Heat in 2010, the same year Whiteside was drafted in the second round by the Sacramento Kings.

Still, head coach Erik Spoelstra had characterized Whiteside as a "developmental player" after his first practice with the team on Nov. 25 and that the team viewed him as a "young prospect".

More than a month later, Spoelstra is more than pleased with Whiteside’s progress.

"He’s very coachable," he said just before the team embarked on their current road trip. "That’s been a big part of it. When we met with him it was the work, the player development. (Assistant coach) Juwan (Howard) has been out there sweating with him every single step of the way. It’s a very detailed program we have for him. He’s been committed to it. He’s been making great strides in the weight room with his conditioning and with his individual player development and his team development."

In Sunday night’s 104-90 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers, Whiteside put on a dominating performance not seen from a Heat center since Shaquille O’Neal or Alonzo Mourning. His career-high totals of 23 points and 16 rebounds — the kind of big game reserved for elite centers like Dwight Howard and Marc Gasol — only begin to describe just how impactful Whiteside’s presence had on the outcome of the game.

His very first play upon entering the game midway through the first quarter with the Heat down 19-8 was one of his best this season. Instead of keeping distance from his man in order to stay closer to the paint, Whiteside used his tremendous wingspan to grab a steal off of J.J. Redick’s inbound pass to DeAndre Jordan and ignite a fast break opportunity in which he managed to tap the ball into the basket off an alley-oop pass thrown by Luol Deng.

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In between collecting defensive rebounds, Whiteside showed good hands and quickness off pick-and-rolls to get great positioning in the paint and in one play, he shook free for a thunderous dunk down the middle off of a perfect Wade lob pass. Minutes later, he set a solid screen for Deng as he cut to the basket and then finished the play by catching a short pass and dunking it.

He would close the first quarter with 12 points and six rebounds in six minutes. But the defining play of his unforgettable night occurred in the third quarter when he was blocked by Jordan on a turnaround hook shot but grabbed the ball back, spun around and drove into the paint undeterred to score against Jordan with his left hand.

These moments were just a microcosm of his profound impact on the entire game — his best ever as a pro.

"I called the Clippers for a workout and they said no," Whiteside said after the win. "I called every team for a workout, they said no except for the Heat. And the Heat gave me a chance, so it’s only right that I give a 110 percent effort every time.

"I’m going to go at every team. It’s crazy that I’m on a team called the Heat because there’s always been a flame in me. I just always try to come in and play as hard as I can to prove people wrong."

For the Heat to have such a big presence in the paint on both offense and defense, it gives them a completely different look.

"Defensively, he’s a game-changer for us," Wade said. "He does a good job of rebounding the ball for us. It’s something that we’ve been missing and now that we have him and (Chris Andersen) to be out there pretty much at all times, it makes us a bigger team. It could make us a better defensive team at protecting the paint with those guys down there. We really like what the kid is bringing to our team and we just hope he continues to want to get better and continue to get better for us."

In a new year of transition for the organization, Whiteside is taking full advantage of the opportunity after spending time with the Kings, Memphis Grizzlies, the D-League with four teams, two separate stints in China — including their second division league — and in Lebanon. He already leads the team with 23 blocks and — along with Andersen — has finally given the team the ability to play with a traditional center and allow Chris Bosh to thrive at his natural power forward position.

"One thing that I want him to realize though is that a lot of people don’t get back in," Bosh said. "So I want him to understand his situation. I know he appreciates it, but I want him to really be thankful for getting back because a lot of guys don’t make it. He was playing in Lebanon and, no offense to Lebanon, but I’d rather play in the NBA. So just being back here, I know he appreciates it and I think he can really help us out."

After the early season progress shown by rookies Shabazz Napier and James Ennis, it is Whiteside who is now providing hope not just for the future but also to give them a much-needed boost for the second half of the regular season.

You can follow Surya Fernandez on Twitter @SuryaHeatNBA or email him at SuryaFoxSports@gmail.com.