Miami Heat's Hassan Whiteside opening up NBA's eager eyes

Ball Don't Lie

Comparisons to David Robinson and Alonzo Mourning are premature, but Hassan Whiteside's sudden rise to stardom for the Miami Heat must have handfuls of NBA talent evaluators scratching their heads.

Offered the opportunity to play meaningful minutes for the first time in his NBA career, the 7-footer is making Heat president Pat Riley look like a genius all over again, averaging 10.8 rebounds, 8.5 points and four blocks since playing more than 20 minutes for the first time as an NBA pro four games ago.

Those aren't empty stats, either. During that span — in which Miami has won three of four games for the first time since November — the Heat have been a remarkable 27.7 points per 100 possessions better than their opponents with Whiteside on the floor than with him on the bench, per NBA.com's stat tool.

During that wild February 2012 stretch when Jeremy Lin averaged 20.9 points, 8.4 assists and four rebounds out of nowhere for the playoff-bound New York Knicks, "Linsanity" provided a cautionary tale for the current Miami faithful hoping Whiteside permanently transformed into Mourning overnight, but like with Lin there are reasons to believe the former D-League dropout just might be a legitimate NBA player.

Before joining the Heat, Whiteside averaged 25.8 points (59.1 true shooting percentage), 18.2 boards and 6.1 blocks per 36 minutes over 138 combined pro appearances in the NBA's summer league, preseason and regular season as well as a pair of D-League designations and stops in both Lebanon and China.

Obviously, those numbers are skewed, particularly the numbers abroad, but his production still begs the question: How did NBA clubs always so desperate for size whiff on an athletic 7-footer who must've been on every team's draft board as the Sacramento Kings' No. 33 overall pick in 2010? A complimentary DraftExpress profile described Whiteside as "one of the more intriguing players in this draft" after his freshman season at Marshall, and yet he couldn't get teams to pick up the phone a few years later.

"I got a chip on my shoulder," Whiteside said in a television interview immediately following his breakout 23-point, 16-rebound performance in a 104-90 win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. "Every team in the NBA said no to me, especially this team. I mean, I couldn't even get a training camp invite. The Clippers thought it was a good idea; Doc said no. I tried to get a workout then; Doc said no."

Even before Miami coach Erik Spoelstra increased his minutes, Whiteside ranked among the league's elite at the rim both offensively and defensively. According to NBA.com, Whiteside's 79.1 percent shooting in the restricted area currently ranks second behind Brandan Wright among players who attempt at least three shots in that zone per game, and likewise his opponents' 50.5 percent shooting in the same area ranks second behind Andrew Bogut among regulars whose foes average seven shots in the paint.

Perhaps a result of the chip on his shoulder that resulted from so many NBA slights, Whiteside's work ethic has earned the respect of his coaches and teammates. Complementing Dwyane Wade as a perfect partner in the pick-and-roll and lightening Chris Bosh's defensive load in the post certainly hasn't hurt.

Count current Heat assistant Keith Smart, who coached the Kings when they released Whiteside in July 2012, among those stunned by the 25-year-old's recent emergence, via the South Florida Sun Sentinel.

"No one envisioned this," Smart said during a break from this week-plus on the road for the Heat. "But he was playing well overseas, he was playing well when he went to the D-League. He was putting up massive numbers. So you knew something had changed.

"So now it was just a matter of getting to the right team, the right opportunity, the right situation, and obviously here was the place for him."

It seems only a matter of time before he takes over the starting minutes from another center the Heat signed off the NBA scrap heap, Chris Andersen, whose spot in the lineup Whiteside took to begin the second half against the Clippers. Whiteside's play has helped vault Miami into the East's seventh seed. Whether or not the Heat climb higher in a conference ripe for the picking will depend in part upon how well Whiteside does a job he described to the Miami Herald as, "I put the orange ball in the circle." 

And as was the case when Linsanity led the Knicks to a No. 7 seed three seasons ago, the 7-footer is becoming a pop culture phenom, including his very own parody song. OK, so this guy's version of The Killers' "Mr. Brightside" isn't exactly Jimmy Fallon covering Pearl Jam's "Jeremy," but at least Hassan Whiteside is getting his moment in the NBA sun. And 29 other teams are left staring as his star rises.

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Ben Rohrbach is a contributor for Ball Don't Lie and Shutdown Corner on Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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