How one key decision helped Hassan Whiteside earn his place in the NBA

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Shams Charania
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Hassan Whiteside's career has been looking up since joining the Heat. (AP)
Hassan Whiteside's career has been looking up since joining the Heat. (AP)

Once the basketball stopped bouncing in a Memphis gym in November 2014, a player informed of his release, Hassan Whiteside packed his belongings and slouched down with his cell phone. This game had taken him from Sacramento to the NBA Development League, from Lebanon to China and back. This game had immersed Whiteside in various cultures, in the depths of a probable journeyman career, he never expected. No NBA offers awaited, and soon Whiteside prepared his passport for the humbling, somber flight abroad.

Being cut by the Grizzlies for a second time propelled Whiteside to the most critical decision of his professional life: return to the D-League or sign overseas again, perhaps for good. Whiteside faced a window that fall to decide on a guaranteed multi-year, multi-million dollar deal in the Chinese Basketball Association, he told Yahoo Sports. He debated but decided to decline it. The modest lifestyle of the D-League lasted a few more weeks, with Whiteside ultimately signing a non-guaranteed, two-year deal with Miami.

“I never aimed for the money,” Whiteside told Yahoo. “Before I came to the NBA last [season], per year, I would have made more going to China than on my Miami Heat contract. If I went, I might have just stayed in China. I wasn’t chasing the dollars, though. I was chasing the dream of becoming an amazing NBA player. All of that comes, obviously. The contract, the fame. Even before I knew anything about money, I was a little kid and I didn’t know how much these players made. I wanted that – to be on TV, to have people looking up to me.

“Once I left the NBA, I realized what I lost, realized the lessons that I needed in order to stay. I always had faith to keep pushing. It’s tough just to be in the league. There are only about 400 guys in the NBA, so any position that you play, it is impossible. I had a tough journey and I’m still writing my book.”

Everyone knows his tale now, an NBA revelation after toiling out of the league and being cut in the Lebanese Basketball League in 2014. In less than a year, Whiteside has posted three triple-doubles of points, rebounds and blocks – including 19 points, 17 rebounds and 11 blocks in Miami’s comeback win over Denver on Friday.

Around Whiteside, people admit his mind and game weren’t prepared for the NBA after playing one season with Marshall University before entering the NBA draft in 2010. Sacramento drafted him with the 33rd overall selection in the second round after taking DeMarcus Cousins with the fifth overall pick. There were reasons – real and perceived – why Whiteside was out of the NBA, released two years into a four-year rookie deal. He mostly shuttled to the Kings’ D-League team in Reno, but developed the reputation as a tantalizing but aloof 7-footer.

Whiteside (R) protects the rim against the Raptors' James Johnson. (AP)
Whiteside (R) protects the rim against the Raptors' James Johnson. (AP)

So the D-League’s Iowa Energy had a choice to make once Whiteside left the Grizzlies’ training camp, where the maturation and gym workout habits continued to blossom. The franchise decided to acquire Whiteside’s rights from the Houston Rockets’ affiliate, the Rio Grande Valley Vipers. Then, Iowa coach Bob Donewald Jr. wrote a letter to Whiteside before training camp, promising no biases from the residue of his past.

“I told Hassan: You have a clean slate here,” Donewald told Yahoo. “His reputation wasn’t where it needed to be, so this was his chance to work. He worked and worked, pouted, and then got back to work. Rinse and repeat. We wanted to make sure he got back to being a grinder. We had to forget about whatever happened in Reno, whatever happened with the Kings.

“When I was with Paul Silas as an assistant, Paul would always say, ‘Cream rises to the top.’ For a player like Hassan, that was the consistent message. And the cream rose.”

Now, Whiteside has positioned himself to be one of the top unrestricted free agents available in July. Donewald carried the credibility of a former NBA assistant coach for Charlotte, New Orleans and Cleveland, and he pressed Whiteside in practices and individual film studies. As Donewald said, “I coached him hard.” Once the two sat down for preseason meetings, the instructions for the season were crystalized.

“What do you want out of Iowa?” Donewald asked.

“I want to be the starting center,” Whiteside told the coach.

“No, I want you to leave here and make tens of millions,” Donewald replied.

“Hassan just giggled and said, ‘Yeah, OK,’” Donewald told Yahoo. “He’s still a little kid at heart. All he wanted was to earn a starting spot. … He worked for us. The best part of his journey last season was that he didn’t leave us for just another normal team. He went to Miami. They make sure he busts his butt.”

Behind the financial commitments to Dwyane Wade, Chris Bosh and Goran Dragic, Miami has found long-term rotation players in Whiteside and fellow former D-Leaguer Tyler Johnson, thanks to the work of assistant GM Adam Simon. In the draft, the Heat identified second-round pick Josh Richardson as a potential backup guard for the future. When big-market teams place so much money into their top earners, identifying fringe talent becomes of crucial importance.

For the season, Whiteside has likely justified a near-maximum salary by averaging 12.3 points, 11.3 rebounds and four blocks in 29.1 minutes per game. For the Heat, he could be the bridge to future contention. Nevertheless, questions will persist about Whiteside’s mindset after an enormous payday and about his responsibilities around an organization.

As July nears, Whiteside’s free agency could be the most fascinating in the league. The Heat have his early Bird rights and, without salary space, are limited to paying him an average salary of $6.2 million. Depending on Wade’s deal and renouncing their remaining free agents, Miami could open more salary space for Whiteside. Between now and then, Whiteside holds minimal trade value because of his minimum salary and lack of Bird rights – and the Heat will continue to tell his representatives that any speculation about him is unsubstantiated.

Whiteside blocks the Wizards' Marcin Gortat during a January game. (Getty)
Whiteside blocks the Wizards' Marcin Gortat during a January game. (Getty)

“I’m just different, man,” Whiteside told Yahoo.

His play makes him different, too. No center in the league may have Whiteside’s ceiling – a triple-double threat, effective without the ball and without scoring. And still, privately teammates urge for Whiteside to improve his habits, emotions and injury tolerance and how he handles himself when coach Erik Spoelstra substitutes him late in games.

“Sitting out fourth quarters is something I have to deal with and continue to adjust when it comes,” Whiteside told Yahoo. “The coach is going to make the best decisions to win. That’s his job. As a player, I always want to be on the court. But some days, coach see different matchups and other people play. I only want to win.”

Around the Heat, coaches stress crispness despite lineup changes and injuries. Dragic’s Grade 1 calf strain will be re-evaluated later this week and Johnson will continue to play a bigger role in place of Dragic. Whiteside holds a significant challenge to play catalyst on a nightly basis, to be engaged and active. His potential is too great – too untapped – to stray from team concepts, his teammates tell him.

“He should never let a day go by saying, ‘I didn’t lay it on the line,’” Heat veteran forward Udonis Haslem told Yahoo. “We are all fortunate to be here. Things could have been differently. Hassan’s path didn’t have to turn out like this, where we’ve all watched him grow and blossom. But we all have to contribute and have leadership. We can all contribute when we’re not in the game.

“Hassan has matured more, listening better. We talk about his journey overseas, his games in the D-League. We, as teammates, respect that.”

What else makes Whiteside different? His burgeoning relationship with DJ Khaled, a rapidly rising social media figure and motivating voice in Whiteside’s life. They spend time at DJ Khaled’s home, plan hunts for Miami houses worth millions and debate basketball. Whiteside insists they have yet to discuss his free agency.

“I know he is a diehard Miami Heat fan because when I go to his house, he has so much Heat memorabilia,” Whiteside told Yahoo. “It is noticeable. I see it everywhere. Khaled basically came from humble beginnings, and he worked his way up. He doesn’t say anything bad. He is inspiring people.”

Once Whiteside enters free agency, could DJ Khaled become a recruiting tool for Miami? “He doesn’t talk about recruiting, but who knows?” Whiteside laughed.

The shootaround on the Heat’s long road trip has ended, and Whiteside remains seated, scrolling on his phone. He’s attentive and smiling. Yes, he says, he’s misunderstood sometimes. “Just different,” he told Yahoo. Whiteside has become a burgeoning talent, with magnificent statistics, and he remembers just last season the decision that shaped his return to the NBA. A contract offer to return to China for multiple years and no NBA out? Hassan Whiteside registered the best rejection of his career. The swats now come for Miami as he harnesses the unique power of his mind, game and immense talent.

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