Hassan Whiteside is the NBA’s Shot-Blocking King

Dominate and deny. Then dab.

That's what Hassan Whiteside did against the Minnesota Timberwolves on November 17. The seven-footer unmercifully blocked shots in every way possible. First was the swat that broke up an alley-oop. Then he rejected hotshot rookie Karl-Anthony Towns's shot in the paint, which prompted Whiteside to indulge in the dab — the lean-into-your-elbow-like-you're-about-to-sneeze dance that has spread across sports, and America, in recent months. Before the game was over, Whiteside also batted away an attempt from Kevin Garnett, sending the NBA veteran falling to the baseline.

And that wasn't even the half of Whiteside's production. The Heat lost the game 103--91. But Whiteside gave the team a fighting chance, with 22 points, 14 rebounds, and 10 blocks, his second of three career triple doubles.

As the league leader in blocked shots per game (3.8), the 26-year-old Whiteside is making a career out of dishing out rejection. But he's quick to tell you that he hasn't been spared from it. Before he arrived in Miami in 2014, Whiteside had a difficult time finding a home in the NBA. He was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the second round of the 2010 draft, but the team cut him after two seasons, most of which he spent in the NBA Development League. "No one wanted me," he recalls. After two years of playing overseas, Whiteside signed with the Heat. Since making the starting lineup last January, he has become a dominant inside presence. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra described him as "a force." And people are taking notice.

"He's the key," NBA Hall of Famer and TNT analyst Charles Barkley said during a broadcast. "[The Heat is] only going to go as far as Whiteside carries them."

TRAVELING MAN

Whiteside calls his NBA journey "tough, with a lot of letdowns." But through it all, one reminder from his mother, Debbie, has stuck with him. "She'd tell me I was made for something special," he says. Debbie first uttered those words shortly after Whiteside survived getting hit by a car in his hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, when he was 10. "I was walking with my older sister to the store," he says. "We were crossing the street at a main intersection. I got nervous, pulled my hand away, and ran back to the curb."

As he did, Whiteside was struck by a car. He lost consciousness, and his right leg was broken in three places.

Despite having to use a wheelchair and crutches, Whiteside always believed he'd return to being his old self. Others weren't so sure. "People kept telling me I wasn't going to walk the same. I wasn't going to play basketball the same," says Whiteside, who had been hooping since he was five. After six months, he was walking and playing just fine.

Whiteside attended six high schools in two states (living with his mom in North Carolina and his dad in New Jersey, while searching for the right basketball fit). During that time he developed into a defensive-minded center, though he wasn't always fond of that role. "I hated playing that position. I was 6'5" when I got to high school and had been playing guard before. I loved crossovers and playing on the outside," Whiteside says.

Trading ballhandling for blocks served Whiteside well. He went on to play at Marshall University for the 2009--10 season, where his 5.4 blocks per game were the most in the nation.

"I try to mirror the ball and stay away from the guy's shoulders," Whiteside says of his technique. "Guys will try to come in with their shoulders and try to draw contact, or try to throw the ball up so high that you can't get it."

Whiteside declared for the draft after his freshman season and was selected by the Kings. He played in only 18 NBA games before they waived him in 2012. "They told me, 'We're going in a different direction,'" Whiteside recalls. "That was the first time I was cut from any team I played on. I felt like the Kings gave up on me."

Whiteside didn't give up on himself. He spent the next two years "on the outside looking in," he says. He returned to the D-League before playing in Lebanon and China, where he won a championship and was named defensive player of the year.

A SECOND CHANCE

In 2014, Whiteside played summer league ball for the Toronto Raptors before the Memphis Grizzlies signed him to a non-guaranteed deal. That didn't pan out. He then had workouts with the L.A. Lakers and Heat, but still — nothing.

So back to the D-League he went. "I could have taken the guaranteed money by playing overseas again, but I took the chance and stayed here, with no guarantee of anything," he says.

From time to time doubt crept in. "At one point, I thought my career was over," he admits.

It wasn't. Miami signed Whiteside in November 2014. "My agent called me and played Will Smith's 'Welcome to Miami' when he told me the news," he recalls.

After landing in Miami, Whiteside went to work. He pulled down 20 or more rebounds four times and a had a monstrous 12-block performance against the Chicago Bulls, while averaging 11.8 points and 10 boards per game last season. His aggressive play, however, often resulted in foul trouble. And the scrappiness that got him back into the league was being channeled in damaging ways: He drew seven technical fouls and had two ejections.

Teammate Dwyane Wade didn't mince words when he was asked about Whiteside's ejections after two scuffles, just days apart last March. "You've got to be reliable and you've got to be able to be counted on. If he continues to act that way, then he's not reliable," Wade said.

Whiteside knew he let his teammates down. "I never felt like I was needed on the team, but that situation made me feel needed because I saw how disappointed D-Wade and [Chris] Bosh were by my actions," he says.

An encounter with a Heat fan also put things into perspective. "He told me, 'I have a 17-year-old son. He's 6'8", and I use your life as a story of perseverance,'" Whiteside says. "I looked back on the fights I got into and thought, I didn't work my way back to the league to do that."

Whiteside smartened up. This season he's not only controlling his emotions better, but he's also controlling the glass — he is fourth in the NBA in rebounds per game (11.1). He is also third in field goal percentage (59.9%). "Hassan is a threat with one foot in the paint," Spoelstra said. "He'll score at a very high level."

Praise like that was hard to come by two years ago. Now, it's more common — and proof that Whiteside was made for something special.


Photo: Joe Robbins/Getty Images (Pacers), Barry Gossage/NBAE/Getty Images (Suns)

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