MIAMI — It’s the Miami Heat’s 2016-17 preseason home opener, and newly minted franchise face Hassan Whiteside is rummaging through his bag of tricks like the last player to hold this position did.
The 7-footer’s first home stint as a $98 million man lasts just shy of nine minutes. He’s already scored on two dunks, a layup, a tip-in, a free throw and a hook shot. His stat sheet also shows five rebounds—two fewer than the Brooklyn Nets have as a team—plus a steal and a block.
By night’s end, Whiteside’s stat line stretches as far as one of Dwyane Wade’s old gems. All five primary categories are present—21 points, 14 boards, four blocks, one steal and one assist. It took Whiteside all of 23 minutes to post the line, which was reached only seven times last season and never in less than 37 minutes.
"I think that’s something that makes myself unique that I can score and I can defend," Whiteside explains. "You got guys at the 5 position that can score, but they can’t guard a shoebox. And then you got guys that are really great defenders, but they can’t score on a shoebox. I just want to be balanced."
.@YoungWhiteside continued his preseason dominance last night. Another big performance from the big fella! pic.twitter.com/dn4psnbGP9
— Miami HEAT (@MiamiHEAT) October 12, 2016
Through four exhibition outings, Whiteside ranks first in NBA blocks (2.8), second in rebounds (12.0) and 11th in scoring (17.5). Stretch his numbers out to per-36-minute averages, and he’s at 26.8 points, 18.4 boards and 4.2 rejections.
Granted, it’s a minuscule sample against preseason competition. But as astronomical as these figures are, they fit the big fella’s unprecedented trajectory.
After last season’s NBA All-Star break, he tallied 17.5 points, 13.3 rebounds and 3.4 blocks in 30.5 minutes. Those numbers jump to eye-popping averages of 20.7, 15.6 and 4.0, respectively, on the same per-36-minute scale.
How special are those statistics? Well, no one has ever averaged 26 points, 18 rebounds and four blocks. One player—all-time leading scorer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar—has posted a 20/15/4 line. As for Whiteside’s actual 17/13/3 line, only six have cleared it, and they’re all in the Hall of Fame.
"I think each month he’s been with us, he’s gotten better," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "I think that’s a great statement to make. For two straight years, he’s gotten better, it seems like each week, each game that he’s played."
Whiteside’s presence hasn’t always been a net positive for the Heat—check the efficiency ratings in the table above—but he’s killing that narrative.
There’s more force behind his screens, extra pep in his rim runs. He’ll still volleyball-spike opponents’ shots for extra emphasis at times, but he isn’t hunting blocks like he did and therefore isn’t sacrificing valuable defense and rebounding position.
"He’s one of those guys that once you’re on the same side as him, you understand what he brings to the table every single night," Derrick Williams told Bleacher Report. "He might not get five or six or seven blocks every night, but he’s going to challenge 10, 12, 15 shots. And he might alter 10 or 12 of those 15.
"That’s what you need out of a big man. … When you have a guy like that on your team, it makes your life that much easier."
Miami’s defense has surrendered just 98.0 points per 100 possessions with Whiteside this preseason. That mark would have been the NBA’s second-best last year. The Heat are outscoring opponents by 12.3 points per game with Whiteside on the floor, the league’s 11th-best plus/minus.
"That’s what it’s all about now," Spoelstra said. "It’s not about a contract anymore. It’s not about numbers anymore. It’s about winning. He’s starting to embrace that and understand that more and more each day."
Whiteside has always liked to say he’s different, and his statistics have confirmed it. (When he says no one else gets triple-doubles with blocks, he’s right.)
But this season’s differences run deeper than freakish physical tools and unique talents. He seems more serious, which fits with his public acceptance of leadership duties that Wade and Chris Bosh formerly handled. Whiteside is more comfortable, not only because of his supersized salary but also because this is his first time on the same team for longer than two years.
"He’s communicating more. He’s more open," Goran Dragic said. "It feels good when you have a big guy who wants to help, who wants to give everything that he has to the team. I’m not saying he didn’t do that last year, but I feel like this year, he’s more mature. He’s more calm."
Whiteside is more focused too—though he’s usually good for at least one laugh in every media session—because he knows there’s still so much work ahead.
This is his team to guide—with the help of Dragic and Justise Winslow—and his stature is intrinsically linked to the Heat’s success. Whiteside has the numbers now to be a fantasy juggernaut and real-life All-Star, but his target is set even higher.
"I said it from day one, since I was a 20-year-old rookie, that I wanted to be a Hall of Famer," Whiteside said. "A lot of people laughed at that. I’m still working toward that."
It sounds like an impossible aspiration, but his story has tested the realm of possibilities before.
The raw, unpolished Whiteside was productive and intriguing enough to warrant a $98 million commitment. The version we’ve seen so far makes the contract look like a steal.
Tyler Johnson Earning His Keep
There were much bigger deals signed this summer, but perhaps none raised more eyebrows than Tyler Johnson’s $50 million pact. His offer sheet was singled out on NBA.com’s annual general manager survey. The 6’4" combo guard—who collected $1.3 million the past two seasons combined—admitted the amount even made him sick.
But as the sticker shock wears off, the challenge is to justify the price.
If his preseason start is any indication, he might be up to the task. He’s scored at least 14 points on 57 percent shooting or better each of his last three times out. Overall, he’s averaging 11.6 points and shooting 58.3 percent from the field and 71.4 outside. A point guard in training, he’s racked up 14 assists against only one turnover.
"The game is starting to slow down a little bit," Johnson said. "I think the first two years I was looking to just score, score and score. Now I am starting to look for the pass a little more. I’ve been playing with a couple guys for a while now, so I know what their tendencies are."
The Heat didn’t pay Johnson to be a preseason star. They know they can rely on him for full-throttle effort and plus perimeter shooting, but his handles must pass the regular-season test as a full-time playmaker. That said, this is an encouraging start for one of the many Miami players with something to prove.
This season’s Heat can’t come close to last year’s in name recognition. But this group has something that one didn’t—volume and efficiency from distance.
Three-point shooting was a clear Achilles’ heel for the 2015-16 outfit. Miami was a bottom-five shooting team in makes (6.1, 27th) and percentage (33.6, 27th), effectively clogging the same paint the roster was built to attack. The Heat didn’t have anyone play at least 60 games and shoot better than 35 percent from range.
After an active summer, Miami is suddenly swimming in spacing. Five rotation regulars are hitting above 40 percent from deep, including a more confident, comfortable Winslow. The Heat and Golden State Warriors are the only teams averaging double-digit makes on 40-plus percent shooting.
"If you look at the [first-round] series last year against Charlotte, everybody was inside the paint," Dragic said. "Their game plan was to let them shoot the three, open shots. I don’t think teams are going to defend us like that this season."
Some of this wet shooting will inevitably dry up. Even though Winslow’s form looks more fluid, he almost misfired on 75 percent of his long-range looks last season. Tyler Johnson probably won’t hit 71 percent for the season. History says Dion Waiters is a 33.4 percent gunner, not a 50 percent marksman.
But Luke Babbitt and Wayne Ellington are the types of sure-shot spacers Miami has lacked. And remember, Josh Richardson—currently nursing a partially torn MCL—was the NBA’s best three-point shooter after the 2016 All-Star break.
There’s a good amount of fire fueling this smoke.
Derrick Williams Talks Opportunity, Identity
Bleacher Report: Most NBA fans still associate your name with your draft position (No. 2 in 2011) before anything else. Entering your sixth season now, does your draft spot still mean anything to you?
Derrick Williams: It’s cool to say I went No. 2. That’s fine. Honestly, I’m just here to play basketball. That’s what I’m best at.
Whether I got picked second or being in Isaiah Thomas’ spot in the same draft as me—I knew he was that good just by playing [against] him in the Pac 10. But sometimes people get overlooked. Sometimes people jump out in the draft, and guys like Kyrie [Irving] and Klay [Thompson], they already got championships, Kawhi [Leonard]. They already have their solidified roles.
That’s what I’m looking for here is just being in a role where not only I bring something to the table, but the organization’s helping me out in doing that. That’s really why I came here.
B/R: Because you haven’t had that permanent role before, do you feel there are still untapped areas of your game?
DW: I try not to say, "I want to go out this season and prove I can do this or do that." I just want a consistent role. Since I’ve been in the NBA, I haven’t had one. I’ve had, like, seven or eight coaches in five years. That hasn’t helped as well.
But you can’t really use excuses. You just gotta get out there and play. Coach wants me to do that—be everywhere on the court, and that’s what I’m best at.
B/R: You’ve been a big 3 and a small 4, a starter and a reserve. At this point, is your best role just an undefined one that maximizes your versatility?
DW: Spoelstra said the way that I played in college was just more free out there on the court and just being everywhere. That’s kind of how I am on this team.
He wants me to be everywhere on the court and not just stuck in the corner shooting skip-pass threes. He wants me to attack the basket, wants me to push the ball on the offensive end, taking the challenge on the defensive end as well guarding bigger 4s, maybe stronger 4s than I might be, but I just gotta use my quickness.
B/R: Even though you’re here on a one-year deal, are you more comfortable than you’ve been at some previous stops because there are fewer limits on your game?
DW: Yeah, I chose to take the one-year deal. I just want to get out there and do what I can do. Just get out there and play hard and prove to the other guys on the team that—no matter if it’s on the offensive end or defensive end—I can bring it every single night. Not just my teammates, but the coaching staff can trust me at every single position.
All quotes obtained firsthand. Statistics used courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com and current through games played Oct. 19.