Dave George: Hassan Whiteside has established himself with gritty play

Seven games to go in his first full season as a starter and we still don’t understand exactly who or what Hassan Whiteside is.

Surely I misjudged him, wondering at least to some extent if the big guy would behave like a minnow after getting a whale’s contract last summer.

You know, getting frustrated when the diminished Miami Heat got stuck in a losing rut. Taking opportunities to rest rather than playing through injuries. Showing more immaturity on occasion than leadership.

Take a look at him now. Whiteside is tied for the league lead in rebounding at 14.0 per game. The season bests for other notable hulks in Miami were 11.8 for Rony Seikaly, 11.0 for Alonzo Mourning and 10.4 for Shaquille O’Neal.

No Heat player has more than Whiteside’s 70 starts this year, and only Goran Dragic is close at 66.

Hassan’s scoring is up to a career-best 16.8 points per game. That’s barely below what Chris Bosh, one of the Big Three, did during his time in Miami, and Bosh is a far more polished offensive player.

The blocked shots are down at 2.1 per game, but that’s because Whiteside is switching more on defense and chasing numbers less. Either way, he’s still top-five in the league in that intimidating category.

Now here’s the part that speaks even more to Hassan’s increasingly heavy lifting.

The low point of Miami’s season, that dismal 11-30 number you keep hearing? Hassan went out the next game and put up a double-double against the powerful Houston Rockets. Rather than checking out mentally, he helped in that way to start a totally unexpected 13-game win streak.

Go back a little more, to a game in December when Hassan was as dominant as a 7-footer can be (32 points, 15 rebounds and five blocks) but the Heat lost anyway to an Orlando team that was lousy then and has only gotten worse.

That double-overtime nightmare dropped Miami to 9-20, painting a picture of draft lottery talk to come, but Whiteside bounced back to produce double-double efforts in the next two games and has kept fighting no matter the circumstances, with or without Dion Waiters, with or without the Dragon.

We’re talking 26 points and 20 rebounds in a January loss at Golden State. Nineteen and 19 in a February loss at Dallas. Twenty-six and 21 a few weeks ago in a loss at Indiana.

And, in the four games since opening a cut in his shooting hand that required 13 stitches, Whiteside has turned in a couple of double-doubles and won a crucial game at Detroit with a tip-in at the buzzer.

So much for pampering injuries. Even Udonis Haslem, Miami’s enforcer on the court and in the locker room, has addressed the team to laud Whiteside’s new and grittier edge.

It’s more than a badge of honor to get UD’s approval. More like a shield to be raised against all challengers.

There will be plenty of those in the sliver of a regular season that remains. Elbows definitely get sharper when teams are on the verge of elimination.

After that, if there are playoffs for Miami, Whiteside has the memory of being lost to a sprained knee in Game 3 of a second-round playoff loss to Toronto. Kyle Lowry got a loose-ball foul for pulling Whiteside’s arm on the play, which is among the gentler things that might happen in a postseason scrum.

How will he respond? All signs are positive, or at least as much as they can be for a star who has played so little.

Going into Friday’s game with the New York Knicks at AmericanAirlines Arena, Whiteside has just 145 NBA starts. That’s only five more than James Johnson, the 6-foot-9 Heat teammate who is playing for his sixth team in eight NBA seasons.

Heck, 145 career starts is fewer than Josh McRoberts. When you’re still catching up to McBob, who seemingly could dislocate a finger while clapping on the bench and sprain an ankle jumping up to cheer, that’s saying something.

Whatever happens to Whiteside and all the rest, it would be a real shame if Miami doesn’t finally get back to .500 on Friday against the Knicks. To do so at 38-38 would give the Heat the astounding record of 27-8 since their horrible start.

That’s an incredible pace for any 35-game stretch. At the start of this season, when everybody was still fresh, only two teams topped it, with Golden State opening at 30-5 and San Antonio at 28-7. LeBron James and the Cavaliers? They were 27-8 out of the gate.

Doesn’t mean that Miami is going to challenge for an NBA title, but it does point to Whiteside as the long-term centerpiece of what is becoming a winning franchise again.

Not a pretender. Not a pouter. A solid return, instead, on the faith that Pat Riley demonstrated in him back when Dwyane Wade was the only name anyone trusted around here.

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