There has been no stranger story in the NBA this year than the rise of Hassan Whiteside, the 25-year-old center who spent the last two seasons playing for the Sichuan Blue Whales, Al Mouttahed Tripoli, and Jiangsu Tongxi—making the trip back to China after being released by Tripoli—and now won't stop throwing up 20-rebound games as the Miami Heat's starting center.
Whiteside joined the Heat in November after a D-League call-up, an assignment he only pulled after being cut by the Grizzlies. He played sparingly at first but eventually slid into the starting center job, and since then he's been pouring numbers into box scores that look like typeset errors. He had 14 points, 13 rebounds and 12 blocks against the Bulls on Jan. 25. He grabbed 24 rebounds against the Hawks on Feb. 28. Last night against the Lakers, he went for 18 points, 25 rebounds, and four blocks. Through 33 games, 18 starts, and 728 minutes, he's averaging 18 points, 16 rebounds, and four blocks per 36 minutes according to Basketball Reference—no center in history has maintained even 15-15-4 per 36 over a full season. That's a sustained hall-of-fame-level run by a guy who was getting fired from a team in the Lebanese Basketball League this time last year.
Things like this don't happen in the NBA, and certainly not at center. You'll find the occasional junk-drawer point guard turned serviceable by a few years abroad, or a burst of Jeremy Lin from the D-League, but if you're 6-foot-10 and can take a dump without turning an ankle, you're going to have a place in the league. Whiteside is seven feet tall and built like a steam engine; it defies the foundational principles of NBA roster building that he was jobless for so long. Who's that impossible? It's like if the only thing keeping Arvydas Sabonis out of the league was an abiding urge to knee the General Secretary in the nuts every morning.
When Whiteside first started doing this, it was hard to ignore the nagging impulse to write him off as a mid-season aberration. When he had 19 games under his belt, ESPN's Tom Haberstroh wrote a thorough breakdown of Whiteside's historic rise, with the natural caveats:
There will be rough patches. And it could start Friday against Tyson Chandler. The Heat will be without Dwyane Wade, who has fed more Whiteside buckets than any Miami player (13). And the Heat could be without Wade for weeks, so they'll have to find other ways to get Whiteside the ball. Rest assured, it won't be too difficult; Whiteside has a 9-6 standing reach.
The Heat lost that game against the Mavs by 21 points, but Whiteside finished with 16 points and 24 rebounds in 28 minutes. He's played more than a third of the season now, and has yet to show any signs of slowing down. He averaged 14 points, 13 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game in February, his most productive month yet. He singlehandedly dismantled the Lakers' frontcourt last night, out-positioning and out-muscling the guileless LA frontcourt on nearly every possession—Robert Sacre trying to move Whiteside off his spot looked like a drunk guy leaning against a lamp post—and reaching over them with his massive arms to snatch rebounds out of the sky.
He also did this:
So why the hell did he spend those last two NBA seasons toiling overseas? There are plenty of rumors about what a bad seed he was during his rookie season with the Kings, but the NBA is a league in which seven feet of limbs and a semi-functioning brain stem just about guarantees you a consistent gig. JaVale McGee got himself a $44 million contract, for chrissakes. JaVale McGee barely understands the rules of basketball! (Of course, if you've got any first-hand knowledge of the specifics here, the tip line's open.)
Hassan Whiteside's exile doesn't make any sort of sense, but his dominance sure does. He plays the obvious, forceful version of center you can't fake—not a stiff or a plodder on a nonsense hot streak; he's a massive, athletic, and skilled seven-footer who people want to fight because he dunks on them too much. He's a badass, and hopefully he's here to stay.