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Nomadic Whiteside playing well, but remains enigma

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Hassan Whiteside has become one of the most remarkable NBA stories of recent years, a virtual outcast who was a second-round draft pick, a regular in the minor league D-League and then expatriate playing in China and Lebanon, and even in an attempt to return to the NBA released by the Memphis Grizzlies.

So the Miami Heat, who experiment in lost cause big men like they have with Eddy Curry, Chris “Birdman” Andersen and Greg Oden, took a chance. And this one paid off like a slot machine jackpot: Whiteside has become the NBA’s runaway leader in blocked shots, he’s being touted as Defensive Player of the Year, he’s put up some of the most amazing Wilt-like statistics with multiple triple-doubles with blocks.

In the last week of February, he had 25 points and 23 rebounds in 29 minutes in a win over Washington, 19 points and 18 rebounds in a win over Indiana, 13 points and 15 rebounds and eight blocks last week in a loss in Boston. Earlier in the month he’d had a 10, 10 and 10 blocks triple-double against the Hornets.

He’s in the top five in three major statistical categories, blocks, rebounds and shooting percentage, He’s averaging 18.8 points, 16 rebounds and four blocks the last five games and 15.3 points 12.8 rebounds and 4.1 blocks in February on 62 percent shooting. Miami, even with the loss of Chris Bosh, has moved up to fourth in the Eastern Conference.

Nobody this side of Stephen Curry has put up such historic numbers this season.

Yet, before the trade deadline Feb. 18, Whiteside’s name was one of the most frequently heard; he’s not even been a starter for Miami much of the season and often doesn’t finish games. And the sense around the Heat is they’ll see what sort of offers he gets as a free agent this summer before deciding if they want to try to retain him.

So what’s wrong with Hassan Whiteside?

His past, future and fate remain one of the great mysteries around the NBA.

How could a defensive-oriented 7-footer (213 cm) with such impact draw such indifference?

Some of it is basketball. Whiteside isn’t exactly a student of the game.

In fact, in the first two months of the season the Heat’s defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) was better with Whiteside off the court.

It’s why down the stretch he sat. Like a lot of big men, he didn’t much like blitzing (helping after the screen and recovering) on the pick-and-roll, which is a staple of Miami’s defense. He didn’t much identify whom he was guarding and mostly liked to jump around for blocks while ignoring any form of help defense.

That has changed some with Bosh sidelined again with blood clot issues and Whiteside’s defense somewhat more stable for now.

But there’s also Hassan being Hassan, as it were.

He’s not good with slights, of which there have been many.

Just last week after the Boston game, he went off on a rant about officiating and Marcus Smart supposedly flopping. He got himself kicked out of a game with the Heat undermanned and drew a harsh rebuke from teammate Dwyane Wade.

Whiteside was suspended a game by the NBA for a flagrant encounter against the Spurs, ejected for a fight in Phoenix, and after a win over the Clippers blasted L.A. coach Doc Rivers for not having him in for tryouts after he went to the D-League.

Which after his initial experience when Whiteside was a Sacramento second-round draft pick, Whiteside became one of the few D-League players ever whose D-League team said he was too disruptive and asked the Kings to take him back. The Kings released him.

Whiteside, whose father, Hassan Arbubakrr, was an NFL player for the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers, went to play in Lebanon. Not exactly the premier location for future NBA stars.

Though not before the Heat gave him a tryout, too. Afterward, Heat president Pat Riley told Whiteside that perhaps he might take a year off and try to get his attitude right. Like going to that job interview or audition and being told they’ll get back to you. Surprisingly, the Heat did and it worked out for both, which is rare in sports and business.

But Whiteside had to tour the basketball world first. He went to Lebanon. They asked him to leave.

You doubt there were many shot blocking 7-footers waiting to replace him. Whiteside did win a title in China, which is a long way from being back in the NBA, returned to the D-League and was quickly traded to another D-league team.

This was hardly the path back to where he always said he should be and what he always told them in the D-League for why he didn’t need to work hard: He was going to The Show.

Whiteside was a proficient shot blocker in one season at Marshall University, projected as a Tyson Chandler or Marcus Camby type. Both were top-three draft picks. Whiteside went 33rd. His agent said he stopped taking his ADD medicine. Whiteside said he didn’t have ADD.

But by most accounts, Whiteside is a likable young man, anxious to be accepted without quite understanding how to do so.

“I don’t know if I rubbed some people the wrong way in college or whether it was my interviews (with teams),” Whiteside said in an interview with USA Today after coming to Miami last season. “I always felt like when I came in they already knew who I was and they already had a perception of me. That was a big reason why I was scared to go back to the D-League. Once someone has a perception of you, it kind of sticks over you for years. But when I came into the (NBA) I was 20.”

Has Hassan grown?

This is the first summer of the big salary cap increases. Perhaps 20 teams will have enough money to pay a free agent a maximum contract this July.

There aren’t enough free agents who would deserve that.

So what about a 7-footer leading the league in blocks and averaging almost 13 points and 12 rebounds for the season?

Someone will pay Whiteside.

The fear around the Heat is said to be this: What will Whiteside be like with money and a guaranteed contract when he had acted as he has for so long without the financial security?

Could he be trusted since sacrificing for the team has never been his specialty?

The 26-year-old has said he liked Miami, but intimates say given his history he will follow the money. Wherever it is the biggest is where he will go. After all, he was in Lebanon and China for much less.

So would you take a chance on Hassan Whiteside if you were an NBA team?

Will Miami?

Especially now that Bosh’s future is uncertain with a second recurrence with blood clots and being unable to play basketball if he has to remain on blood thinners.

The mystery of Hassan Whiteside seems far from solved.

Sam Smith covered the Chicago Bulls for 25 years with the Chicago Tribune. He is the author of the best-selling book “The Jordan Rules.”