MIAMI — As a teenager years ago in North Carolina, one play in a basketball game changed Hassan Whiteside’s mentality about interior defense.
“Growing up, I never was, like, ‘I’m going to be a great shot-blocker,'” the 7’0″ Heat center recently told the NBPA in Miami. “When I was younger, I tried to take a charge and I got kneed in the stomach, and it was an and-one. I was just, like, ‘Alright, that’s not for me.’ I said, ‘I’m going to try to just block shots, and slowly but surely I got better and better at it, from high school to college to the NBA.”
Numbers-wise, it’s been 17 years since the NBA has seen a shot-blocker like Whiteside. In the shortened 1999 season, another familiar Heat face, Alonzo Mourning, now the team’s vice president of player programs, averaged 3.91 blocks. Whiteside is at 3.8 blocks per game, along with 13.5 points and 11.7 rebounds.
But when you slice through the stats, their nearly even comparison actually tells two different stories—and confirms why Whiteside is in a league of his own in NBA history.
Back then, Mourning swatted shots in 38.1 minutes per game; Whiteside is doing it in just 28.9, and for the past 18 games he’s been coming off the bench. In 1999, Mourning didn’t have a game of 10 blocks or more; Whiteside has had three games like that this season—all in triple-doubles, including points and rebounds. In fact, this season he’s had five games of eight or more blocks. The rest of the league combined has one such game (Anthony Davis).
What makes Whiteside’s shot-blocking even more impressive is having to defend the perimeter against the game’s increasing number of stretch 4s and 5s, and the paint against craftier guards and creative finishers—unlike the 1990s era of more traditional post play.
“I believe back then would be easier [to block shots] because it was more about the paint,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s the era of the three-pointer, and there are more floaters. And guys are more crafty to try to do anything to get a call. I’ve got clips on my phone from even when [Dikembe] Mutombo played, and I’m just looking at it, like, ‘The guy would just keep blocking.’ Nowadays, [the ball] would just go out after the first block. You’re not going to get four blocks in one possession—even against the worst team. [Players] are going to pump fake or try to flop, or they’re going to throw it back out.”
Whiteside’s basketball journey has taken him around the globe—from Lebanon to China to several different D-League stops—but one big thing has remained consistent: his ability to block shots. His high-school best was 25, at Marshall he had 13 (leading the NCAA in total blocks in 2009-10) and last January with the Heat he finished with a carer-high 12, to go along with 14 points and 13 rebounds in a win over his beloved Bulls. The 26-year-old cherishes that performance the most as an NBA player.
“It was the first triple-double in [Heat] franchise history with blocks, and we won the game,” he said. “And growing up, the Bulls were always my favorite team because of Michael Jordan, also a North Carolina guy. That was my first time ever being at the [United Center], and it was on ABC. It was really a special game for me.”
The NBPA took a recent trip to Miami to organize a personalized film session with Whiteside, breaking down his top shot-blocking games in the NBA (which can be found on YouTube by searching “Hassan Whiteside Blocks”). In the Heat players’ lounge at AmericanAirlines Arena, Whiteside, who watches film of every game and is a keen observer of opponent strategies, discussed in depth for the first time his different tools, tricks and tactics behind his NBA-best shot-blocking, demonstrating he has a lot more skill than meets the eye. The insights gleaned from the conversation are presented below in a first-person perspective and edited for clarity and length.
I’m just really good at reading situations. First, I try to read players’ momentum—how fast they’re coming and how fast they’re moving, and I try to stay away from their shoulders because a lot of times when they get their shoulders into you, it normally can lead to a foul. Their shoulders are going to give them space and the distance they need to get the shot off. And I try to play off what they did in the past. If on the first play he pump fakes me, I’ll remember that. OK, he’s worried about me blocking his shot, so he’s coming out pump faking. And I just read off that.
Film Study vs. Taj Gibson with 7:15 left in the fourth quarter of Whiteside’s 12-block game against the Bulls (Jan. 25, 2015): I notice he’s doing a lot of pump faking in the low post, so I didn’t even jump. Once you start pump faking, you’re in trouble. I try to mirror whatever hand the player has the ball. You’ve got to slow his momentum down. Whatever hand the ball’s in, I put my other hand up. So with his right hand on the ball, my left hand is up, just mirroring the ball. It’s not coordinated to trace the ball with your left hand. It’s eye-hand coordination.
I always say, “If Russell Westbrook is coming towards you, it’s different from Tony Parker or Chris Paul coming towards you.” If Paul is coming to the paint, I’m looking for a floater or a dump off to DeAndre Jordan. If Westbrook is coming towards me, I’ve got to be prepared not to get dunked on. I don’t think it’s a softer NBA. I just feel like guys are a lot more skilled than what they were back then. You’ve got guys like Kyrie Irving who can finish all kinds of layups, and finish through all kinds of contact—and Steph Curry with his high layups. I just think guys at a younger age are taught to finish over big men.
Film Study vs. Kenneth Faried with 9:15 left in the third quarter of Whiteside’s 11-block game against the Nuggets (Jan. 15, 2016): I know Kenneth since high school. He tried to just out-quick me to the basket. I knew he was going up with his right hand. Any time a player is on the right side of the basket, I normally use my left hand; it’s closer to the ball. If I tried to use my right hand, I would have to come across his body and he would’ve made it, and maybe a foul. But he couldn’t have dunked it; I was already right there.
Hands and Wingspan
When I normally go for a block, I try to spread my fingers out so it takes up as much space as possible. And I have a 7’8 1/2″ wingspan, which gives me a lot of extra room for error if I miss time the shot. I use either one of my really long arms to trace the ball when I’m guarding a player, so if he’s using his left arm I’m using my right. I do stuff like juggling to help me out with eye-hand coordination. I also try to work out my shoulders a lot. You’ve got the strength to always keep your arms up and hands active, so they won’t tire out as fast. Entering the season, I added 15, 20 pounds of muscle. But I stay around like 255, 260, so it’s more lean.
Film Study vs. Taj Gibson with 55 seconds left in the first quarter of Whiteside’s 12-block game against the Bulls: He got me with that pump fake in the paint, but I’m so vertical; I never put my hand down. That’s a Mutombo; keep your hands up.
Length vs. Athleticism
I try to keep it more length when it’s man-to-man defense and athleticism when it’s weak-side defense. So when it’s weak side, you normally see me jump a lot higher than if it’s man to man. I have a 34-inch vertical leap. Every once in a while, a guy might get me with a second pump fake that surprises me. But I have a quick second jump to still get the block. I worked on that last summer, and I used to dunk medicine balls to work on my explosiveness. I was born with it, too. I’ll use both length and athleticism for floaters. If you don’t get the floater early before a player gets it up, pretty much you’re not going to get it.
Film Study vs. Kemba Walker with 1:21 left in the third quarter of Whiteside’s 10-block game against the Hornets (Feb. 5, 2016): He didn’t think I could cover that much ground, but if you look at it, it wasn’t goaltending. The ball never touched the backboard. He thought he had a lane on the left side. If you look at it, I’m all the way over on the right elbow. And Kemba’s quick. He’s, like, “Man, no way this guy’s going to block me.” And then we got the rebound, so we kept the possession. I get the most joy from blocks that lead to a score.
Legs and Feet
You’ve kind of want to have your knees bent, ready to react. With my footwork, it’s just really how you try to play the opponent. Sometimes when guys try to jump into you and try to hit you with their shoulders, I might step back a little bit; it kind of knocks them off balance. If a guy’s jumping into you and you’re not there, it gives you a chance to get that block. I’m a lot better at the verticality rule than I was last year.
Film Study vs. Jimmy Butler with 10:48 left in the second quarter of Whiteside’s 12-block game against the Bulls: I didn’t leave until he left his feet, and that’s why I’ve got my hands down, so I can explode and jump as high as I can. I don’t get this that much any more—these blocks with guys pump faking in the paint.
I don’t really try to intimidate guys. Just being down in the paint, I think they already know about me from their coach telling them or the scouting report. I think for a lot of guys, I kind of catch them off guard because I look like a laid-back guy. So a lot of times I look like I’m just wandering around, and it might look they can attack me. When I block their shot, they just look really surprised, or when they shoot a jumper and I get to it, they’re surprised. Sometimes I smile when I run back after a block. I hope they just keep coming.
Film Study vs. Aaron Brooks with 1:36 left in the fourth quarter of Whiteside’s 12-block game against the Bulls: That’s Derrick Rose’s brothers watching behind the basket. They’re looking at each other, like, “Did you see that?” I surprised Aaron with blocking his shot from behind. Now he’s thinking about me the next time he drives to the basket.
Fouls to Avoid
I’ve got to worry about the foul when smaller guys float the ball up, and then they kind of jump falling into your legs and try to get that foul. Not so much what James Harden does, but when they throw the ball up in the air and just fall into your legs to try to get you to land on top of them. They try to get that foul. Guys are crafty and try to do anything to get a call.
Film Study vs. Jusuf Nurkic with 1:13 left in the second quarter of Whiteside’s 11-block game against the Nuggets: He was surprised that I got to his shot near the perimeter. Those blocks are risky though. That’s why I try to jump to the side. Guys like to jump into you, but I’m landing to the side of him. So if he pump faked, I would’ve landed beside him.
I look at plus-minus and my defense impact, and I look at my impact on the boards and just take that into consideration. Coach Erik Spoelstra does a good job of just staying on us. There are games where I might not have huge block numbers, but I affected maybe eight shots where players just threw the ball up and there was no way they were going to make it. Our team tracks altered shots.
Film Study vs. Marvin Williams with 3:25 left in the fourth quarter of Whiteside’s 10-block game against the Hornets: Sometimes when guys start driving and they see me, they’re going to throw the ball out, like Nicolas Batum did here. Then Marvin doesn’t see me driving down the lane because Justise Winslow stepped up; he’s thinking about Justise. Marvin also doesn’t see me because I’m the shortest dude out of all of us right now. I’m bending down, hiding in the weeds.
I’m trying to become better blocking with both hands because that’s even more ground I can cover. A lot of guys can only block shots with one hand. Also, it’s just knowing where to be on the perimeter. I think I’m becoming a better perimeter shot-blocker. I feel like it’s a little easier, too, because there’s not as much contact. I also want to get better at stealing the ball.
Film Study vs. Kevin Garnett with 7:04 left in the third quarter of Whiteside’s 10-block game against the Timberwolves (Nov. 17, 2015): Kevin Garnett really had nowhere to go on the right block. Even if KG tried to dunk that, there wasn’t any way. That’s why I like to go up with two hands right there because even if you go up to dunk, I cover it, I swarm it. KG is my idol, too. That’s the reason I wear No. 21.
For more player skills breakdown stories exclusively from the NBPA, check out Andre Drummond’s NBA-best rebounding, C.J. McCollum’s scoring versatility and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope’s perimeter defense.