'Rookie' Whiteside fitting in well with Heat

MIAMI -- A serious question to Dwyane Wade on his teammate Hassan Whiteside, who had 11 points, 10 rebounds and five blocked shots in Miami's 88-84 win over Brooklyn on Sunday:

"Did you know he wasn't a rookie?"

Serious answer from Wade: "Nope! I still think he's a rookie. I call him 'rook.'"

Hassan Whiteside began his NBA career in 2010. The 7-foot center is 25 years old.

Still, it's perfectly fair for an NBA veteran such as Wade to be unfamiliar with Whiteside's work. After all, his two "seasons" in Sacramento, after being drafted in the second round, consisted of 19 games and one serious knee injury.

This was probably the more startling statement Wade had about Whiteside: "He's a game-changer."

Quite the compliment for a player whose Wikipedia page looks like some kind of inside joke. Just since Sept. 25, 2014, for example, Whiteside has been signed and waived by the Memphis Grizzlies, acquired by the NBDL's Rio Grande Valley Vipers, traded to the Iowa Energy, re-signed by the Grizzlies, waived a day later, re-joined the Energy, signed by the Heat, assigned to the Sioux Falls Skyforce and recalled two days later.

This was just one year after he played for the Sichuan Blue Whales of the NBL in China, where he averaged 25.7 points, 16.6 rebounds, 5.1 blocks and 1.4 steals, was named the league's best defensive player and went undefeated in the postseason en route to a title and championship series MVP.

He could've built on that international success, rather than tour the Midwest with the D-League for fewer dollars and fanfare. But that wasn't part of the plan.

"Growing up, I always said I was going to be an NBA player," said Whiteside, who is averaging 4.2 points and 4.1 rebounds in 11.2 minutes a game. "I didn't even have a backup plan.

"It wasn't about the money. That's why I went to the D-League. I said, 'I'm going to give it all I got this year and just try to make it back to the NBA.' It's paying off right now. I could've gone to China and signed a contract, but I really had to dig deep."

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra gave him the grown-man talk before he signed with Miami in late November, and that didn't scare off the Marshall University product.

"He'll tell you, my first meeting with him was about the work, about the commitment to player development, and that would be every single day," Spoelstra said. "If that doesn't appeal to you, this might not be the place."

Turns out, it's what Whiteside wanted to hear. Spoelstra said Whiteside is embracing the work in what has been a whirlwind of a month, both for Whiteside and the 15-20 Heat.

Against the Rockets on Saturday, Dwight Howard spent much of the first half schooling the non-rookie rookie. Whiteside spent most of halftime studying film of what he did wrong. It didn't help much in the second half of a Rockets blowout win, but Whiteside was back at it again at noon Sunday, taking time only to sleep and grab a sandwich on the way to the AmericanAirlines Arena six hours before tip-off.

Whiteside is quickly becoming the favorite of a fan base desperate for positives in the post-LeBron period. He's rewarding them with his boundless energy and quick ascent.

"Each minute I'm given, I just want to build on it," Whiteside said. "This is the most I've played all season [27 minutes], and a couple weeks ago I wasn't even playing."