Marshall’s Hassan Whiteside has gone from nowhere to potential lottery pick.
Hassan Whiteside will be the first one to tell you the last four years of his life have played out like a movie.
“It sounds kind of like it, doesn’t it?” the Marshall freshman said with a laugh.
Whether or not the 7-footers story is worthy of a screenplay, there is no debate his journey from unknown commodity to trendy lottery pick has been improbable – almost as improbable as how Whiteside managed to avoid being discovered in an age where future professionals are identified as early as the eighth grade.
It wasn’t long ago that Whiteside – living in New Jersey at the time – wasn’t even playing organized basketball, but rather bouncing from playground to playground, taking his game to the New York City streetball scene. Blessed with a tremendously long frame and a wealth of athleticism, the big man was well aware of his talents and dreamed of playing in the NBA one day, he simply hadn’t plugged himself into the basketball pipeline that would get him noticed.
That all changed in the fall of 2006 when Whiteside put on a uniform for the first time at East Side High School in Newark, N.J.. With almost no traditional basketball sense to speak of, he proved a dominant force averaging 18 points, 10 rebounds and 5.5 blocks relying purely on natural instinct and athleticism. With each game he saw marginal improvements in his play, adapting to the ebb and flow of a game that was in so many ways familiar to him, but in others, something completely foreign.
“There were so many plays, people played help defense and there were so many little things that went into it that you just didn’t get out on the courts,” Whiteside said of his transition to organized basketball.
It was clear the raw prospects ability to adapt quickly was going to take him places, he just needed the right environment to mold him. Shortly after the conclusion of his junior season at East Side, Whiteside left the urban world of Newark and migrated to rural North Carolina where he reclassified and enrolled at the famed Patterson School, one of the top prep programs in the country. After playing an integral role for a team that finished 34-2 and earned a No. 1 national ranking, schools started to take notice, but the major programs still weren’t wise to the budding star.
South Carolina, Xavier, VCU and South Florida all showed interest in the big man in addition to Marshall, but the Thundering Herd, according to Whiteside, weren’t even in his top five. He was all set to commit to play for Xavier in the Atlantic-10 but head coach Sean Miller accepted the same position at Arizona, a move that scared Whiteside off. Then it appeared that the Gamecocks would win the recruiting battle and welcome the shot blocking menace happily into the SEC – but that was before fate intervened.
On the day that Whiteside was set to visit the South Carolina campus with his AAU coach (he played for the United Celtics) the car set to make the trip broke down, leaving player and coach stranded. That same night, Whiteside learned that a Patterson teammate was set to take an official visit to West Virginia, a school he knew wasn’t far from Marshall. With his mother’s blessing (she had a friend who lived in the area), the lanky forward piled into his friends car and traveled the nearly 500 miles to the campus that would soon become his home.
The youngster was struck by the quiet environment that the school provided its students, reminding him of the Patterson School tucked away in Lenoir, NC. Once he met with the coaching staff, his commitment to playing basketball was all but a formality.
Head Coach Donnie Jones served as an assistant at Florida during the Gators back-to-back national championships and played an integral role in the development of current NBAers Joakim Noah and Al Horford, the latter of which will be appearing in the 2010 All-Star game. Serving on Jones’ staff at Marshall is assistant coach Darren Tillis, a former first-round selection of the Boston Celtics and a big man who spent two seasons in the NBA before embarking on a seven-year career in Europe. The combination of a coach known for grooming big men and one who spent time at the professional level as one was too much for Whiteside to walk away from.
“He liked it here at Marshall and he made the decision that this was the place he could grow and develop,” said Jones of his star recruit. “I told him that this was a place he could learn and maybe make some more mistakes than he could get away with at a bigger school. I know he had to go through a lot to get his grades up in prep school and I don’t think he wanted to deal with the distractions of the whole recruiting process throughout the year, so he committed, focused on his school work and got his grades up.”
While it would be easy – in the cinematic sense anyway – to say the rest was history, Whiteside blew away the competition from day one and suddenly became a lottery pick, the reality of the story is quite the contrary.
From the beginning it was apparent that the freshman had a lot of growing to do both physically and in a basketball sense. The Marshall media guide generously lists Whiteside at 235 pounds and that is only after the coaching staff put him on a routine that added some 20 pounds to his spindly frame. Offensively he has been somewhat of an enigma in terms of style, bouncing back and forth between a low post scorer and a face up man who looks increasingly comfortable taking his man off the dribble in short bursts and knocking down 15-footers when given the opportunity.
While Whiteside says he is hopeful of one day polishing his all around game to the point of drawing comparisons to Kevin Garnett, Jones already sees in his freshman another NBA power forward.
“I think Marcus Camby is the best example of who he is and what he can become,” said Jones. “He’s definitely more of a face up player but he can develop into more of a post player as he gets stronger. He needs another 20-25 pounds this summer which will help his confidence and his ability to deal with the physicality inside. Everyone is trying to make him a senior in 3 ½ months, but he has a lot of potential , which is what he’s playing on right now.”
Whiteside’s “potential” has been more than enough for him to make serious waves for the Thundering Herd. As of Thursday the forward was posting averages of 13 points, nearly 9 rebounds and an NCAA-leading 5.3 blocks and Marshall, which stands at 17-7, has already eclipsed last season’s win total.
While there’s no question his prodigious shot blocking numbers were the first thing to put the 7-footer on the map (he’s already set a new single-season record at Marshall with 127 and counting) his potential as a versatile big man on offense has taken the NBA interest in him to even a greater level. Perhaps most intriguing of all is Whiteside’s continuingly developing understanding of his versatility and the means with which he can use his growing skill set to cause headaches for opposing defenses.
In a matchup with perennial Conference-USA power Memphis a few weeks ago, he scored a career-high 22 points mainly off of jump shots and his mid-range game against the Tigers 300-pounder Pierre Henderson-Niles. When faced with smaller forwards he is just as quick to take them down to the block where he uses his huge wingspan and soft touch around the rim to drop in shots at a 55 percent clip. All of this, coupled with a very steep learning curve given his relative inexperience with the sport, makes Whiteside one of the fastest rising names on most draft boards, a fact that has both positives and negatives according to Jones.
“Obviously the recognition is good for our program, but it’s hard for any kid to deal with,” he said. “For Hassan, being a kid who wasn’t getting any attention to all of a sudden have everyone telling him how great he is, he has to deal with keeping the outside people out of his head and being a college kid. When it comes time he, his family and I will sit down and make a decision. I think sometimes when kids realize they are going in the lottery they don’t work hard anymore and it’s hard to stay humble and hungry and not listen to the voices out there; that’s what has gotten him to this point. It’s never easy to get so much attention, deal with success, deal with disappointment, and you can’t get better at that unless you go through it and he’s doing that right now.”
While there is little question right now that Whiteside could use another year to develop his game and get physically stronger, few individuals are more qualified to preach the benefits of holding off on the NBA for the moment than Jones.
After the Florida Gators won their first of two national championships, it was almost a foregone conclusion that Joakim Noah would be the top overall pick in that June’s draft with teammates Al Horford also a likely lottery pick. Instead, both players returned to school for another year, won a second championship and were more prepared for the rigors of life as a professional by the time they were selected the following summer.
Jones says the same values that were instilled in Noah and Horford he is continuing to push with Whiteside.
“What we taught those guys was to be disciplined and work hard,” Jones said. “We didn’t want them to be two year pros, we wanted them to be 15-year pros which they will be because of their work habits. All of those things they developed over time, it didn’t happen in four months. Hassan has the chance to be a lottery pick and if that’s the case then we want to help him achieve that, but we want what’s best for him in the long run and I realize what goes into that.”
Whiteside realizes how far he has come in a short time and what is at stake for him. To call his rise to fame meteoric is almost underplaying how remarkable his journey has been. For now though, his focus continues to remain on developing and improving his game in the quiet confines of Marshall, his whole reason for coming to the school in the first place.
“You always like to hear people saying good things about you because you know that the hard work is paying off,” he said. “But really, I’m just trying to do whatever my team needs by playing hard and competing.”
It’s worked wonders for him so far and if that continues to be the case, this is one movie that appears to be heading for a happy ending.