Hassan Whiteside
Hassan Whiteside, 26, is evolving into one of the NBA's best defensive standouts. Getty

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside has only played 90 NBA games but as that number rises, so does his developing reputation as a force in the paint. In the last year, Whiteside has emerged as arguably the best shot blocker in the league, among the most efficient shooters, and a top rebounder.

Before his move to Miami, Whiteside was a relative unknown. After multiple stints overseas and in the NBA D-League, Whiteside is now a fixture in the Heat's starting lineup and a big reason the Heat have one of the best records in the Eastern Conference.

The 26-year-old hails from Gastonia, North Carolina, an area that has produced players like James Worthy, Sleepy Floyd and Darrell Armstrong. He attended three high schools before attending Marshall in West Virginia. In his only season with the Thundering Herd, Whiteside averaged 13.1 points and 8.9 rebounds on 52.4 percent shooting to go with an NCAA-leading 5.4 blocks.

He would go on to be drafted in the second round (No. 33 overall) by the Sacramento Kings in the 2010 NBA Draft but the road to NBA success for the 7-foot, 265-pounder would be an arduous one. Whiteside started with the Reno Bighorns in the D-League before being called up in Jan. 2011, and after suffering a torn tendon in his knee. The next season, Whiteside averaged 6.1 minutes per game over 18 games, shuffled between Sacramento and Reno multiple times. In July 2012, Whiteside was waived by the Kings.

He failed to make an NBA roster in both the 2012-2013 and 2013-2014 seasons, but polished his game playing professionally for multiple teams in China and Lebanon during that stretch. Whiteside would return to the D-League but NBA teams wouldn't give him a tryout. The Heat eventually gave him a shot, and team president Pat Riley decided to ink him to a two-year, $1.75 million deal.

“The Heat gave me a chance and, I mean, it’s only right for me to give 110 percent effort every time,” Whiteside told the Miami Herald last January.

The rest became history as Whiteside stormed onto the scene as one of the league’s newest stars last season and, for now, easily its biggest bargain. Whiteside recorded 22 double-doubles (and one triple-double) in only 48 games. In fact, he averaged a double-double (11.8 points and 10 rebounds) in less than 24 minutes per game, while shooting 62.8 percent and averaging 2.6 blocks.

Whiteside’s second chance in the NBA was an ever-night display of his size, skill and athleticism, leading to 32 starts down the stretch of 2014-2015. The NBA quickly learned that if he’s not blocking shots he’s altering them. If he’s not rebounding the ball he’s boxing out the opposing team’s big man. And if he’s in the paint with the basketball, chances are good he’s going to put it in the hoop.

Suddenly, Whiteside became the exception to every perceived rule about players bouncing around in journeyman fashion from one team and league to the next. In a November home game against the Atlanta Hawks, Whiteside became only the third Heat center to shoot at least 11-for-12 from the field and block four shots in a game. The other two centers were Alonzo Mourning and Shaquille O'Neal. Not bad company.

But there have also been some questionable moments between Whiteside and head coach Erik Spoelstra. Using a "small ball" lineup, Spoelstra has benched Whiteside for the fourth quarter in recent games and has turned to veteran Udonis Haslem in some key situations. Meanwhile, Whiteside has also only played over 35 minutes in one game this season.

Still, there is enough evidence that Whiteside can continue his growth and become more of an impact player. Riley saw the signs last season, and appears pleased with what he has seen.

"I think he can be a formidable presence and option in the offense,” Riley told reporters of Whiteside in April. "I feel very fortunate to have Hassan and it's almost like having a lottery pick that's here with us right now."

With a pseudo-lottery pick for under $1 million per season, Riley and the Heat should enjoy it while it lasts. Whiteside will be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season, and may be one of the more underrated and therefore highly sought after players on the market.

Through 23 games, he’s averaging 12.1 points, 10.5 rebounds and 4.0 blocks per game in 27.6 minutes. Whiteside leads the NBA in blocks (93) and defensive rating (89.3) and ranks No. 3 in defensive win shares (1.8). He ranks No. 6 in total rebounds (242) and No. 2 in field-goal percentage (61.5). Those are impressive numbers for a player who is surrounded by talented but aging stars like Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.

Whiteside anchors the No. 2 scoring defense in the league and if he increases his production, he may even receive All-Star consideration. In a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves, who boast No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns, Whiteside scored 22 points, blocked 10 shots, and had 14 rebounds. But he also shot just 2-9 from the free-throw line, where he is shooting just 49 percent this season.

When the season winds down, Riley and the Heat have to decide exactly how much Whiteside is worth to their team and salary cap. For the time being, the impact of the 7-footer is having on a probable playoff team is enormous. And to think it came out of seemingly nowhere.