DeMarcus Cousins: ‘At one point, I thought Hassan Whiteside was a better player than me’

Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Charlotte Hornets at American Airlines Arena on October 28, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat looks on during a game against the Charlotte Hornets at American Airlines Arena on October 28, 2016 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)

MIAMI — After Hassan Whiteside signed a max contract this summer, some questioned what his source of motivation would be moving forward.

Good thing for the Heat, Whiteside is motivated by more than just money.

“I’m motivated when I just wake up,” Whiteside said. “I’m a guy that’s really motivated. I wake up in the morning and I eat breakfast, I get more motivated. I look at my fish tank, I get even more motivated. I come in here and I see Spo’s face and say, ‘What’s up Spo,’ and I get even more motivated.”

Whiteside is also motivated when he faces teams that gave up on him. The 27-year-old center faced one Tuesday night when the Heat (2-2) defeated the Kings 108-96 in overtime at AmericanAirlines Arena.

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Sacramento selected Whiteside with the 33rd overall pick in the second round of the 2010 NBA Draft. After a few stints with the organization’s D-League team — the Reno Bighorns — the Kings cut Whiteside after two seasons.

Current Kings center DeMarcus Cousins was Sacramento’s first-round pick in the 2010 draft and he still remembers going up against Whiteside in workouts and practices. Cousins saw Whiteside’s potential.

“I remember days it would just be me and him working out one-on-one and he would kill me,” Cousins said of Whiteside before Tuesday’s game. “His talent has always been there. … At one point, I thought Hassan was a better player than me. Everything he’s doing now, I thought he was capable of doing then.”

Whiteside was reminded of another previous stop Tuesday with Dave Joerger on the Kings’ bench. Joerger, the current Sacramento head coach, was the Grizzlies’ head coach when Memphis waived Whiteside in 2014 just days before he signed with Miami.

“We had a full roster,” Joerger said Tuesday of the Grizzlies waiving Whiteside. “It was awful, because it was his time. You could see he was ready to play in the league.”

Whiteside didn’t turn in his best performance of the season in Tuesday’s matchup against Cousins and Joerger as he played with a heavy heart due to the death of his uncle Monday night, but he still finished with 14 points and 11 rebounds despite battling through foul trouble for most of the contest. Whiteside has now recorded a double-double in each of Miami’s four games this season.

Through his first four games as a max player, Whiteside is averaging 19.8 points, 13.8 rebounds and three blocks per game.

In fact, Whiteside has been one of the most efficient players in the NBA to start the season. He’s ranked as the 10th most efficient player in the NBA ahead of names like Blake Griffin, Cousins and Chris Paul.

“Hassan has got more possessions with the ball in his hands and I feel like he developed his one-on-one game,” Heat guard Goran Dragic said. “He can create his own shot and that’s really helpful for us because the whole defense is going to shrink and then he can make passes out or he can finish by himself. I feel like he’s improved a lot on offense.”

Whiteside has been dominant on the defensive end, too. The 7-footer is anchoring a Heat defense that’s limited opponents to an NBA best 45.9 percent shooting from within five feet of the basket.

With Whiteside on the floor, the Heat have outscored opponents by 27 points this season.

In Sunday’s loss to the Spurs, Whiteside equaled his career high of 27 points and added 15 rebounds. But Heat coach Erik Spoelstra was most impressed when Whiteside left the game in the fourth quarter with a cramping issue.

“I said the reason you got the cramp is because that’s probably as hard as you’ve played on both ends of the court in a regular-season game,” Spoelstra said Sunday. “Now that’s what this basketball team is going to need and it will need 34 to 36 minutes of that every night. Once he understands what that really means — to shoulder that kind of responsibility, being a great player. He’s getting it and starting to understand it. When that light bulb goes off, that’s something to see.”

Whiteside has noticed the added responsibilities. He leads the Heat with a usage rate of 28.1 percent this season after being used on 20.5 percent of the Heat’s offensive possessions last season.

“I feel like I’m more involved in the plays this year,” Whiteside said. “I’m not just a pick-and-roll guy. Coach made me a couple plays and I’m really glad they’re trusting me with the ball.”

When asked how many plays were drawn up for him last season, Whiteside smiled.

“I don’t got my calculator right now,” he said.

But one thing Whiteside does have is motivation. Plenty of it.

“He’s proven a lot of people wrong and he’s overcome a lot of adversity and a lot of obstacles,” Cousins said. “Look at him now. I’m extremely happy for him. I know he’s been through hell and back to get where he is. He deserves everything that’s coming his way.”

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