Dan Feldman

MIAMI, FL - OCTOBER 21: Hassan Whiteside #21 of the Miami Heat looks on during a preseason game against the Philadelphia 76ers at American Airlines Arena on October 21, 2016 in Miami, Florida.  (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

Hassan Whiteside feasting as Heat’s new franchise player

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AUBURN HILLS, Mich. –  Before declaring for the NBA draft, before falling to the second round as a projected lottery pick, before flaming out with the Kings, before spending years in Lebanon, China and the D-League… Hassan Whiteside was a freshman at Marshall who planned to study nutrition.

That went on the backburner as he went on a basketball odyssey that saw him sink below basketball hell. He was so focused on getting back to the NBA, he couldn’t afford to spend much time on the big picture – literally. The last few years, Whiteside’s salary ranged from modest for an NBA player to modest for an American.

The Heat finally rewarded him with a four-year, $98 million max contract last summer, making Whiteside the first player to go from a minimum salary one year to a max salary the next.

“It changed my life,” Whiteside said.

One of the most immediate improvements: Whiteside hired a full-time chef. His previous chef cooked for him just a couple times a week. Any more would have been an indulgence when his compensation hadn’t yet set himself up for retirement. Now, Whiteside is eating better.

“He ain’t made a bad dish yet,” Whiteside said. “He’s pretty amazing.”

It’s all so amazing.

Three years ago, the Heat’s best players were LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. Whiteside was out of the league.

Now, Whiteside has become Miami’s cornerstone.

Whiteside knew his contract – which will make him the Heat’s highest-paid player once they waive Bosh –  would mean Miami’s record would reflect more directly on him than ever. The Heat are 5-12, a stark drop from 48-34 and a playoff-series win last season.

The departures of Wade, Luol Deng and Joe Johnson obviously factor. So does a weak supporting cast left in the wake. But franchise players rarely get the benefit of the doubt.

The mission for Whiteside now shouldn’t be leading Miami to the playoffs, a mostly unrealistic goal. The focus should be on establishing himself as a reliable co-star for free agents next summer, when the Heat could have substantial cap room sans Bosh.

Whiteside is producing an All-Star-caliber season, averaging 17.3 points and an NBA-best 15.1 rebounds per game – marks only Kevin Love has hit over a full season in the last 25 years. Most of the players to do it prior are in the Hall of Fame.

After striving so hard just to return to the NBA, how his Whiteside handling this boost in prominence?

“I always had that belief in myself,” Whiteside said. “I looked at the guys on TV. I feel like I can compete with anybody or play better than anyone. It’s not really arrogance or anything. It’s just having that confidence in yourself, because that’s kind of what you needed when you get cut as many times as I did.”

Those days of fighting for roster spots are gone. Now, it’s about growing as a player, exchanging eye-catching stats for meaningful production when there’s a difference.

Last season, Whiteside blocked 3.7 shots per game and allowed opponents to shoot 46.5% at the rim while he was defending it. This season, he’s averaging 2.5 blocks per game and allowing opponents to shoot 41.5% at the rim while he’s defending it.

“I love that,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s physical profile – 7-foot with a 7-foot-7 wingspan and elite hops – always gave him potential to be an elite shot-blocker and rebounder. Refining his skills was the next step, one Spoelstra harped on.

On the other hand, it was never clear Whiteside could lead an NBA team in scoring – but that’s what he’s doing right now.

“Quite frankly, we need it,” Spoelstra said.

Whiteside’s shooting efficiency has predictably dropped as he has taken a larger load. Previously, he shot only when he had an excellent chance of scoring. Now, he’s taking all those shots plus ones with lower odds.

Still, those additional looks are still frequently more efficient than other shots Miami can produce. Feeding Whiteside is often the best answer, especially considering his assist rate has improved (though from a comically low point).

After so much handwringing about Whiteside’s maturity, every aspect of his game has improved since signing long-term. He has invested in himself – from a chef to thinking the game better – and it’s paying off.

“He seems to be growing every week, and I can’t wait to see his growth as this season goes on,” Spoelstra said. “I don’t know where he’ll be in the spring the way he’s improving right now.”

Reports: Grizzlies’ Mike Conley breaks spine, expected to miss six weeks

NEW YORK, NY - MARCH 27:  Mike Conley #11 of the Memphis Grizzlies dribbles against the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on March 27, 2013 in New York City.  The Knicks defeated the Grizzlies 108-101. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photograph, user is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
Bruce Bennett/Getty Images
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This felt like the year Mike Conley could finally become an All-Star.

He’s averaging 19.2 points and 5.7 assists per game, leading the Grizzlies to an 11-7 record.

But an injury in Memphis’ loss to the Hornets yesterday threatens to derail Conley’s ascension.

Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo Sports:

Michael Wallace of Grizzlies.com:

Conley has a high pain tolerance, so the odds of him returning sooner than expected are better than for most players. But this is a serious injury that will keep him sidelined for a while – which puts Memphis in a big bind.

The Grizzlies have been horrible without Conley on the floor, getting outscored by 13.8 points per 100 possessions. There’s a huge drop to backup point guards Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison, two rookies. Perhaps Baldwin and Harrison will fare better if they play more with Marc Gasol, but that’s a big hole to dig out of. It doesn’t help that Memphis’ best playmaking wing, Chandler Parsons, is also out.

A promising season for the Grizzlies is already beginning to feel like last year, when injuries ravaged them.

Report: Nerlens Noel prefers 76ers trade him

Philadelphia 76ers center Nerlens Noel poses for a photograph during media day at the NBA basketball team's practice facility, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Camden, N.J. Shortly after 76ers president and general manager Bryan Colangelo said he is not actively shopping any of his players, Noel openly wondered how he, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid can co-exist as the team’s three big men. “I don’t see a way of it working,” Noel said Monday, one day before the Sixers’ first full workout in their new practice facility along the New Jersey riverfront across from Philadelphia. “It’s just a logjam." (AP Photo/Matt Slocum)
AP Photo/Matt Slocum
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Nerlens Noel called the 76ers’ center situation – with himself, Joel Embiid and Jahlil Okafor – “silly.” Noel then chose to undergo surgery (team’s phrasing) and rehab away from Philadelphia.

After spending three dismal seasons with the 76ers, it seems he wants out.

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Noel has yet to appear in a game this season after electing to undergo arthroscopic knee surgery last month, but word is he’d still prefer to be shipped to a new address with so many big men to battle for playing time in Philly. Count on the Sixers to accommodate him eventually.

The 76ers know their big-man situation is untenable, and it’ll only get more difficult to manage when No. 1 pick Ben Simmons returns. A power forward, Simmons will reduce opportunities to play two-center lineups.

But Philadelphia would prefer to handle this quietly. That’s why Bryan Colangelo rejected Noel’s standing to complain publicly and Brett Brown is urging Noel to play to his strengths. The 76ers want to maximize Noel’s trade value.

They reportedly previously preferred to trade Okafor – Embiid has looked like a potential franchise player, not a player to move – but Noel’s value might be higher than Okafor’s. The return matters greatly in determining which player to deal.

So does a player’s desire to stay, especially when he’ll be a free agent next summer. Philadelphia’s easiest move might just be appeasing Noel and clearing its logjam. Determining whether or not to match an offer sheet for him in restricted free agency won’t be pretty.

Noel trade rumors have percolated even before his season debut. Once he gets back on the court, expect them to only intensify.

DeMarcus Cousins says he wants John Wall, Eric Bledsoe to join him on Kings

NASHVILLE, TN - MARCH 14:  (L-R) John Wall #11, Eric Bledsoe #24 and DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Kentucky Wildcats celebrate after John Wall made a 3-point basket with less then :30 seconds to go in overtime against the Mississippi State Bulldogs during the final of the SEC Men's Basketball Tournament at the Bridgestone Arena on March 14, 2010 in Nashville, Tennessee.  (Photo by Chris Chambers/Getty Images)
Chris Chambers/Getty Images
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DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall and Eric Bledsoe played together on one pretty great Kentucky team.

Could Cousins (Kings), Wall (Wizards) and Bledsoe (Suns) reunite in the NBA?

CSN Mid-Atlantic:

Cousins, according to Ben Standig of ‘Locked on Wizards,’ said that Wall and him have discussed the possibility before along with Suns guard Eric Bledsoe, who was also on their Kentucky team.

“Do we ever talk about playing with one another? … It’s come up,” Cousins said. “He wants me here. Eric [Bledsoe] wants us in Phoenix.”

Cousins went on to say several times that if he had it his way, the reunion would happen in Sacramento.

“They’re all going to come to Sacramento. Come to Sac,” he joked. “Play with John and Eric again? You never know what will happen. It’s the NBA, so hopefully one day he’ll be in a Sacramento uniform.”

Maybe Cousins intends to stay longer in Sacramento than it seems. After all, he becomes a free agent in 2018 – a year before Wall and Bledsoe.

Or maybe Cousins wishes more ill on his former college teammates than you’d think.

Most likely, Cousins is just expressing fondness for friends and knows it’s best to avoid making waves right now by suggesting a desire to play elsewhere.

Klay Thompson declares ‘I make the best paper airplane on the West Coast,’ shows off to end press conference (video)

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On a team with no shortage of arrogance/confidence, Warriors guard Klay Thompson showed his in his press conference after Golden State beat the Hawks last night.

“I make the best paper airplane on the West Coast,” Thompson said, via Janie McCauley of the Associated Press.

He then folded the box score into a paper airplane and sent it flying at a cameraman in the back of the room.