High praise: Bob Cousy says Hassan Whiteside reminds him of Bill Russell

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Bill Russell remains the gold standard of defensive big men more than 40 years after he retired. He anchored the Celtics defense and won 11 rings and 6 MVP awards doing it, a guy who patrolled and controlled the paint.

Today’s NBA is a very different place. But former Russell teammate and NBA Hall of Famer Bob Cousy thinks he may have found the second coming of Russell:

Hassan Whiteside.

That’s what Cousy told the Worcester Telegram in Massachusets (hat tip Ball Don’t Lie).

“I have never said this in the 40 years since I retired,” Cousy said in a recent telephone interview, “but he is the first big guy, not (Patrick) Ewing, (Hakeem) Olajuwon, Shaq (O’Neal), who reminds me defensively and on the boards of Russell. He runs the floor well, he has excellent timing, he blocks shots and keeps them in play the way Russell did.”

“That’s a great honor,” Whiteside said before the Celtics hosted Miami Wednesday. “Everybody knows that Bill Russell is probably one of the best shot blockers that ever lived. That’s really a big honor that he thinks of me that way.”

That is crazy high praise. It strikes me as too generous, but I’m not Bob Cousy, Hall of Fame point guard and teammate of Russell. He knows what he sees.

Whiteside’s defense has been a perfect fit for what Miami needed. Chris Bosh is a better defender than most casual fans give him credit for, but his strength is on the pick-and-roll out on the perimeter. He is not a traditional rim-protecting shot blocker.

Whiteside filled that role (and it worked pretty well until Bosh went down for the season with blood clots in his lungs).

The question about Whiteside around the NBA was never his raw talent, but rather could he keep focused and his head in the game. There have been ugly lapses. But the Heat are going to bet this summer that their strong, veteran locker room — and the fact that if he blows this chance he may not get another — will keep Whiteside in line. Miami will try to retain the free agent (although he will get other calls as well). Whiteside is going to get paid.

That happens when you’re compared to Bill Russell.