by Spencer Suk and Jordan Lee
Every NBA season, we see a few obscure names emerge from the depths of anonymity. Some players explode for a stretch when a teammate goes down with an injury. Others find their niche and role on a new team with a different system. There are also those who just haven’t been given a chance until now.
This year, a plethora of young big men have been able to rise to the occasion, but a few names separate themselves from the rest: Hassan Whiteside, Donatas Motiejunas, Rudy Gobert and Jusuf Nurkic. While none of these four players are even close to becoming household names, their performances have been noteworthy and their futures look bright.
Below, we will discuss why Whiteside and Motiejunas are two of the more exciting, young big men in the league, as well as debate who the more valuable player is. Gobert and Nurkic will be analyzed and compared in an article in the near future.
Hassan Whiteside, Miami Heat
Before the 2014-15 season started, nobody was giving Hassan Whiteside a chance. Whiteside was taken in the second round of the 2010 Draft by the Sacramento Kings, but failed to win over the coaching staff and management personnel. After 19 games and 111 minutes, he lost his place in the NBA and had to prove himself in the D-League and overseas.
Finally, on September 25, 2014, the Memphis Grizzlies opened the door for Whiteside to return to the NBA. Though the team signed and waived him twice in a two month span (without him playing in one game), Whiteside finally got some attention. Four days after his second release, the short-handed Heat signed the big man to a non-guaranteed contract worth $769,881.
By the end of December, Whiteside had begun to win over Coach Erik Spoelstra, earning more minutes and a bigger role in his rotation. But since the New Year, Whiteside has been unleashed and is making teams pay for overlooking him over the past few years.
Take the January showdown between the Heat and Clippers for example. Whiteside had the best game of his career with 23 points, 16 rebounds, 2 steals and 2 blocks while holding DeAndre Jordan to an abysmal 4 points and 6 rebounds (this was only the fifth time D.J. had been held under 10 rebounds all season). After the game, Whiteside explained what fueled him that day: “I got a chip on my shoulder. I mean, every team in the NBA said no to me - especially this team. I mean, I couldn’t even get a training-camp invite. The Clippers thought it was a good idea. Doc said no. I tried to get a workout, then Doc said no.”
In the month of January, Whiteside has been on an absolute tear, averaging 12.4 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.3 blocks while shooting nearly 70% from the field. And he’s doing this in just 23 minutes per game! To put this in perspective, Whitesides’ averages on the season per 36 minutes are 16.4 points, 13.9 rebounds (fifth in the NBA) and 4.7 blocks (first in the NBA). While these numbers are unsustainable, they’re certainly encouraging to say the least.
Clearly, Whiteside’s biggest asset right now is his shot-blocking, which can be attributed to his 7’0” frame and 7’7” wingspan (his standing reach is 9’5”, just 7 inches shorter than the rim). However, it is Whiteside’s athleticism and timing that make him one of the elite rim-protectors in the league right now. He moves well for his size, which allows him to rotate to the right spots and make the help-side block. Just look at how imposing he was around the rim against the Brooklyn Nets:
Whiteside clearly has all the tools to be a great center in this league. While his rebounding and shot-blocking abilities are what make him special, Whiteside also has soft hands and the ability to finish around the rim (though his post game has a lot of room to expand and develop). Now that he has the starting job in Miami, he just needs to hone his game and get some more experience under his belt.
Donatas Motiejunas, Houston Rockets
In 2011, Motiejunas was a highly skilled seven-foot recruit who could not only score inside, but also shoot the three-ball. But he would drop to the 20th pick in the 2011 Draft because scouts doubted his motor, rebounding, defense and ability to bang down low on the NBA level.
Because the Rockets already had Dwight Howard, Omer Asik and Terrence Jones, Donatas never played extended minutes in his first two seasons. However, with the help of Howard and Asik, two of the premier rebounders and interior defenders in the league, as well as Hall of Famer/Coach Kevin McHale, D-Mo has eliminated all of the glaring weaknesses that were present in 2011.
This season, the Rockets haven’t enjoyed the same depth they did in the past couple of years; Asik now plays in New Orleans while Terrence Jones has been sidelined for months due to nerve damage in his leg. Luckily for the Rockets, Motiejunas was ready to step up to the plate with strong performances in extended minutes as the new starting power forward. After struggling to find his role in the first few weeks, Donatas has really emerged as a two-way player that will be effective in the league for many years to come. At power forward, D-Mo’s 7’0” frame gives him the ability to gain position in the paint and score over defenses. He has proven that he has one of the best hook shots in the game, rivaled only by Roy Hibbert, Jonas Valanciunas, and Nikola Vucevic.
D-Mo has also started to knock down threes after starting the season just 2-14 from deep. He has shot over 36% in his last 25 games, but it’s clear he still needs to add consistency. If Motiejunas can continue to improve his shooting, he will be virtually unstoppable within the Rockets’ offense, which really emphasizes paint scoring and three-pointers (only 6% of their shots coming from mid-range). However, I would like to see Donatas work on his mid-range game so he can run a pick-and-pop with Harden at times.
The Rockets always knew Motiejunas had a versatile offensive repertoire, but it’s his production on the defensive end that has the Rockets’ front office buzzing. While his steal and block numbers don’t jump off the page, he protects the rim well (opponents shoot 45.3% at rim vs. Motiejunas) and ranks fourth on the team in defensive win shares.
Thanks to the addition of Trevor Ariza, increased effort from Harden, and extended minutes for Motiejunas, the Rockets have reinvented themselves as a defensive powerhouse behind Dwight Howard. They are currently ranked second in the league in defensive rating and third in defensive efficiency, the only team in the top three in both categories.
Who’s More Valuable?
Lee: I like what Whiteside has shown in the past month, but he hasn’t proven as much as Motiejunas has this year. I agree that if Whiteside reaches his full potential, he will blow D-Mo out of the water, but Whiteside’s attitude and work ethic have always been questioned. The Heat even came out saying they have to keep his ego in check. It sounds like there’s a decent chance Whiteside is the next Larry Sanders or JaVale McGee, and I’m not down to take that risk when I have a sure thing in Donatas.
Suk: I agree that Whiteside is far from a guarantee; he isn’t as mature as he needs to be and the sample size for his breakout has been relatively small. However, it’s worth noting that Whiteside put on 25 pounds of muscle after being drafted by the Sacramento Kings in an effort to adjust to bigger bodies in the NBA. In my eyes, things like this show that Whiteside is hungrier and more dedicated than guys like Sanders and McGee.
Character issues aside, Whiteside’s potential to become a dominant defensive center is too high to pass up on. Unlike the point guard position, there are only so many talented seven-footers in the league, and when you have one with high upside, you roll the dice with him. Teams like the Bucks, Cavs, Celtics, Knicks, Suns, Thunder, Lakers and Timberwolves could all use Whiteside.
Lee: I agree that all of these teams could use Whiteside, but he is only on a one-year deal, and he’s going to garner a lot of attention and money next summer. I don’t know how many teams are willing to gamble on Whiteside on what’s likely to be a steep contract (just look at how badly the Bucks whiffed on their Sanders gamble). I think the only teams that will consider giving Whiteside the big contract he’s looking for are the bad ones desperate for a center like the Knicks or Lakers.
There are a lot of talented young centers looking to make a name for themselves: Andre Drummond (21), Jonas Valanciunas (22), DeMarcus Cousins (24), Mason Plumlee (24), Jusuf Nurkic (20), Rudy Gobert (22), Enes Kanter (22), Joel Embiid (20), Jahlil Okafor (19) next year, etc. I just don’t know if Whiteside is the right gamble at 25. Motie, on the other hand, is a highly-skilled power forward that I could see aging like fine wine. He fits in on almost every team since he doesn’t demand shots, dominates in the post and plays very solid defense.
Suk: The only concern I have regarding D-Mo is that I fear he may have a lower ceiling than many of us realize. While I agree that Motie will be a solid role player for years to come, will he ever be capable of being a team’s third option? Right now, Motiejunas has the luxury of playing alongside Harden and Howard, two superstars that heavily draw the defense’s attention. Furthermore, the Rockets almost have seven players averaging double-digits: Harden (27.2), Howard (16.7), Ariza (12.5), Brewer (11.5), Beverley (11.4), Motiejunas (10.8) and Smith (9.9).
Is Motiejunas a product of how much offensive talent surrounds him, or is he the role player that helps complete the puzzle filled with talented pieces? I’m pretty sure it’s the latter, but it’s hard to tell.
Lee: I agree that D-Mo is never going to be one of the main options, but his diverse skill set and selfless approach is something every contender can use. I see D-Mo playing his career as a glorified role player that can adapt within games to provide exactly what his team needs.
It doesn’t matter whether he’s the third, fourth or fifth option. Motie is the type of player that’s going to come in and get the job done, whether his team needs him to score 20 points or just focus on locking down his man on D.
Whiteside has a chance to be a Tyson Chandler type player, but he hasn’t earned my trust yet. I can sleep comfortably with Motiejunas on my team.
Suk: I’ll take my chances with a player who could turn out to be Tyson Chandler.