As reporters walked into the practice gym at AmericanAirlines Arena following Thursday’s session, Hassan Whiteside was still busy working with Heat shooting consultant Rob Fodor.
Making free throw after free throw, Whiteside moved to different baskets to see if he could replicate his routine in different spots. He made a high percentage of them.
The next step is for the 29-year-old Whiteside to start making free throws again in games.
After making a career-best 70.3 percent of his free throws last season, Whiteside has turned into one of the NBA’s worst shooters from the foul line. Among players who have attempted at least 50 free throws this season, the Heat’s starting center entered Thursday with the league’s worst free-throw percentage at 43.4 percent.
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“It’s tough man, it’s tough,” said Whiteside, who is listed as probable for Friday’s home game against the Cavaliers due to a left hip pointer. “I wish I could put 20,000 people in the arena and get hit with a hard foul and get sent to the free-throw line in practice, but I can’t. I just try to just keep putting in the work. I mean, in practice I’m shooting 45 for 50, 50 for 50, it’s crazy numbers that I just want to translate to the game.”
That success in practice just hasn’t carried over. Whiteside has made just 5 of his last 36 free throws (13.9 percent) — a slump that dates back to the Heat’s Nov. 23 win over the Bulls.
To put all of this into perspective, Whiteside is on pace to become just the fifth player (among those who took enough free throws to qualify) to finish a season with a free-throw percentage that’s worse than 44 percent. Centers DeAndre Jordan (43 percent in 2015-16, 39.7 percent in 2014-15 and 42.8 percent in 2013-14), Andre Drummond (38.6 percent in 2016-17, 35.5 percent in 2015-16, 38.9 percent in 2014-15 and 41.8 percent in 2013-14), Ben Wallace (42.8 percent in 2004-05), and Wilt Chamberlain (42.2 percent in 1971-72 and 38 percent in 1967-68) are the others, according to Basketball Reference.
But the Heat doesn’t want Whiteside thinking so much about his issues at the foul line that it impacts the rest of his game. Coach Erik Spoelstra said there are “some more important things for us that move the needle on winning” than free-throw shooting.
“Our defense, and he can impact that in a great way. Those multiple efforts, really committing to that identity,” Spoelstra said of what Whiteside’s focus should be on. “Those have been things that have brought us success. I haven’t seen anything yet, not that that couldn’t change, if we make a certain percentage on free throws, whether that indicates a win or not.”
Whiteside continues to tinker with with his free-throw stroke, though. He’s used an unconventional jump shot technique in the past.
Looking back at his 9-of-11 performance at the foul line in a win over the Spurs on Nov. 7, Whiteside noticed another approach that was working for him and he plans to use that routine moving forward.
“I think I’m going to square my feet up a little more, rather than stepping into it,” said Whiteside, who is averaging 13.3 points, 13.1 rebounds and 2.6 blocks this season. “Similar to how it was. I looked at the film when I shot 9 for 11 against the Spurs. I have more of flat — my feet were flat toward the basket — and I feel like it gives me more balance.
“People have been giving me suggestions. I’m in a slump. This is the worst I ever shot in my life right now. But I’m not going to overthink it. I’m still the same guy. I’m just in a slump. It’s a place I’ve got to get out of.”
As one of the Heat’s leaders, Dwyane Wade recently spoke with Whiteside about his free-throw struggles.
“It was more so telling him to go to another place in his mind,” Wade said. “Don’t think about where he’s at, don’t think about missing free throws, you got to go somewhere else. I was talking to him as a guy who’s not shooting great from the line. Just at the end of games, I’m confident in myself no matter what my percentage is because I just go somewhere else here [pointing to his head]. He puts the work in.
“It’s just about the confidence up here and then taking yourself back to this moment where you put the work in and you saw the ball go in 50 times in a row. We had that conversation once, but you don’t keep having it. You let him keep putting the work in and get confident that way.”
For now, Whiteside is confident in the flat-footed free-throw routine he’s discovered.
“I think I’m comfortable,” he said. “I don’t think I’ve said that. I think this is the routine I’ll have the rest of my life. This one.”