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MIAMI (CBSMiami/AP) — It’s been a long and winding road for Hassan Whiteside, who has gone from youthful standout to veteran leader with the Miami Heat.

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Affixed to the back of Whiteside’s locker in the Heat dressing room is a small photo, one he put there to serve as a constant source of motivation.

It’s of Ivan Drago — the villainous boxer character from “Rocky IV.”

“I put it there to remind myself of how hard I have to train every day,” Whiteside said.

The Heat center is a huge fan of the “Rocky” movies, and right now even his big numbers haven’t been enough for Miami to win fights. Miami (2-8) has dropped six straight and owned the NBA’s third-worst record entering Wednesday, even though Whiteside is averaging 18.2 points and a league-best 15.9 rebounds per game.

It’s early, but to put Whiteside’s start in some perspective consider that in the last 35 years only three players — Kevin Love in 2010-11, Kevin Willis in 1991-92 and Moses Malone in 1982-83 — averaged at least 18 points and 15 rebounds over an entire season. That’s the current pace for Whiteside, who put up 19 points and a career-high-tying 25 rebounds in Tuesday’s 93-90 loss to Atlanta.

“Whiteside, obviously, is a load,” Hawks forward Paul Millsap said.

The Heat are Whiteside’s team now, something no one would have seen coming even a year ago when Miami still had Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh to rely upon. So far, he’s lived up to the expectations that accompanies signing a $98 million contract like the one he got for the next four years this past summer.

His big-man colleagues around the league are taking notice.

Sacramento center DeMarcus Cousins, who helped the U.S. win Olympic gold this summer at the Rio Games, was once a teammate of Whiteside’s. They would play 1-on-1 regularly after practice. Asked how those games went, Cousins acknowledged that Whiteside often won.

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“At one point I thought Hassan was a better player than me,” Cousins said. “His talent was always there. Everything he’s doing now I thought he was capable of doing then. … He’s proved a lot of people wrong. He’s overcome a lot of adversity and obstacles — and look at him now. I’m extremely happy for him. I know he’s been though hell and back to get where he is so he deserves everything that’s coming his way.”

Whiteside is the only player in the NBA this season to grab at least 10 rebounds in each of his team’s games. He’s second in blocks per game and his efficiency rating is seventh-best so far in the league behind only James Harden, Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, LeBron James and Chris Paul.

Any questions about what a huge salary bump would do to Whiteside’s hunger on the court have apparently been answered.

“It really means something to him right now,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. “He’s feeling the responsibility of inspiring and helping a team win. It’s a big responsibility. And you have to put yourself out there as a competitor and show everybody how much it means to you. And when you do that you make yourself vulnerable, especially when you don’t get the result that you want. But Hassan is putting himself out there.”

He’s even starting to show leadership off the court.

The Heat locker room was a quiet and somber place Tuesday night, as would be expected after a sixth consecutive loss — and yet another close one, which has been the case in most of their defeats so far this season.

Whiteside didn’t offer excuses. All he insisted was that the Heat, who have lost to San Antonio twice as well as Toronto, Charlotte, Oklahoma City, Utah, Chicago and Atlanta this season — all of them have winning records so far — still have plenty of time to figure things out.

In other words, he’s still got a lot of fight left.

“That’s what I’ve been doing all my life,” Whiteside said. “You are going to have down days. You are going to have down weeks. That doesn’t mean you give up or listen to outside people. They are not in here. They are not on the court. We are not listening to that. We are going to keep coming out and going hard. Keep working and keep learning. We are going to get it.”

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