Hassan Whiteside has a simple reason for joining the Utah Jazz: Winning

The veteran center whose numbers once rivaled Rudy Gobert’s says he has no problem backing up the All-NBA big man, he’s just excited to be joining a legit contender.

Philadelphia 76ers guard Shake Milton, center, goes to the basket against Sacramento Kings' Cory Joseph, left, an Hassan Whiteside, right,during the first half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2021. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)

Las Vegas • Hassan Whiteside has a reputation as a guy who’s not always been the most serious about his NBA career.

But he was intensely serious this week when addressing why exactly he agreed to sign a one-year contract for the veteran’s minimum with, of all teams, the Utah Jazz.

“The biggest thing I really wanted in free agency this year, regardless of the money, I just wanted to go somewhere that we’re going to win,” Whiteside said. “I don’t want to be at home watching the playoffs like I have the last two years. I wanted to go to a team that’s ready to win now.”

And so there wasn’t a whole lot of convincing necessary from general manager Justin Zanik and coach Quin Snyder when they called to gauge the center’s interest.

Even with only a backup role behind All-NBA big man and franchise cornerstone Rudy Gobert to offer. Even with limited minutes off the bench. Even with not a lot of money to entice him.

After a miserable year in Sacramento, and even with an offer from Portland on the table, he chose Utah.

“I’m really excited. I haven’t been this excited in a long time,” Whiteside said. “They’re definitely a contender — you don’t accidentally win 50-plus games in this league.”

For the bulk of his career, Whiteside has been considered something of a prodigiously talented enigma. He holds NBA averages of 13.3 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks per game, while shooting 58.1% from the field — numbers that often earned him comparisons with and against Gobert, including a perceived slight from Damian Lillard, who had Whiteside as a teammate on the Blazers in 2019-20.

From his perspective, the center said there’s never been any animosity on his part.

“There’s no rivalry or anything — we were just competing. At the end of the day, I’m always happy to see a big man succeed in this league. Especially somebody that blocks shots the same as I do,” Whiteside said. “There’s never been any rivalry, it’s just always been us competing against each other. And we’re gonna talk.”

In fact, even as Jazz fans and pundits keep mentioning how the team’s other acquisitions, Rudy Gay and Eric Paschall, give Utah some small-ball center options, Whiteside saw his addition as an indication that the team is eager to maintain the status quo when Gobert goes to the bench, noting that Snyder pitched him on the idea that “no other team is gonna have 48 minutes of rim-protection” like the Jazz would.

Point guard Mike Conley, who got to know Whiteside when he was trying to make an NBA comeback in 2014 following two seasons playing overseas, said the big man’s addition had the potential to make a big impact in Utah.

“Hassan actually played in training camp and preseason with the Grizzlies early on in his career, so I got to meet him a long time ago, and I know him pretty well,” Conley said. “Just seeing him now as a [32]-year-old grown-up, I know what he’s capable of doing, and his ceiling is still really high. We’re going to try and get as much out of him as we can, and make him the best player that he can be for this team. He could definitely be a game-changer for our team.”

Likewise, Whiteside sees the Jazz as being a game-changer for his career, and the notion that he’s put up big numbers without ever really making much of an impact on winning. To that effect, he reiterated his excitement about getting to come and play in Salt Lake City.

He said Jazz are renowned throughout the league for their ball movement and passing. He gushed about how well he would fit Utah’s schemes on both ends, given that “the guys are used to playing with a shot-blocking big that rolls and dunks.” He raved about the spacing and the shooting and the defensive dominance and the presence of Conley and Gay and former Heat teammate Dwyane Wade as a pert-owner.

But mostly, he kept going back to the same basic tenet: He’s coming to the Jazz because he wants to win.

“I’ve always been on the outside looking in of how, every year, you guys are just right there, and it’s always a top-five team,” Whiteside said. “Everybody knows when you play Utah what they’re gonna bring — they’re gonna be great sharing the ball, Rudy playing awesome defense … and I really wanted to be a part of that, too.”