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NBA exile? The best rim protector in the world? Hassan Whiteside is the Utah Jazz’s new center enigma.

Andy Larsen takes a look at the narratives that have defined the 7-footer’s strange basketball career

Miami Heat center Hassan Whiteside (21) shoots as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the first half during an NBA basketball game Friday, Nov. 10, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)

New Utah Jazz center Hassan Whiteside confounds.

He has been in NBA exile, a $100 million man, and plenty in between.

The 7-foot shot-blocker is too weird of a figure to give the normal story-form treatment — encapsulating everything that he is is a constant ping-ponging of relevant ideas that capture somewhat less than the truth.

Whiteside evades structure, so we might as well just embrace that in writing about him, right?

THE MIAMI WHITESIDE NARRATIVE: Capable of leading the league in blocks and rebounds, while also showing impressive touch around the rim that allowed him to score 17 points per game, Hassan Whiteside is one of the league’s best centers and worth a $100 million contract.

THE GAUDY BOX SCORE STATISTICS: Even in limited minutes last season, Whiteside put up some crazy box score numbers: 20 points, 14 rebounds, and three blocks per 36 minutes, which is honestly about the same as he’s put up for the entirety of his career. Fantasy team owners begged coach Luke Walton to play him more.

THE COUNTER-NARRATIVE THAT HAS SIMMERED FOR ESSENTIALLY THE ENTIRETY OF WHITESIDE’S CAREER AND HAS RECENTLY BECOME THE PREVAILING NARRATIVE DUE TO THE INDISPUTABLE EVIDENCE PROVIDED BY HIS CAREER’S DOWNTURN: All of those numbers hide the truth. Whiteside is empty calories. ESPN’s Zach Lowe once called him a “can of Pringles.” “You’re gonna eat the whole thing, it’ll do nothing for ya. Nothing but bad for ya. He’s a can of Pringles,” Lowe said. All of those blocks he gets at the expense of solid defense. All of those points come at the cost of stopping the offense from real operation.

THE DATA BEHIND HOW WHITESIDE SCORES: It’s weird, though. Whiteside got his 20/14 in a different way last year. In Portland, he led the league in putback points and got most of his points through finishes around the rim. In Sacramento, though, he went from taking 56% of his shots within 3 feet of the rim to 35% — a big difference! It meant a lot of goofy hooks and flip shots and even straight-up jump shots.

But they went in at really high rates. He made 45% of his shots from 3-10 feet, 48% from 10-16 feet, and 62.5% from 16 feet to the 3-point line, wildly impressive numbers. He does have quite a good feel in getting his attempts to go in the basket, something the Jazz haven’t had in a center in recent years.

What role will he play with the Jazz? He’s not quite as adept a lob finisher as Rudy Gobert — doesn’t roll as quickly, doesn’t jump as high. I’d imagine he ends up getting more shots at the rim than he did in Sacramento but probably can’t make as many midrange shots as he did last year. And he can sometimes force those looks, if he feels like he isn’t being involved enough.

THE ONE-BALL PROBLEM: Speaking of which, who is Whiteside going to play with? Does he replace Derrick Favors’ role last year, where he mostly played in the middle of quarters with Donovan Mitchell, Bojan Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, and Jordan Clarkson? And if so, who will feed him the ball at the rim? Or does he play more traditional bench minutes — which means playing with Clarkson, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay, and Joe Ingles, all who definitely use a lot of shots themselves?

THE ONE THING WE KNOW: Well, you can’t play Whiteside and Gobert together, not in 2021. Both are out-and-out centers.

THE RIVALRY: Now seems like a reasonable time to note that Gobert and Whiteside have repeatedly sparred on social media about who the better center is, though Gobert has since won that debate pretty handily. Most of the time, both choose to sidestep making fun of each other when asked directly about it — but then choose to send little barbs in responses to other questions.

THE MOST REVEALING WHITESIDE QUOTE I FOUND, ALBEIT AN OLD ONE FROM 2017: Whiteside was asked about how he felt about his NBA2K rating, which he perceived as low. “I don’t get mad about it much,” Whiteside told Bleacher Report. “I just don’t understand it. Like sometimes, you can average more points and rebounds than a guy and they still say that guy is better than you. I just don’t get it.”

THE MORE RECENT BOAST: “I feel like I’m the best at that — the best at defending around the rim. I just feel like I’m the best in the world at that,” Whiteside, when asked about his defense after the first game of last season with the Kings.

THE REALITY ON BOTH POINTS: Very frequently, points and rebounds are not what define good NBA players: Former Jazz center Tony Bradley could get plenty of points and rebounds, but has struggled to find an NBA role. After his third Defensive Player of the Year trophy, it is clear that Gobert is actually a better player than Whiteside. And while we’re at it, Whiteside was bad enough to fall out of the Kings rotation entirely, as they preferred the younger Damian Jones and Chimezie Metu.

THE WHITESIDE RESPONSE TO TEAMING UP WITH GOBERT: “There’s no rivalry or anything,” he said. “We’re 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.”

THE REALITY OF THE BLOCKS THING: Whiteside and Gobert do get about the same number of blocks: Whiteside is at 3.0 blocks per 36 minutes, Gobert gets 3.1. But they end up doing it in very different ways. Gobert’s blocks, for the most part, come as he’s dropping in pick and roll. He’ll stay back to dissuade the pass against centers, then spring forward or laterally at the right moment to bother guards.

Whiteside is a blocks gambler. Gosh, he loves him some blocks. So he’ll spend his possessions sniffing out when he thinks the guard is going to turn toward him, then pounce. When it works, the timing is beautiful — nay, even awesome, in the traditional sense of that word, awe-inspiring. No one else in the league does this, and even at age 31, Whiteside can still do it.

The problem is that, during the sniffing process, he tends to forget about his assignment or otherwise get out of position.

THE CONSEQUENCES OF BEING OUT OF POSITION: Whiteside, honestly, is also much slower than Gobert, much less agile. Multiple Kings fans I saw referred to him as a “turtle” last season, though I’m not sure if that was a recurring meme that went viral in that community or just independent inspiration drawn by multiple fans at once. He just can’t move from place to place that quickly, so once he’s out of position, it’s gonna be pretty ugly defensively from that point forward.

THE GRAND WHITESIDE HOPE: Whiteside, now as an employee of the Utah Jazz, will have access to the same trainers and coaches who made Gobert into The Stifle Tower, a responsible and incredibly effective rim-protecting big man. The hope is that he can take enough of Gobert’s game to fix the weaknesses to some degree, allowing Whiteside to play Favors’ role last season but perhaps do it even more effectively.

THE OBVIOUS WHITESIDE RISK: That, essentially, the basketball IQ weaknesses mean that any Whiteside minutes are catastrophic, he earns the scorn of Jazz fans by the end of the season, and he falls out of the rotation just like he did in Sacramento last season.

THE COST OF TESTING THE OBVIOUS WHITESIDE RISK AGAINST THE GRAND WHITESIDE HOPE: Only the veteran minimum contract. Which is a pretty low-cost experiment, all-in-all. If it doesn’t work out, presumably the Jazz could try Eric Paschall or Udoka Azubuike in those minutes, or even Rudy Gay as a small-ball five. And if they don’t work out, the replacement backup center market is (usually) not expensive to mine for talent.

THE BEST WAY TO THINK ABOUT WHITESIDE: Whiteside is a dice roll, the likes of which the Jazz haven’t taken on in years. He’s low-cost, high-reward — and realistically, it probably won’t work out. And yet, so long as the Jazz are willing to move on quickly if it doesn’t work, I like it. Keep expectations low, and be pleasantly surprised if Whiteside comes up Yahtzee.

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