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Can Hassan Whiteside be a difference-maker for the Utah Jazz? His new coach and teammates think so.

Head coach Quin Snyder believes Whiteside’s last season in Sacramento was an ‘outlier’

(Chris Samuels | The Salt Lake Tribune) Center Hassan Whiteside speaks during Utah Jazz media day at Vivint Arena, Monday, Sept. 27, 2021 in Salt Lake City.

Las Vegas • Hassan Whiteside raised his arms in jubilant celebration and let out a few exultant yells. And not without good reason, as he had just capped his first training camp practice with the Utah Jazz by winning a 3-point shooting competition.

Never mind that it was only against fellow center Rudy Gobert (0 for 7 lifetime from 3) and 39-year-old minority-stake owner Dwyane Wade (a career 29.3% shooter from beyond the arc). Or that his conversion percentage will not threaten the likes of Steph Curry. Whiteside was still jubilant. And both of his vanquished foes were happy for him, Wade loudly laughing while Gobert sidled up to his new backup and dapped him up, a wry grin spreading across his face.

For a player whose reputation suggests that he sometimes — to paraphrase Ted Lasso — “skews mercurial,” it was an encouraging sign to see Whiteside fitting in. Not that anyone will admit to having any doubts about that.

“Hassan’s in a really good place. I’m really glad he’s here,” coach Quin Snyder said after that inaugural training camp session at the Wynn hotel. “I felt strongly when I talked to him [in free agency] that we would be a really good fit for him, and I think he’s feeling that, even in a really short period of time.”

For his part, the 32-year-old 7-footer claimed that after just a few sessions of OTAs (optional team activities), he was indeed already feeling the vibe.

“This is one of the best organizations that I’ve been a part of — I’ve been here for three weeks,” Whiteside said on media day. “Just the way they push ‘anything you need,’ they’re pretty much there.”

Of course, relationships being reciprocal, the big man is going out of his way to try and be what the Jazz need, as well.

The backup center spot behind Gobert has been something of a revolving door since the franchise first traded longtime staple Derrick Favors. Ed Davis was signed in free agency, but his lack of offensive skills quickly rendered him unplayable. Former Jazz draftee Tony Bradley had some promising moments, but his struggles in play recognition and rim protection led to him being jettisoned. Favors was brought back in free agency, but appeared to be a diminished version of himself this past season, and required a future first-round pick to be attached in order to be shipped out again.

After signing a one-year deal for the veteran’s minimum, Whiteside fully intends to be the guy to end that streak of futility.

“When they go to the bench and I come in, I want to keep that defensive presence,” he said. “… I don’t want it to be such a big drop-off as it was in the past.”

Whether he can accomplish that remains to be seen, of course. Whiteside is, after all, coming off his worst statistical season since his return to the NBA in 2014-15. But he attributed much of that to the circumstances of a reduced role concurrent with being an older player on a young and undisciplined Kings team. Still, though he played about half as many minutes in Sacramento as he did in Portland the year prior, his per-36 numbers remained comparable.

His new team believes that, regardless of what the stat sheets say, he has the capacity to be a difference-maker.

“He’s a really good player, to be honest. I’ve watched him over the years — he can really impact games in unique ways. He can really change the game just by his presence on both ends,” said Gobert. “Offensively, he puts a lot of pressure on the rim. And he’s got good hands and can finish. And with our guards, I think it’s gonna be tough for any defense to stop that pick-and-roll. And defensively, there’s not that many players that can completely change the game with just their presence — altering shots, blocking shots — and that’s what he can do.”

Snyder firmly believes that Whiteside’s diminished production with the Kings is making people underestimate what he’s still capable of.

“We forget a little bit — Hassan earned and was rewarded with a big contract in Miami. That wasn’t an accident,” Snyder said. “… I think Hassan’s year last year was really an outlier. When you look at what he’s done — I think he’s in the top 4% defensive rebounding historically every year; that’s hard to do.”

Of course, Whiteside’s stats aren’t about to experience a dramatic resurgence in his role as Gobert’s backup. Nor is he going to even be a focal point offensively when he’s in the game, as he recounted Snyder warning him that his post touches with the Jazz wouldn’t come close to approximating anything he’s used to, given Utah’s four-out system.

He doesn’t care.

Asked during his media day session what it was this Jazz team could offer him as a player at this stage of his career, he paused for a few moments of thoughtful reflection before answering.

“Getting back to the postseason. I played in the postseason with Portland, but it wasn’t the same, you know? There was the bubble. Getting back to the postseason, and having a real chance of winning a championship. I think we’ve got a real chance,” Whiteside said. “A lot of teams come in and, ‘We got a chance to win a championship,’ and they know they don’t. [The Jazz] got a real chance to win a championship, and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to come here.”

In the meantime, he’s acclimating to his new team, and them to him.

Whiteside said he hadn’t yet had much interaction with Gobert, but that the All-NBA center was the first player on the team to send him a “welcome” text after he signed. He admitted to being surprised at how boisterous Donovan Mitchell is, conceding, “I thought he was a little more reserved. I didn’t know he was so joking, such a big personality.” He recounted telling Joe Ingles how much he used to hate him, both for suckering him in with his patented fake-pass-to-the-big-man-then-laying-it-up-himself move as well as then loudly letting Whiteside know he’d gotten got. Now, though, he appreciates the Aussie for his predilection for feeding his big men a steady diet of passes near the rim.

He raved about the defensive schemes facilitated by a roster of “underrated defenders,” while noting, “I’ve wanted to be in this system for a while.” He gushed about the offense being populated by a “plethora of shooters — Mike Conley, Donovan, Ingles, Bogey, Jordan. It’s like you just keep going on and on and on and on. Just how many guys that can shoot here is unbelievable.” The depth is enviable, the veteran roster is experienced, and so on and so forth.

Cynics will suggest the honeymoon phase could soon give way to the allegedly established narrative of Whiteside grating on his team’s nerves with malcontent over his role, selfishness in the form of stat-chasing play, and an effort level that comes and goes. Simply put, that there’s a reason the Jazz are his fourth team in as many years, and there’s a reason why he was available for the vet minimum.

For his part, Snyder said he’s been watching Whiteside since he’s been in the league, and there’s nothing there that alarms him. In fact, to the contrary, “Hassan, there’s a sense of levity. Hassan’s got a great sense of humor.”

One of the keys to their mutual and symbiotic success, the coach elaborated, would be for him to take Whiteside as he is, to facilitate ways for the center to be “comfortable and connected,” and for both sides to eschew being “disingenuous” in their interactions.

“Everybody’s different. You want guys to be authentic, you don’t them to try and be something in order to fit in. The hope is that who they are will fit in,” Snyder said. “Sometimes that requires everybody adjusting their expectations a little bit, and that takes some time.

“… I really felt strongly that the situation we have for Hassan,” he added, “regardless of minutes or all that, is just a really, really good one that he can thrive in.”

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