Hassan Whiteside signed with the Kings on a minimum contract this offseason. At that price, he could have been had by several other teams who have loftier goals than the Kings this year.
But the former Sacramento second-round pick wanted to come back to the place where his NBA career began. Injury and immaturity marred his first go-round with the Kings, and it took him a few years in the G League and China before he established himself as a starting-caliber NBA center. Now that he has been around the league, Whiteside thought it would be nice to “rewrite” his story in Sacramento, as he said in his media day availability Thursday.
“I think it’s a great opportunity to come here and do something special,” Whiteside said. “They haven’t made the playoffs in 14 years, you know, and I think this is a great opportunity for me and the guys to just come in here and change the culture. Like I said, my first stint here, I didn’t really get to show that, and I think it’s a great opportunity for me. I always wanted to come back and rewrite that.”
The 31-year-old center is in a much better position now than he was back then to make an impact. First of all, he knows what it takes to succeed as a pro, and he has a level of veteran know-how that he can share with a fairly young Sacramento squad.
“I can just bring in my experience,” Whiteside said. “I’ve been to the playoffs a couple of times, you know just that experience, and just when guys kind of get flustered or trying to deal with an uphill battle.... I can just come in and bring that off the court leadership, and on the court you know I’m just bringing that force. I’m going to do everything in my powers to take this ship and head it the other way.
“I feel like I can talk to these guys and, you know, I think they’ll listen to me. I think I can come in and definitely give my experience. I know Buddy (Hield), I had a couple conversations with Buddy before I came here, and even (De’Aaron) Fox I talked to a couple of times, you know, Cory (Joseph). It’s just talking and building, you know you got to build that up, build that trust.”
Whiteside is also better prepared to help the Kings this time around because he fits what the team needs. It was clear when Sacramento brought in Alex Len at the trade deadline how much a defensive center could help anchor the team in the middle. There weren’t many plus defenders on the Kings roster, but Len could clean up their mistakes. Len’s presence allowed the rest of the team to go small, play aggressive defense on the perimeter, and then get out in transition, and Whiteside is of a similar mold.
Bigger centers could also bully the Kings in the paint last year, something Whiteside personally did. He averaged 20 points and 11 rebounds per game against Sacramento while shooting 32-of-40 from the field. Now he wants to make sure that other teams don’t camp out in the paint against the Kings.
“That inside presence was what they was missing, that dominance in the paint,” Whiteside said about previous Kings teams. “I know when we played in Sacramento, we just tried to slow them down and beat them up in the paint, basically, you know that’s how we always played them. But I don’t think that you’re gonna be able to do that too much longer.”
The path to success will be more difficult for the Kings than for other teams, and for Whiteside, that’s part of the draw. He gets to be a part of building a winning environment in Sacramento with a new front office, a newly-extended franchise player, and a new identity. It may not be the opportunity other veterans sought in free agency, but it’s the one that appealed to him.
“I wanted to go somewhere where I can be a big difference maker and do something special instead of just riding on coattails and trying to jump along with other people,” Whiteside said.
There certainly aren’t coattails to ride in Sacramento. The playoff drought continues, the team is overwhelmingly young, and not much is expected. It really is the perfect chance for Whiteside to prove that he has changed since the first time he played here.