Derrick White Is Essential to the Spurs’ Present and Future
“Dare to be great” is the mantra that drives the San Antonio Spurs’ Derrick White. During games, he wears a bracelet with those words on it. It was written on his pant leg when the Spurs drafted him 29th overall in 2017. His Twitter bio reads “#DTBG.”
Derrick’s father, Richard, came up with the phrase more than 15 years ago, long before his son’s remarkable rise from completely anonymous prospect at Legend High School to NBA first-round pick and the Spurs’ second-most important player, per Gregg Popovich. Richard describes the phrase’s meaning like this:
Be proactive rather than reactive. Stay aggressive in your approach on the court. To sum it up, it is ‘don’t be afraid to try what you think is best.’ It might work, but will never work if you don’t try.
Popovich has given the 24-year-old White an opportunity to live out his mantra with a starting role this season with the Spurs after a rookie year mostly in the G-League.
White started the regular season rehabbing a heel injury, but he’s more than rewarded Pop’s trust with a breakout year now that he’s found his niche.
How is he paving his path to greatness? Let’s break down his performance on both sides of the ball, his Spurs-y attitude and his future with the team.
White is already an All-Defensive Team candidate
White was a strong defensive player entering the draft. In his lone Division I season at Colorado, he was a Pac-12 Defensive Team member with his strong defensive playmaking. He put up 1.2 steals and 1.4 blocks per game.
However, scouts still questioned the 6’5″ guard’s potential impact on that end in the NBA. Draft Express’ Mike Schmitz and Matt Kamalsky were among those who questioned White’s length, strength and quickness before the draft. They also saw his defensive motor as an issue:
[White] also wasn’t always as energetic as one would hope, struggling to contain dribble penetration, and appearing far too laid back at times.
Watching White this season, you’d have no idea that these were concerns just 21 months ago.
The Spurs are 20th in defensive efficiency this season. They’re a below-average defensive team for the first time in 22 seasons, but White is doing everything he can to keep the squad afloat. He leads the Spurs and all NBA point guards in Defensive Player Impact Plus-Minus (plus-2.08). His Defensive Real Plus-Minus (plus-1.57) is second among 1s, trailing just Marcus Smart.
San Antonio frequently utilizes White on the opponent’s best perimeter scorer, and he’s done a great job against stars of varying sizes. He’s a quick defensive shuffler and stays glued to the hip of offensive players in screen-and-rolls. Per Synergy, he’s in the 83rd percentile defending pick-and-rolls. That’s even more impressive when you consider the defenders around him and the high-quality players he’s covering.
White always seems to stay in the action with his hands and feet. He contests 13.3 shots per 36 minutes, first among the 163 guards with at least 500 minutes played this season.
As he’s gained strength and confidence in his legs following his left heel injury in training camp, he’s also become an ace playmaker on defense, as well. Since December 17, he’s averaging 2.0 steals and 2.0 blocks per 100 possessions. His steals rank him 42nd out of 192 guards who have played at least 10 games since then. In blocks, he’s No. 1.
Watch him use his instincts, quickness and excellent hands in this selection of blocks since the All-Star break.
Richard White commented on his son’s development on the defensive end.
He applies a ‘fit in when you get in’ approach, Being a second-year player, he needed to make an impact where he could. The team needed defense and that is something you can do because it is effort and awareness.
The elder White also added that, on defense, “there are people who doubt his ability, and he fuels off of it.”
White is a patient operator on offense
White’s stats aren’t as gaudy on the offensive end. However, his skill set is well-rounded. He registers as at least average on all of his offensive play types with Synergy:
As with his defense, though, White has also ramped up his offense as the season has progressed. The above numbers would be even better if it weren’t for his first few weeks of the season where he was working back from an injury and his minutes and role were inconsistent.
Since December 29, White has averaged 14.2 points, 4.1 assists and 1.4 turnovers in 29.8 minutes per game with a true-shooting percentage of 64.3. White’s production has added new flavor to a Spurs offensive attack that occasionally turns sour with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan as its key ingredients.
In particular, White’s frequency and efficiency as a pick-and-roll ball-handler have shot up over the past two or three months. White has BBall Index talent percentiles of 84.2 and 88.5 in finishing and playmaking, respectively. Those two qualities shine through when he maneuvers screens with the ball.
As White’s father puts it:
Derrick goes at his own pace. He watches and sees the court and waits for the opponent to make the first move and then he counters it. [Denver-based basketball trainer] Marcus Mason has worked on him for several years on reading the pick-and-roll and all the possible variations that opponents can throw at him.
White’s patience doesn’t just help him make the right decisions on offense. It also distracts opponents from the fact that he’s actually quite explosive.
Spot-up shooting is the offensive area where White can stand to improve the most. He’s knocked down 25-of-73 (34.2 percent) catch-and-shoot threes this season. His perimeter shooting talent percentile with BBall Index is a mediocre 56.6. His efficiency from the outside needs to get better, but the volume is really what needs to increase significantly.
White has a perfect Spurs personality
Against the Hawks on Thursday, White tallied 18 points, nine assists and six blocked shots. Tracy McGrady is the only other guard to put up all of those numbers in an NBA game. Per the San Antonio Express-News’ Tom Orsborn, when Derrick was asked about his performance after the game, he said, “I’m just happy about the win. That’s all that matters to me.”
Derrick’s father says he’s always had this team-first mindset:
He believes what he accomplishes is due to his teammates. He isn’t alone out there on the court. He’s not about self-promotion, he just wants to win. … Winning means more games to play and he likes to play games, competing against the best players in the world.”
This is the quintessential Spurs personality. Popovich and the front office are all about players who have gotten over themselves, and White certainly qualifies. This bodes well for White’s long-term relationship with the Spurs organization.
What does the future hold?
If you’re a Spurs fan, you’ve probably spent hours daydreaming about White and Dejounte Murray starting together and torturing opposing guards with their defense.
Indeed, that will likely be the team’s starting backcourt next season and beyond. DeMar DeRozan should be the third perimeter player, for now.
That trio has plenty of defense, playmaking and overall shot creation. The main issue, though, is spacing and shooting, especially with Aldridge playing a lot alongside them. DeRozan and Aldridge don’t shoot threes. The last we saw Murray before his torn ACL, he didn’t, either.
White has a consistent shooting motion on his long balls, but he is often hesitant to pull on shots from downtown unless he has several feet of space. That will have to change next season, since the offensive games of Murray and DeRozan are more reliant on having the ball and needing their teammates as spacers.
Teams will also start to adjust to White on both ends of the floor. Sometimes, it seems like teams don’t realize that he’s a high-level defender and go at him frequently, inflating his block steal, and shot contest numbers. That will change at some point.
The film on his offensive tendencies is also pretty limited, considering he played just one year of Division I college ball and basically stayed in the G-League last season. He’s a smart player, but the challenge will be continuing to elevate his offensive game as defenses learn more about him.
Overall, though, I believe White has All-Star potential, even at 24 years old. His counting stats probably won’t be enough to earn him that recognition as long as DeRozan and Aldridge take up big chunks of usage, but he could get there down the line.
White has already risked plenty to strive for greatness. He’s transformed from a 6’0″ guard who couldn’t get colleges to notice him to the 6’5″ glue that holds together a Western Conference playoff team. There’s no question that White is going to accomplish many more great things in his career.
Now, for the important business. What great nickname are we going to settle on for White?
Note: All statistics are from NBA.com. Video clips were complied from 3ball.io, NBA.com, and the Down to Buck and Ximo Pierto YouTube accounts.
Special thanks to Richard White (Twitter: @RamblinWreck34) for answering questions for BBall Index for this article.
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