‘Simple Works’: How A Lesson Learned As A Rookie Makes Derrick White A Perfect Fit In Boston

Derrick White has taken an incredible journey to reach the NBA Finals as a starter and key piece of the Boston Celtics.

He played three years at D-II University of Colorado-Colorado Springs before transferring to Boulder for his senior year, becoming an All-Pac-12 player in his lone season at the University of Colorado. That season turned him into NBA Draft prospect, where he got taken 29th overall by the San Antonio Spurs. White played 3-plus years for the Spurs and emerged as a solid starter before being traded at the deadline in 2022 to the Celtics, as they looked to bolster their backcourt rotation.

Since joining the Celtics, White has been a phenomenal fit as the point guard alongside stars Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown on the wing. White is a terrific defender and has steadily grown more comfortable in a supporting role offensively, both as a creator for others and a knockdown shooter, boasting a career-best 39.6 three-point percentage this season. White’s ascent is remarkable, but it is not a surprise that he’s continued to add to his game and became a winning player.

His journey has been defined by continued growth, from his time at Colorado Springs all the way to Boston, and it comes from an internal desire to always seek out ways to get better. Back in October of 2021, I sat down with White in San Antonio for a cover story that never came to fruition for a handful of reasons, one of which being his trade to the Celtics. Ahead of the NBA Finals, I went back to that conversation where we discussed the things he was focused on to grow as a player and a leader, to see how he got from being a hopeful breakout candidate to a key cog in a Finals team.

White was going into that season as the most tenured veteran on the Spurs, even as he was just entering his fifth year, and he was rapidly realizing the need to grow up as a leader while still figuring out his exact place in the league. He credited DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge as examples of the kind of quiet leadership he looked to emulate, as those two led by example. When it came time to speak up, they made sure to do it the right way.

“They just demand respect by what they do day in and day out. Every time there’s a game, they’re ready to go, they do what they need to do to help us win,” White explained. “So, you definitely demand respect that way, and if you’re doing well on the court and you’re doing what you’re supposed to do — you’re being coachable and stuff like that — it’s easy to get respect from your teammates. I mean, DeMar, LA, they didn’t say a whole lot, but they had the whole locker room’s attention and every now and then they’ll pull you over and give you some things to work on or look for. Just stuff like that, that I can put in my game and help the young guys out.”

While quiet, White is hyper-competitive and is always looking for ways to improve, whether that’s in basketball or in any of his hobbies. One of his life’s goals is to bowl a 300. His best score at the time was a 212, which he noted was “right there,” and “I’ve done it in Wii, I can do it in real life.” White called bowling a 300 in Wii Bowling “a huge day for me,” because even in video game bowling, he spent a long time tinkering with form, trying four different methods until he found one he liked (the low hook).

That internal drive that leads a man to try four different Wii Bowling forms also translates to the hardwood. White knew that to stick as a starter in the league, he had to improve as a shooter in a variety of ways. The year prior to our sitdown he saw a major uptick in three-point attempts in the Bubble, as part of a concerted effort to modernize his game. That offseason in 2021, he was trying to get more comfortable letting it fly from deep both on and off the ball, understanding his path to success in the league depended on it.

“I mean, that’s the way the league’s going right now. You gotta get with the times and get a lot more consistent with that,” White said. “So, shooting a lot of threes a lot of different ways — off the dribble, pin downs — cause I’m playing on the ball, off the ball. Trying to work on all different types of shots and be consistent getting that percentage up and add that element to my game.”

While he had a down year in 2021-22 in both San Antonio and Boston, adjusting to new roles with each team, that work has paid off the last two years. He’s become a legitimate threat shooting from deep both off the dribble and in catch-and-shoot situations. Beyond the shooting, his offensive playmaking as a whole has continued to impress in Boston, which has been invaluable for a team that’s long sought steady-handed point guard play to alleviate some of the creative burden on Tatum and Brown. While White may not be an elite ball-handler or have the deepest bag of moves and finishes, he exemplifies a lesson he learned his rookie year in San Antonio, something he’s long tried to keep at the front of his mind all these years later.

“My rookie year, one of the coaches told me, ‘Simple works.’ So, just try to keep that mindset that the simple play works,” White said. “You don’t need to have 18 different crossovers and stepbacks, you just need to make the simple play and that’ll work for you. I just try to keep that mindset each game and take what the defense gives you. I never try to go out and attack right away, just take what they give me and then take that and whatever simple play it is.”

The player that epitomized that “simple works” mantra in San Antonio when White arrived in 2017 was 40-year-old Manu Ginobili, who provided the hard evidence on the floor to get White to buy into that thought.

“I learned that from Manu,” White recalled. “Manu wasn’t doing crazy things — I mean, he was 40, which is crazy. He wasn’t doing nothing special. Just simple moves, like catch-and-go, and it was working for him.”

Watching White, you can tell that message remains seared into his brain, and for a Boston team that has talent up-and-down the roster, having a point guard who wants to make the simple play is an ideal fit. And, with his expanded skillset as a scorer and creator, he has more options in front of him for what defines making the right play.

As the Finals arrive and the Celtics look to finally take home a title with Brown and Tatum leading the way, White will get a chance to put that quiet leadership he learned in San Antonio to work. With the overall talent advantage, the challenge for Boston may very well be not pressing and continuously making that simple play, and White will help set that tone and calm things down as the point guard.