Derrick White’s Return Could Lift The Spurs Even Higher After A Strong Start

We saw two versions of Derrick White last season. The first is a viable starter well worth the four-year, $73 million contract extension he inked last week. The second is a burgeoning star who would be massively underpaid if he’s here to stay.

But that second version of Derrick White blossomed amid distinct circumstances and manifested from a seven-game sample in the Orlando Bubble this summer. In 61 games before the season’s hiatus, White, coming off the bench for all but 13 contests, averaged 10.4 points (58.5 percent true shooting), 3.4 assists (1.2 turnovers), 3.2 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 24.1 minutes a night. He was a complementary handler and very good defender beset by inconsistent aggression as a shooter, driver and scorer.

When the season resumed and San Antonio was missing LaMarcus Aldridge, Bryn Forbes and Trey Lyles, White entered the Spurs’ starting five and split initiating duties with DeMar DeRozan. Before a knee injury forced him out of the regular-season finale, he started all seven games, playing 29.8 minutes, averaging 18.9 points, 5.0 assists (2.0 turnovers) and 4.3 rebounds on 63.6 percent true shooting. Per 36 minutes, those numbers bumped up to 22.9 points, 6.0 assists (2.4 turnovers) and 5.2 rebounds.

Most importantly, he spurned the hesitancy and timidness that has previously plagued him, taking 15.2 shots per 36 minutes, compared to 11.4 prior to the break. He increased his 3-point rate from .345 to .636, launching eight 3-pointers per game and netting 39.3 percent of them. As an interior scorer, he inhabited the paint with regularity and averaged 5.1 free throws. A definitive claim to the title of San Antonio’s best young player had been authored, and the question was whether it could continue outside the Bubble atmosphere.

Supplement this offensive emergence with White’s defensive chops, caretaker decision-making and resolute pick-and-roll savvy, and he resembles that of a high-level secondary creator, someone who is good enough to be a top-30 NBA player. White will not be averaging nearly 20 a game on 63.6 percent true shooting when he returns from his toe injury (which could be soon). Shooting 39.3 percent from deep and 56.3 percent on two-pointers, as he did in the Bubble, is probably outlier as well. And that’s fine. He doesn’t have to be that prolific as a scorer. Playing 32-33 minutes per night and skewing closer to his pre-Orlando efficiency could still permit him to average 18 or so points on 60 percent true shooting. If his newfound 3-point rate carries into this season and is met by significant playing time, those benchmarks are certainly attainable.

During his bubble breakout, White operated as though he knew a prosperous shooting surge was on the horizon. He let it fly beyond the arc like a guy knocking down nearly 40 percent of his eight triples each game. While he only went 3 of 11 on pull-up threes, his degree of difficulty and versatility on 45 catch-and-shoot looks conveyed self-belief and value. Timely closeouts did not deter him. He flowed into dribble handoffs and exploited even minor defensive slip-ups with a confidently taken three-ball. He relocated to openings and fired. There was no sort of record scratch moment to stall the offense. If he didn’t let it fly, White, whether as a passer, driver or scorer, ensured something productive arose.

White’s physicality and body control are the linchpins of his downhill scoring arsenal. He is not exceptionally quick or an explosive vertical leaper and does not necessarily function with the off-rhythm cadence of someone such as Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. But he does a masterful job of leveraging his 6-foot-5 frame to dislodge defenders for space or initiate contact to draw fouls (.409 free-throw rate in the bubble). His outside shooting prowess and gumption meant he did not slither to rim all that often, but he enjoyed success when he opted for paint pressure. On the year, he finished in the 59th percentile at the basket, putting that strength, pace and body control on display.

Even if the three-point efficiency declines a bit, I expect him to be a viable secondary scorer behind DeRozan because of these tools. Despite relying on his strength and physicality, he only committed four charges last season, and that’s because of his discretion. He often works methodically, grinding down defenders, planting himself into their body and reaching his destination. His craft, timing and contortion guide him.

The driving/finishing combo and off-ball shooting alone do not alone give White secondary creator equity. His pick-and-roll guile and proclivity for keeping a dribble alive until he has reached threatening parts of the floor to capitalize from drive home his ball-handling value. Including passes, he ranked in the 93rd percentile in pick-and-rolls (86th percentile excluding them) last season, utilizing a mid-range pull-up game and patience off the bounce.

In an encouraging development, it does not appear as though Aldridge’s presence will hinder White or bar him from continued growth. Last season, 32.2 percent of his offense (5.8 per game) came via post-ups. This season, through three games, the former All-Star has transitioned to a less demanding role, accruing just four post-ups (9.3 percent frequency), while spot-ups and pick-and-rolls compose 67.5 percent of his offense. Although he’s just 2 of 11 beyond the arc, he’s hoisting a career-high 3.7 long balls per game (career-high 3-point rate of .289) and settling into a pick-and-pop shooter for his main source of offense.

The Spurs are committing to their ball-handlers and youngsters, empowering DeRozan, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker and Keldon Johnson to holster prominent offensive responsibilities. DeRozan, and even Murray to a degree, doing so is not groundbreaking, but the trend itself bodes well for White’s opportunity once he’s back. White is already 26, so he doesn’t really classify as a “youngster,” but he is assuredly a ball-handler who, with expanded usage, could take a season-long leap forward, the sort of occurrence generally seen from “youngsters.”

Regardless of whether White builds upon his summer showcase, which could be in flux if he is relegated to the bench again and has his minutes watered down, he will continue to be a premier defensive guard. Two seasons running now, he has been an overlooked All-Defensive Team candidate. Wiggling over screens, wielding elite body control and balance, he is, quietly, a borderline elite point-of-attack defender, (mostly) capable of guarding 1-3 and 4s in a pinch. He can absorb contact and maintain defensive positioning, has superbly quick hands and does a remarkable job of slithering back into plays to contest shots without fouling.

He has a knack for not grant a ball-handler’s wishes, refusing to let them initiate contact and rarely biting on their fakes. Even if he does, he finds a way to affect the action. Basketball is about crafting advantages offensively and achieving them against White is quite challenging. Traditional advantages that stars are accustomed to creating are not usually advantages against him.

Take the first clip below as an example. After gaining a step, Luka Doncic thinks he can simply lean into White, who aims to dart back in front, and draw a foul — a typical sequence he’d parlay into free throws. White will not let that contact occur and snags a takeaway out of it. The brief compilation is rich with White doing stuff such as that: turning his nose at preconceived notions of offensive advantages and stymieing assignments.

Off the ball, he’s an elite help-side rim protector among guards (1.3 blocks per 36 minutes last year), consistently lending a hand on the interior with awareness, punctual rotations and active hands. Guards do not generally provide a paint presence like him, but few guards are better defenders than White.

With Aldridge and DeRozan steering the ship, tallying points on the back of seemingly antiquated post-ups or mid-range jumpers, the Spurs earned the “boring” label the past couple seasons. But their stable of tantalizing, athletic, vivacious wings are roaming free these days. Both Aldridge and DeRozan are shooting threes. DeRozan is excelling as the primary ball-handler, averaging nine assists per game and setting the table for his youthful coworkers.

Soon, White will return, either in a feature reserve or starting role to further the intrigue with San Antonio. While closer in age to DeRozan than Johnson, he laid the foundation for a fourth-year ascension last season. Maybe, he doesn’t receive the usage or slips back into old ways as a mildly timid long-range gunner. Assuming he’ll produce across an entire season the way he did for seven games engenders disappointment, but the approach and mindset he had to create that production can be replicated. If he can do that, even if there’s some regression with efficiency, it will lead him to a significant step forward.

Two versions of Derrick White are possible this season. The bubble can be a blip on the radar or a launching pad toward stardom. By season’s end, the answer to that enigma will crystalize.