To begin the season, Derrick White was ever-present in the Boston Celtics' starting lineup, yet in recent weeks, he had re-assumed the bench role we saw him occupy last season. White had done nothing wrong, and his performances were exactly what we’d come to expect from him, possibly even better than we expect due to his increased three-point shooting.
However, Joe Mazzulla was searching for some defensive improvements, so, Grant Williams was inserted into the starting five, and the defense began to trend in a positive direction. Then, Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon both succumbed to injury (not at the same time, thankfully), and White found himself back with the starters.
Here’s where the Celtics' embarrassment of riches at the guard positions came into play.
You see, White is the perfect blend of Smart and Brogdon, a hybrid of their skillsets if you will. Offering a stern point-of-attack defensive presence, a willingness to put his body on the line to draw charges, and an unselfish approach to getting the ball out of his hands, White embodies the best aspects of Smart’s approach to the game. Nonetheless, White is also willing to penetrate, beat his man off the dribble, and call his own number when the defense is taking away his passing options, which are all Brogdon-esque traits.
But most importantly, White is wildly improved as a catch-and-shoot threat.
Following the Celtics' most recent victory, which came against the New Orleans Pelicans, White discussed his improved jumper, and the mindset he’s using to continue knocking down his perimeter shots at a 45.3% rate.
“Get good balance and trust the shot. And put up a good shot every time down, or every time I shoot it. So, that’s what we talked about in the off days when I’d watched the shots. Just try to get a good shot each and every time I take it,” White said.
By being an off-ball floor spacer, White’s presence within the rotation allows the Celtics to stretch the defense, creating additional gaps for the team's slashers to exploit. However, it also allows the Celtics to flow into their perimeter screening actions to get their guard’s in position to attack space, and/or manipulate their opponents.
A core aspect of Ime Udoka’s strategy from last season was to have guards become reliable screeners, as it generated mismatch opportunities for wings to exploit. White has continued to operate in that role when playing off-ball this season and is helping generate some easier matchups for the Celtics' star players.
In the above clip, we can see White operating in his role as a screener, setting (inverted) screens for Jayson Tatum (ghost screen) and then Jaylen Brown (wide pin-down). While neither of White’s screens generates a mismatch, it does get Boston’s offense into motion and allows the to ball to start moving, causing the Atlanta Hawks’ defense to begin its rotation.
Of course, White is also adept at operating as the ball-handler in pick-and-roll possessions and utilizes his high-level reading of the game (processing speed) to help dictate the tempo of the offense and create advantages for his team. Furthermore, as is often the case with guards from the San Antonio Spurs system, White always seems to make the right basketball play and is reluctant to over-dribble the rock. In fact, according to NBA Stats, white is averaging just 3.5 dribbles per touch, keeping the ball for 4.13 seconds.
It’s these offensive traits, which when coupled with his point-of-attack defense, and willingness to draw charges, have seen White become an integral member of the Celtics rotation. It’s also this blend of skill and veteran savvy that has seen White step up to the plate as the Celtics were left shorthanded at the guard positions, and help lead the team to multiple victories.
When Boston acquired White, there were certainly some areas of the fanbase that had their doubts about his ability to help raise the overall ceiling of the team. Yet, judging by his performances to begin this season, both as a starter, and off the bench, it’s clear that Brad Stevens made the right call, and that White is the connector he was billed to be upon his arrival.
If White can continue to perform at his current level, and the Celtics remain on of the league’s most elite teams, then there shouldn’t be any further doubt regarding what he brings to the table, or is capable of providing to the team. White is showing developmental growth, a willingness to play within his role, and an ability to impact the game when needed — that’s exactly what the Celtics needed when they traded for him, and now, he’s proving himself for the world to see.