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For your consideration: Derrick White as Defensive Player of the Year

The Celtics guard has been one of the best defenders in the NBA this season.

Los Angeles Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

When the Boston Celtics traded for Derrick White last season, the immediate reactions were somewhat split. Some were happy to have another playmaker on the roster, while others were upset over the draft capital Brad Stevens gave up in the deal. But fast forward just ten months and a Finals birth later, the deal looks great for Boston.

White’s ball-handling and finishing around the rim proved to be huge assets for the Celtics throughout their playoff run last year, and at the beginning of this year, he emerged as one of the best three-point shooters on the team. He’s shooting a career-high 37.5% from deep (outside of his rookie year when only attempted 13 total threes on the season).

However, a December shooting slump had some fans questioning his play. He’s shot just 23.5% from distance during the month, but his minutes haven’t wavered. The reason? He’s having an All-Defensive caliber season.

It’s easy for White to fly under the radar playing next to the defensive stalwarts the Celtics have on the roster. Marcus Smart is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, Jayson Tatum has been turning up the heat on that end, and now that Robert Williams is back in action, his unbelievable blocks will undoubtedly steal the show. But amongst the defensive giants in Boston is White, putting together one of the best defensive seasons in the league.

White’s defensive prowess was on full display on Thursday night in Boston’s win over the LA Clippers. He put together a one-game highlight reel that showcased everything he brings to the table.

His block/steal/ninja move against John Wall in the second quarter was one thing…

...but his late-game rejection of Paul George to seal the win was an even more impressive feat.

The mix of awareness and ability perfectly encapsulates White’s defensive versatility. After the game, White explained what was going through his head at the time, joking that he had to protect his self-proclaimed reputation as a shot-blocker.

“I seen PG was driving and he was kind of looking back trying to find out where JT was. And so I just rotated over to try to go get it. So, try to tell people I’m a shot-blocker so I had to try to get one.”

But that reputation isn’t just some mantra White drudged up out of nowhere. The 28-year-old guard currently ranks second among guards in blocks (30) with only Shai Gilgeous-Alexander ahead of him (34).

For reference, Tatum and Al Horford have both recorded 30 blocks, Rudy Gobert has 38, Jarrett Allen has 35, Jakob Poeltl has 30, and Draymond Green has 27. Some of those players have appeared in fewer games than White, but at 6’5 and with his frame, the fact that he’s even in the same conversation as them is a huge testament to his defensive capabilities.

Smart is usually the player the fans and media turn to when dishing out defensive credit, but when asked about White’s impact, the DPOY made sure to share the love.

“I’m seeing exactly what we expected to see from D-White on that end. It’s one of the reasons we wanted him here. Just another guard that we know can hold his own defensively and help us on that end. So, to be able to be second in the league with that is tremendous. And we love it, and we need more out of him from it. We need to keep it going.”

Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Perhaps the most remarkable niche of White’s shot-blocking this year has been his ability to keep a pivot foot down. At times when most defenders would leave their feet, White has been able to stay grounded, and it’s allowed him to pick up some ridiculous blocks.

Here are a few example clips:

CJ McCollum gets White off balance and gets the ball into his right hand at the free-throw line. But instead of biting for the pump fake, White keeps his right foot planted, elevates, and meets McCollum at the apex of his floater attempt.

In a similar situation, Franz Wagner gets past White by a couple of steps. He runs into Luke Kornet at the rim, but White stays with him. While some defenders may have lost Wagner on the euro-step or even left him to help guard the perimeter, White sticks with the play, keeps his feet on the ground, and gets him with the block at just the right time. It’s the perfect mix of patience and timing.

White has even employed his top-notch footwork to block jump shots. Tyler Herro gets some separation from White on this play. However, when he goes for the pump fake, White stays grounded and uses his positioning to block Herro’s shot.

Lastly, this play is a bit less about White keeping his feet planted and more about his impeccable timing. He’s become a master at lining up rejections a few moments before they’re set to happen. This block on Stephen Curry at the basket is a thing of beauty.

Curry even switched hands on the layup to get the ball away from White, but it doesn’t matter. White simply changed which hand he chose to block the shot with, too.

Orlando Magic v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Shot-blocking is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to White, though. He’s quietly been one of the most important players on the Celtics. While most people turn their attention to Tatum, Smart, Jaylen Brown, Al Horford, and even Malcolm Brogdon at first, White’s play has been more crucial than meets the eye.

White ranks third in the league (not the Celtics, the NBA) in total plus/minus (220). The only players above him are Tatum (256) and Nikola Jokic (250). He also ranks sixth in the league in total defensive win shares (4.4), and per Cleaning the Glass, Boston is a much better basketball team when he’s on the court.

One glance at his on/off stats reveals that, despite Tatum’s MVP candidacy, Brown’s All-NBA play, and Smart’s defense of his DPOY title, White is the most impactful player on the Celtics. When White is on the court, the Celtics allow 6.3 fewer points per 100 possessions than when he’s off (ranks first on the team). In tandem with that, White’s efficiency differential* ranks first on the team and in the 85th percentile of all players league-wide, and his expected wins mark (+16) also leads the Celtics.

(*Team points scored per 100 possessions minus team points allowed per 100 possessions.)

Game-altering blocks aside, White’s mere presence on the court has elevated Boston’s defense this season. As he so rightfully put it, being active and flying around has been key. And it’s helped the Celtics’ defense rise to seventh in the NBA this year (and second in December).

“Just trying to be active. Fly around. Make them uncomfortable. I think a lot of times, early in the season, people were a little too comfortable. So just trying to make them more comfortable and just be active.”

Here’s some of that activity from White. He does a little bit of everything on this play. First, he sprints back to prevent a pass to Udonis Haslem once he realizes Grant Williams didn’t cover the roll. And then, when Jimmy Butler gets by Smart, White meets him at the rim with a great contest.

Butler ends up grabbing his own miss and getting a putback, but the defensive play from White couldn’t have been much better. He once again shows off the shot-blocking he’s become known for but also his elite sense of awareness that helps him get to the ball.

Boston Celtics v Phoenix Suns Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images

In fact, if Williams would like to be called Batman, White should put in a request for the Spider-Man nickname. He has developed a sixth sense off the ball, has a flare for acrobatics, and his hands seem to stick to the ball as if web shooters were a real thing. (All I’m saying is that no one has ever seen White and Spider-Man in the same room together.)

Watch White’s anticipation on these plays.

Caris LeVert gets open in the corner, but White is already sprinting there by the time he gets to half-court. He steps out of bounds, but it was still a great read.

This play is even more impressive. Keegan Murray slips the screen, as most people are expecting Kevin Huerter to get the ball in the corner. But just as Harrison Barnes is making the pass, White reads it, sneaking his hand in for the steal. He turned a very smart play by the Sacramento Kings into a steal and a transition opportunity.

And on these plays, sorry Oklahoma City Thunder fans, White reads Josh Giddey like a book - not once, but twice.

He sees Payton Pritchard cutting off one hand for Giddey, anticipates the spin move, and is right there to grab a steal. His anticipation has been off the charts this year. Spidey senses, anyone?

As for the acrobatics, his block against George should suffice as evidence. Damon Stoudamire, who has been filling in as Boston’s head coach as Joe Mazzulla recovers from a scratched cornea, called it a “hell of a block” and praised White’s character.

“I think tonight [against the Clippers], you seen his all-around game. I thought he hit big shots as well just play great D. That was a hell of a block. And, you know, for me, he’s really a selfless player. And I think that’s why the guys like being around him, and he’s a joy to coach.”

Meanwhile, White’s web-shooter hands (and constant off-ball activity) are seen here. With Williams involved in a pick-n-roll, White is left to guard two Phoenix Suns players.

LA Clippers v Boston Celtics Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

As noted, White doesn’t always get the credit he deserves. With the amount of talent around him. The Celtics have defenders up and down the roster, but White’s prominence cannot be understated. Jaylen Brown said that White has a rough role, especially considering his frame, but he fights hard to make opponents’ lives harder.

“Derrick, he has a tough role. Sometimes they try to go at Derrick, just because his frame, he’s a little smaller. But Derrick, he fights every single night. He doesn’t just give up or allow teams to have a basket. He’ll fight you.”

White’s frame hasn’t prevented him from being a menace on the ball, though. In addition to his shot-blocking and Spider-Man tendencies, he’s been able to keep up with some up the best offensive players in the league, regardless of size.

Trae Young is one of the quickest players in the league, but here’s White being an absolute pest for the entire possession. First, he refuses to let Onyeka Okongwu get White the ball. And even when Young uses Okongwu’s presence to get into the lane, White stays attached to his hip, ending the play with a block.

That’s an instance where White’s frame helps him, as he’s able to keep up with Young. But he’s stayed with bigger guys, too, in spite of his smaller stature. Here are two plays where he does just that, both against the Toronto Raptors.

First, White gets stuck on an island with Pascal Siakam, who has been having an All-NBA-caliber season this year. Siakam uses his size advantage to lean into White, but the Celtics guard keeps him in front of him for the entire play. And by the time Siakam powers through him, White has kept him at bay long enough to fall into a sea of Boston defenders.

Here, Scottie Barnes doesn’t use his size as effectively as Siakam, but White still stays in a great position for the entire play. Once again, he keeps the bigger opponent in front of him, this time forcing Barnes into a bad spot that leads to a turnover.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Boston Celtics Photo by Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Blocks, Spidey senses, and elite perimeter defense have allowed White to shine on a team with too many players who need the spotlight. He hasn’t gotten the flowers he deserves for how well he’s played on the defensive end of the court. The numbers tell the story, his play tells the story, and so do his teammates and coaches.

White’s never going to be one to demand a pat on the back. He’s more than happy to simply help the team win and take that as his reward. But if he continues to play at this level, an All-Defensive nod should certainly be in his future.

And as Brown put it, when White is confident, the Celtics are a better team because of it.

“We need Derrick to continue to be confident, he’s been playing good the last couple games. Tonight [against the Clippers], I thought he played exceptional. We need him to be aggressive and shoot the ball and make plays on both sides. A confident Derrick White only helps the Celtics.”

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