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A deeper look into what Derrick White brings to the Celtics

Playmaking. Scoring. Off-ball movement. White brings a lot to the table for Boston.

Denver Nuggets v Boston Celtics Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Getty Images

In a move that surprised Celtics fans everywhere, the Boston Celtics acquired Derrick White a few hours before the NBA’s trade deadline, sending out Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, and some draft stock in return.

Whenever a new player joins a team, Basketball Reference likely sees a bump in traffic, as people everywhere begin trying to predict how their team got better, or in some cases, worse. It’s a fun exercise and one that can paint a picture in your mind's eye, yet it can also help build a bias towards said player’s fit on the roster, or how their lack of a specific skill hinders the team.

Numbers are fickle that way — cold, hard, and lacking context. But, those numbers serve a purpose, especially if you allow them to guide you.

As is becoming the “norm” now, when the news broke of White heading to Boston, I began trawling through film footage, attempting to contextualize his statistics and understand where White could help the Celtics. Here’s what I found.

Playmaking

One of the first things that jumps out is the uptick in his assist numbers this year. The 6’4’’ shooting guard has seen his assists per game numbers rise from 3.5 for the last two seasons to 5.6 this year, with Cleaning The Glass tracking him as assisting on 25.5% of the Spurs’ made shots while he’s on the floor.

Sure, White’s assists probably benefitted from Dejounte Murray’s sudden improvements, and having Doug McDermott on your team wouldn’t hurt either, but it was worth a look anyway.

One of the first things I noticed when watching footage of White’s passing game, was how willing he is to get the rock out of his hands. The ball doesn’t stick, regardless of his positioning. Instead, he consistently makes the right read. As such, it should come as no surprise that the lion's share of the Colorado native’s dimes come around the rim. In fact, of his 292 assists this season, 147 of them have come within four feet of the rack.

Here’s a play that seems easily translatable to the Celtics. White receives the rock on the wing, sells the pump fake to create a driving lane. Rather than jacking up a floater, or forcing a contested shot, the fifth-year guard waits for the low defender to commit, and then a quick pass finds Jakob Poeltl wide open for an easy dunk.

It’s a simple play and not one that would cause much excitement, but that seems to be how White likes to operate when teeing his teammates up.

Here’s another translatable example of White’s willingness to get his teammates involved. This time, the play begins with a “wide” set, which Boston has run multiple times per game under head coach Ime Udoka. Simply put, “wide” is a five-out (all players outside the perimeter) play where a big sets an off-ball drag screen for the weakside guard or wing, and the ball handler passes once the screen receiver is free of their defender.

Still, White will have no issue running this set, and judging by how quickly he reacts to Bryn Forbes’ curl on the above play, we can expect the pace of play to increase slightly. As you can probably tell from the above clips, White likes to put some zing into his passes. They’re smooth, crisp, and on target for the most part, which allows his team to maintain their pace of play and off-ball movement, something which Udoka has been preaching all season.

Beyond the actual process of making the pass, White is exceptionally good at using his body to create driving lanes. Be it a quick flip of the hips to change direction and leave his man recovering, shoulder feints to confuse a defender, or hard stops to generate valuable seconds to scan the floor. Sure, the former San Antonio Spurs shooting guard isn’t the quickest guy on the floor, but he plays the game at his own speed and utilizes his length and court vision to make things work for him.

Finally, White’s ability to dictate the pace of a game with his decision-making, processing speed, and driving ability allows him to orchestrate rapid-fire passes to cutters on the break, or as the offense flows into a half-court set.

The above clip is a good example of White’s ability to read a defense and react to his teammate's off-ball cutting, as we see with him hitting a pocket pass to Jayson Tatum on a 45-cut. Granted the bucket comes courtesy of some horrendous defense from the Denver Nuggets, but we will see White’s passing carve sterner defenses open in the same way.

Pick-and-Roll Offense

Let’s get one thing straight: Derrick White is not a point guard. He hasn’t spent significant amounts of time playing the point guard position since the 2018-19 season when he played 83% of his minutes as the primary ball-handler. Over his career thus far, White has spent 33% of his time as a point guard, 60% as a shooting guard, and 6% as a small forward. The one year as a primary ball-handler does skew those numbers slightly.

Still, one of White’s bread-and-butter offensive skills is his ability to score out of the pick-and-roll. According to Instat’s tracking data, 29% of White’s offense comes as the PnR ball-handler, which currently totals 214 possessions.

The first thing to note about White’s PnR game is how often he looks to attack middle, often snaking his dribble to get towards the nail. There are three outcomes when White gets into the middle of the floor: he releases a floater, stops and pulls up around the elbows (similar to Dennis Schroder), or hits a cutter/roller with a nifty pass.

When watching White’s PnR possessions, I noted down how similar that aspect of his game is to Dillion Brooks of the Memphis Grizzlies. Both White and Brooks operate on their own schedule and rely upon feints, shimmies, and misdirection to be effective. Another way both players get to their spots is by utilizing hesitation dribbles.

A well-timed “hesi” can often freeze a defender, just for a moment, allowing a less athletic player a chance to seal himself away from his man. Furthermore, White tends to operate in a cerebral manner, and throughout this season, has flashed improved processing speed (a player’s ability to perceive an opportunity or action, process what needs to be done, and act promptly) which, when given even a moment of space, can burn an opposing defense.

Overall, White projects to see fewer PnR possessions as a ball-handler in Boston, not because he’s a poor option, but because Tatum and Jaylen Brown will get most of the opportunities there, and Payton Pritchard will need a ton of screening actions if he’s to be part of the second unit. But, if the Celtics do need a playmaker in half-court setups, White is perfectly capable of stepping into the role.

Off-Ball Movement

When you play for Greg Popovich, a prerequisite is an ability, and willingness to operate without the ball. Cutting, screening, re-locating — every movement has a purpose, and more importantly, causes a defensive reaction.

Udoka has bought a similar train of thought with him to Boston, and while it’s taken a while for that message to sink in, we’ve begun to see the adjustments since the turn of the year. Udoka worked with White in San Antonio and knows that the Celtics latest addition comes tailor-made for the off-ball aspect of Boston’s system, which is good news, as Josh Richardson was by far and away the Celtics best cutter.

The first aspect of moving without the ball is knowing when to lift or sink into space, not only to get yourself open but to provide the passer with the clearest path. If there’s a clear passing lane, there’s more chance they see you, and the ball moves quicker. As a result, defenses have less time to react before a shot gets off.

In the above play, White lifts out of the corner and onto the wing, providing almost a lateral passing lane from the ball-handler. Of course, the Oklahoma City Thunder defender tries to jump the passing lane, which gives White even more time to line up his shot.

Most of White’s off-ball movement is used to manipulate defenses, and when he is featured in the action, it’s usually as a catch-and-shoot or catch-and-drive threat, both of which rely on knowing when to lift or sink. But there are times the former 29th pick finds scoring opportunities as a cutter.

As a rule, when utilizing off-ball screens, there are four primary ways to react to the defensive coverage;

  1. If the defender hits the screen - you cut in a straight line, from point A to B
  2. If the defender chases you over/around the screen - you curl, either shallow or deep depending on helps defense, etc.
  3. If the defender goes under the screen - you fade away from the passer, to create more space from the defender
  4. If the defense switches - you read the coverage and look for the mismatch, the ball-handler does the same, and as a unit, you read and react

These principles are similar for dribble hand-off actions, except you can flow into pick-and-roll rules, or the hand-off doesn’t occur and the ball-handler retains possession while the offense resets. That’s part of the reason hand-off actions are so versatile, because of the movements they can flow into.

However, the below clip follows the off-ball screening rules, where the defender chases White over the hand-off/screen, and he curls before receiving the pass.

As you can see, White doesn’t change his pace, nor does he delay his curl when the hand-off doesn’t occur. Instead, the veteran guard continues to execute the play based on the motion’s general principles, and it results in a quick hitter at the rim.

In the next clip, we will see White clear out from the middle of the floor to allow Tatum room to drive. As you would expect the off-ball defender decides to sag a little and stunt towards the Celtics All-Star, but White continues his cut and provides Tatum with an easy outlet pass should the defense kill his offensive possession.

Tatum finds White with a kick-out, and the wide-open two-guard drains the easy shot.

It’s unlikely that we see White frequently operate as a play finisher from off-ball cutting, but in Udoka’s system, having the understanding of the principles, and being capable of executing is integral to the team's chances of success. However, we are likely to see White operate in a similar fashion to what he did in the last clip — initiate a play, set up his teammate, and offer an outlet if the defense takes away the initial action.

If I was to hazard a guess, we will still see White work off-ball for catch-and-shoot scenarios, but play finishing as a cutter amounts to just 3.2% of White’s offensive output so far this season, and expecting a jump there seems illogical given his skillset.

Perimeter Defense

White joins the Celtics with a reputation of a fierce defender, built in a similar mold to Marcus Smart. We’ve all seen the highlights of the former Spur switching onto wings, stripping the ball as guys enter their shooting motion, and flat out contending on every possession.

Let’s start with close-outs. Obviously, the ideal outcome when closing out on a shooter is to force the pass or secure the block, but if neither of those outcomes seems possible, you want to make the shooter feel your presence. White at 6’4’’, 190lbs with a reported 6’8’’ wingspan, does a great job of making shooters feel his closeouts, which messes up their timing and release points as a result.

An interesting caveat to the Celtics acquisition of White is that most people believe there’s some crossover in defensive skillsets between him and Smart. However, when diving into the numbers on BBall Index, it would seem that the two complement each other extremely well.

Derrick White (left) and Marcus Smart (Right) defensive statistics
Derrick White (left) and Marcus Smart (Right)
https://www.bball-index.com/

The data on both White (left side of the table) and Smart (right side of the table) and shows how both guards can co-exist on defensive-minded units as interchangeable point of attack defenders.

According to BBall Index’s tracking data, White spends most of his time guarding opposing two-guards but is also reliable sliding down to guard 1’s or up onto 3’s, and yes, he’s also spent time guarding bigs, but far less frequently.

Part of what makes White so versatile is his ability to flip his hips and change direction on a dime, which is especially important when recovering from being beaten off the dribble or biting on a pump fake.

This play is a great illustration of White’s ability to change direction, stay balanced, and keep in the play. As you can see when watching the clip, White is beaten by a show-and-go while he’s closing out, yet manages to shift his weight, remain balanced and get back in the play to contest the shot.

The final aspect to point out is White’s strength, both in battling through screens and defending larger opponents in the post. We’ve got two back-to-back clips. The first is illustrating how White can get stuck on a screen, take the bump and keep moving, and the second is how well he holds his ground against sturdier opponents.

Sure, expecting White to be on the same level as Smart is placing unrealistic expectations on his shoulders, but it’s fair to assume we’re getting one of the closest facsimiles in the NBA. White has a unique blend of size, core strength, excellent balance, and defensive IQ and when paired with some of the team's other defensive guys, will form part of a fearsome unit that will squeeze the life out of offenses, one way or another.

Honorable Mention: Shooting

Let’s keep this one short and sweet. So far in his career, White has shot 34.4% from deep, with a true shooting percentage of 56.5% which is a smidgen above the league-wide average of 55.9%.

White had one encouraging year from deep, where he shot 36.6% during the 2019-20 season, but has been experiencing a down year so far, dropping just 31.4% of his looks. In fairness, White will likely fair better now he’s surrounded by Tatum and Brown, and the spacing their presence provides.

Furthermore, the Spurs product has a viable mid-range game, where he’s hitting 47% of his attempts - most likely floaters and elbow jumpers. Again, there are aspects of his offensive game that scream Dillion Brooks to me, but there’s also scalability to his shooting mechanics and the areas in which he looks for his shots.

However, White is not that far removed from Josh Richardson’s level as a shooter, it’s just one was having an up year and the other a down year. There’s certainly room for improvement, but with the additional creation, off-ball movement, and defensively versatility White brings, his scoring should be allowed to develop (or remain on par with recent years) because his value lies elsewhere.

Final Thoughts

White’s ability to operate as either a primary, secondary, or tertiary creator on either unit provides the Celtics with a key piece to their puzzle. Yes, he’s not the ball-handling playmaker so many screamed for when entering trade season, but his additional skills more than outweigh his lack of an offensive specialty.

Boston is also getting a reliable cutter to replace Richardson, and a capable PnR orchestrator and attacker. But what ties White’s game together is his defensive versatility, motor, and positional versatility.

The Celtics may not have landed the star player some fans pined for, but they got a high-level role player who can help ease the burden on the second unit, and admirably fill in when somebody is forced to miss games. And as we all know, you can have star talent, but without the right supporting cast in place, things don’t tend to work out so well, just take a quick glance over to both Los Angeles teams for confirmation.

White, for me, is going to be a big part of the team's success, and if he can slightly improve his shooting, there will be no qualms in his ability to help this team reach the next level.