When the Celtics acquired Derrick White in February, it was fair to wonder how quickly he could acclimate into Ime Udoka’s system and to debate whether or not he would move them closer toward their ultimate goal.
Though his shooting has been inconsistent, it’s felt as though he’s been with the team for years from a chemistry and flow standpoint. While there are many other factors in play, his ability to fit in seamlessly has been critical in their ascension.
The Celtics are 20-6 since trading for White and have been the best version of themselves ever since the deal. That’s far too big a sample size to be a coincidence, and he deserves a lot of credit for blending in and riding the wave. The wild part is, though, White hasn’t even played to his potential – and he’d be the first to admit that.
They don’t need him to drop 25 a night or hit eight 3’s or even to take 20 shots. If White excels in his role, that will be instrumental for the Celtics as they try to make a deep playoff run. It appears he’s headed in the right direction, and his first major test comes in Game 1 against the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday.
“The past couple of weeks, I’m just feeling more and more comfortable, more and more sure of what I’m supposed to be doing out there,” White said. “That was the plan, to be ready to go once the playoffs started.”
While he’s been hot of late, success didn’t come right away. White is a career 44.2 percent shooter from the floor and 34 percent shooter from 3. With the Celtics, those numbers have dipped to career lows 40.9 and 30.6. He averaged 14.4 points and 5.6 assists with the Spurs this season. With the Celtics? 11 and 3.5 as their sixth man. He’s hitting just 31 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3’s, which obviously isn't ideal.
However, in a small sample size in April, White has averaged 13.4 points while shooting 56.8 percent from the field and 55.6 percent from three. It’s just five games, but it’s enough of a trend where the results mean something. Hot shooting can be contagious, and White has looked more like the scorer the Celtics thought he could be. In his last 10, he’s hit 45.2 percent of his shots from distance and has looked more and more confident.
He simply needs to keep making the right play and trusting himself. If he does, he should be able to maintain momentum in the playoffs. White has to play his usual brand of suffocating defense, continue to penetrate and make the right read and, yes, hit open 3’s at a decent clip.
With Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown commanding so much attention, looks will be there. White just has to capitalize. He also doesn’t need to force 3’s. If he has a decent look, he can find Payton Pritchard, Grant Williams or someone else for a better shot. Efficiency is more important than volume for White as he looks to get those shooting splits up.
He hasn’t let his inconsistency from downtown affect other parts of his game, and he provides a unique style that no one else on the team does. His plus-minus with the Celtics is plus-6.5, which is by far the highest clip of his career. His offensive rating is 118.2, also a career-best, and his net rating of 12.6 is his best since his rookie season.
Derrick White on Kyrie Irving & Nets matchup: "One of the top players in the league, him and [Kevin Durant] obviously. That's what you want to do, you want to compete against the best."— Celtics on NBC Sports Boston (@NBCSCeltics) April 13, 2022
Presented by your NE Ford Dealers. Built for America. Built Ford Proud. pic.twitter.com/iGKVkP6XGh
White is slithery, crafty and versatile, and he’s able to beat his man off the dribble more often than not. If someone like Goran Dragic, Seth Curry or Patty Mills is guarding him, it’s crucial that he wins those matchups. If Kyrie Irving is on him, White should constantly be on the move to wear Irving down and make him play defense.
If the Nets feel comfortable sagging off White and letting him fire away, advantage Brooklyn. If he’s a threat, advantage Boston.
At this point, it’s safe to say Tatum and Brown will be elite. They may have an off game here and there, but the body of work is great enough to basically guarantee they’ll be terrific more often than not. Marcus Smart, Al Horford and Daniel Theis are all very reliable, and Pritchard and Williams are key but their play doesn’t carry as much weight as White’s.
White doesn’t have to be a star. He just has to star in his role. If he does, the Celtics are incredibly dangerous.