It hasn’t been smooth sailing for Derrick White since joining the Boston Celtics at the February 10 trade deadline. As Brad Stevens made moves to improve the roster, the common consensus was that Boston needed additional shooting, ideally from a player who would actually get minutes in the rotation.
Stevens is a stellar basketball mind, and for all the logic surrounding adding a perimeter threat, he opted to go a different route, bringing in White to accentuate the talent that already resided on the team. White’s scoring has never been a strength, but it’s also rarely been a hindrance to the level it has been since joining the Celtics.
Even throughout his poor shooting, White has displayed a propensity for making the right basketball play and has proven capable of injecting energy into the rotation from the bench. Ime Udoka’s offensive system is predicated on quick decisions and penetration, both of which are ingrained in White’s basketball DNA after receiving a basketballing education from Greg Popovich.
After joining the Celtics, the 27-year-old instantly improved Boston’s bench unit, especially in terms of their ability to penetrate off the dribble. In his twenty-six regular season games, he provided Boston with 6.8 drives per game, forcing rotations and kicking the rock back out to shooters on 39.5% of those drives. For a Celtics offense that often stagnated on the perimeter when the starters went to the bench, White was a breath of fresh air.
Despite his clear fit within the rotation, White hasn’t escaped the criticism over his scoring struggles, but in Games 4 and 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals, we’re starting to see his full array of offensive powers, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Right now, Jayson Tatum is clearly dealing with a shoulder issue, Robert Williams has knee troubles, Marcus Smart is dealing with a bum ankle, and those are just the ailments we know of. So, White stepping up at such a pivotal moment in the post-season is the ideal clap-back at those who have doubted him.
It’s worth noting that in game 6 on Wednesday, White did diversify his offensive game from what we’ve seen of him thus far, and it all started with him operating as the ‘roller’ in pick-and-roll situations.
I’ve taken the liberty of annotating the above play, courtesy of Instat. White has been a 48% shooter from the short mid-range throughout his career, so finding ways to get him into the floater area of the floor makes sense - especially if you’re looking for ways to catch the opposing defense sleeping. Boston has been using White as a screener as a way to generate mismatches for Tatum in recent games, so adding an extra wrinkle further complicates things for the Heat and makes sending doubles at the All-Star wing a problematic decision.
You can see in the above play, the Heat are solely focused on pressuring Tatum, so much so that White is wide open when he gets the pass from Tatum, and has plenty of time to make his decision and attack off the dribble.
We can see a similar play in this possession, where White sets a screen for Tatum, triggers a trap, and then short-rolls towards the nail. Boston might not have generated any scoring out of this possession, but they did add a foul to the Heat’s tally, and that’s always a welcomed outcome.
When he wasn’t operating as a screener, White was pushing the pace, stretching out Miami’s defense on the wing, and looking to penetrate at every opportunity, both on and off the ball.
Take this possession as an example. White is running the floor with Tatum, gets the rock, and instantly makes a decision to attack the paint — that is the 0.5 offensive system at work, leading to a EuroStep finish around P.J. Tucker, who as we all know, is an exceptional defender.
Quick decisions and actions lead to easy points, as the defense doesn’t have time to set up and bog down the offense, something that White embodies and has done since joining the team.
“Derrick White, for us, was unbelievable tonight. He was great. His energy, his activity, just such a smart player made really big plays. People probably won’t talk about it enough, but for me, he was huge. The minutes that he gave us and the impact he had on this game,” Al Horford told reporters following Boston’s Game 5 win over the Heat.
On the above possession, we see the Celtics take a leaf out of Miami’s book and run an off-ball corner action with Tatum setting the screen for White to curl out of the corner and pressure the basket. Of course, White isn’t a slasher or play finisher by nature, but it seems like he’s got a favorable matchup in this series, and the Celtics would be foolish not to exploit it whenever possible.
Scoring is just one way in which the veteran guard impacted Game 5, we also saw him display some playmaking chops, finishing with 5 assists. Of course, most of White’s dimes came courtesy of drives.
I like this possession because the Celtics flip the script and position White as the ball-handler in a pick-and-roll scenario. What makes the above play stand out is how patient the Colorado native is, as you can see he penetrates off the screen, but despite Horford timing his role to remain in the passing pocket, White waits until he engages the defending big man, ensuring that his pocket pass to Horford will create an easy scoring opportunity in the paint.
Shout out to Horford on this possession too, because timing your roll is an underrated skill that often gets overlooked.
“Starting last game with Marcus out put him in a position to make more plays. He’s going to have a weaker defender on him with JT and JB being blanketed, and he can take advantage of those. Capable scorer, driver, initiator, and one of our best guys at quick decisions, getting downhill, and making plays,” Ime Udoka said.
Playmaking is about more than making an assist. Not every pass results in a bucket, and not every assist is the result of a smart play - it’s just the way things are. White is also exceptionally good at moving off-ball, dragging defenders with him to open space for others to drive or fill, and when in possession of the rock, the Celtics' sixth man will always look to force rotations to generate second-side actions.
Defense has quickly become a prerequisite of this Celtics team. If you’re not a talented individual and team defender, minutes will be hard to come by. Luckily, White has always been a high-level defender and helps maintain the defensive intensity while Marcus Smart takes a breather during games.
This possession came hot on the heels of White blocking Duncan Robinson from behind on the very same action. This time, Robinson gets off the ball quickly, because he knows he’s being hounded in the rear-view, but what stands out here is how White quickly goes belly-up on Robinson to eradicate the chance of a cut from the sharpshooter.
We’d also be remiss if we didn’t touch on White’s ability to navigate screens effectively and not get taken out of plays when trailing his man, as that’s integral to keeping the integrity of a team's defensive system intact - especially when dealing with screening savants like Bam Adebayo.
Honestly, you’ve got to feel bad for Duncan Robinson, at least a little bit. He’s had a rough season, hardly played in the playoffs, and when he gets his chance, he’s guarded by Derrick White and totally shut down.
With so many weapons on both sides of the floor, the Celtics are in an envious position where role players are free to stand up and be counted, especially while others are navigating injury or being locked down by the defense. We’ve been waiting to see this version of Derrick White, and honestly, it feels like there’s still another gear he can find, although that will probably be after an off-season of more acclimation and working with the coaches.
But for now, Boston can rest assured that their mid-season acquisition has come to win, and right when the team has needed him most, he’s risen to the occasion. Players who can operate as a chameleon within a rotation, and change forms to suit team needs are vital for postseason success, and while it’s taken a while for White to evolve into the player Boston needed him to be, it’s happening at the perfect time.
So, with a potential close-out game on Friday night, Udoka and the Celtics will look for White to continue being aggressive, because his diversity on both sides of the floor elevates his teammates, and creates opportunities that aren’t there otherwise.