The journey of the trade deadline acquisition is a remarkably interesting one. Over the span of less than half of a season, players traded to contenders at the deadline essentially run the gamut of your typical offseason acquisitions in lightning speed; from “shiny new toy” to heightened expectations to over-examination of flaws in a fraction of the time.
Derrick White has been no exception. In the span of just 49 total games in Boston, White has been considered everything from the Celtics’ missing piece to a liability. Some viewed him as an ideal glue guy, solidifying weaknesses throughout the roster, while others saw his sub-optimal shooting as a critical concern, particularly given the departure of 40% three-point shooter Josh Richardson in the deal.
In White’s case, elements of both are true, but taken as a whole, he provided tremendous value off the bench for this roster. His acquisition at the trade deadline — and the resulting adjustment in playstyle that came with him in place of Dennis Schröder and Josh Richardson — was a major factor in this Celtics team achieving their upside.
It’s true that White’s shooting hasn’t been up to par. The Celtics hoped that the transition from a Spurs team with dire spacing troubles to playing alongside Tatum and Brown would help White rediscover his early-career shooting form, but while he did see a bit more daylight from behind the arc, it didn’t translate to tangible results. Per NBA Stats, 47% of his shot attempts with the Celtics were classified as open or wide open threes (up from 40% in San Antonio), but he shot just 30% on those looks, compared to 32% with the Spurs.
There’s no single answer to what caused White’s shooting struggles. It’s a small sample size, but for a player who isn’t traditionally a reliable shooter, it could just be a normal fluctuation in his results. It did seem as though he grew tentative at times, looking perhaps overly aware of his slump and hesitating to let shots fly as a result. And while the transition from the spacing-light Spurs to the Celtics might have been a positive change on paper, he also had to adapt to a new offense on the fly without a proper offseason or much in the way of practice. That introduces a possible avenue for improvement next season: he’ll simply be more acquainted to playing in this system.
That said, he was far from useless as a scorer. Though he was more inconsistent than anyone might have liked, he did showcase stretches where he was able to contribute from deep. He shot 43% from three across the last 10 games of the regular season as the Celtics solidified themselves as the second seed in the Eastern Conference. He also has other weapons beyond the jumper, as quietly a rather savvy finisher off the dribble in the paint. While he’s not the speed demon Schröder is, he provided similar rim pressure, finishing within 10 feet at a similar rate on comparable volume (52% for White vs 54% for Schröder). His floater is a legitimately useful weapon.
Jumper or no jumper, though, the scoring isn’t really the point. It’s the totality of White’s game that made a huge impact on this roster. The Celtics’ season turnaround was fueled by ball movement and defense, and both of those areas are in White’s wheelhouse. In essence, they took a bit of shooting off the table to bring a lot of everything else. He’s a much more capable playmaker than Schröder, and a more consistent defender than Richardson without giving up too much in terms of size.
The defense is the special sauce with White, who combined with eventual Defensive Player of the Year Marcus Smart to build a formidable point-of-attack defense on the perimeter. It’s almost as if the Celtics took Smart and cloned him; the duo both possess outstanding size, strength and versatility to create a unique challenge for opposing guards. White’s also versatile enough to line up alongside Smart, or relieve him as the point guard off the bench.
Screen navigation might very well be White’s most valuable attribute, as he has a preternatural ability to slither around the screener and contest shots, even from behind the shooter. His ability to navigate screens and comfortably switch particularly victimized the Miami Heat and the platoon of shooters who made them one of the league’s most prolific three-point shooting teams. Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Max Strus, Gabe Vincent and Victor Oladipo combined to shoot just 12-of-40 in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals, and the efforts of White were no small factor in bringing that to fruition.
On the whole, Derrick White is a reliable, high-quality role player in his prime, locked up long-term on a reasonable salary. That may not be the most exciting archetype of player, but it’s exactly the kind the Celtics need to be surrounding Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown with as they contend for a championship. Shooting is certainly a concern on this roster, but the team has plenty of other avenues to address it this offseason. Derrick White is an extremely good fit for this Boston Celtics squad, and should be a part of their quest to return to the NBA Finals.