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CelticsBlog Player of the Year: Derrick White

The Celtics’ surprise hero was the easy choice for Player of the Year

NBA: Toronto Raptors at Boston Celtics David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Twenty-four weeks of regular season NBA basketball have come and gone, and each step of the way, we’ve taken a dive into small samples of the year and picked a player to be the week’s CelticsBlog Player of the Week. We’ve made 24 selections for 24 weeks, and though they trended top-heavy (for obvious reasons), an impressive portion of the Celtics’ roster found their way into this space at least once — 11 players, in fact. Now, one more award remains for us to dish out: Player of the Year. After 24 weeks of basketball, it’s time to narrow down this remarkably talented roster and recognize the season’s standout player.

Before we jump into the thick of things, how about the leaderboard? Here’s how our first full season of Player of the Week shook out.

Jayson Tatum: 6 selections — #1, #2, #10, #14, #19, #22

Jaylen Brown: 4 selections — #6, #11, #20, #21

Derrick White: 4 selections — #5, #15, #16 (two weeks)

Malcolm Brogdon: 3 selections — #12, #13, #17

Blake Griffin: 1 selection — #8

Sam Hauser: 1 selection — #3

Al Horford: 1 selection — #18

Payton Pritchard: 1 selection — #23

Marcus Smart: 1 selection — #7

Grant Williams: 1 selection — #4

Robert Williams III: 1 selection — #9

Honorable Mentions:

It feels a bit odd to list Jayson Tatum here, especially on the heels of a season in which he became the first player in franchise history to average 30 points per game. Make no mistake, this was a brilliant season for the Celtics’ young superstar, even if it came with some warts. Tatum had an MVP-caliber season in a year a remarkably stacked field of candidates, and there’s no shame in finishing just short of the Joel Embiid, Nikola Jokic and Giannis Antetokounmpo trifecta in the season’s MVP hierarchy. He should rank among the favorites for the league’s most prestigious individual honor again next year.

Tatum had the highest highs, but Jaylen Brown was more consistent. It felt as if Brown as a mortal lock to score at least 25 on any given night, providing a steadying element to the Celtics’ offense. On the shortlist of the league’s best #2 options, Brown certainly ranks near the very top. He’s likely going to be named an All-NBA selection for the first time in his young career, and earn himself a well-deserved pay raise in the process.

Smaller shout-outs are in order for Malcolm Brogdon and Al Horford here. Both excelled in very specific roles this season, and both ranked among the best three-point shooters as well. If we’re handing out the award based solely on vibes, nobody comes close to Blake Griffin. The 34-year-old has been a terrific locker room presence and capable spot starter all season long.

NBA: Charlotte Hornets at Boston Celtics Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

CelticsBlog Player of the Year: Derrick White

82 GP, 28.3 MPG, 12.4 PTS (46% FG, 38% 3PT), 3.6 AST, 0.7 STL, 0.9 BLK

If you polled Celtics fans in the preseason for their Player of the Year predictions, it would have been a shock to see Derrick White even finish in the top five. Now, 82 games later, he feels like the only real choice. The numbers don’t quite present the full picture here. White may not be the best player on this roster, but it’s impossible to deny that he’s been one of the most important. In a season where things didn’t necessarily always go as planned due to injuries and coaching turnover, the Celtics nonetheless finished with the second-best record in basketball. There have to be players who step up to the plate to make something like that happen, and nobody stepped up more than White.

The Celtics’ guard room has an impressive trophy case. Smart is the reigning Defensive Player of the Year for a few more weeks, and an annual All-Defense pick, while Brogdon is potentially on the verge of claiming this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. But it’s White who has been the most impactful of the bunch this season (a reminder to All-NBA voters: Jaylen Brown is a forward).

Brogdon’s position as a 6MOY favorite has likely been made more secure by White’s usage as a fill-in starter; if not for the fact that White has started a whopping 70 games, he’d likely be the top candidate in the field himself. Ticketed as the seventh — or even eighth — man in the preseason, White ended up with the second-most starts on the roster. He was the only Celtic to appear in all 82 games, and one of just 10 players league-wide to accomplish that feat. Availability is a valuable trait, and White answered the bell every time it rang this year, whether that required him to fill in as a starter or come off the bench.

The defensive impact is obvious. White should be a lock for an All-Defense spot — likely first-team. He’s a terror at the point of attack, savvy and unbothered by screens. And, oh yeah, he’s the best shot-blocking guard in the NBA. His 76 blocks this year comfortably led all guards this season, 11 more than second-place Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Even on the off chance you do manage to get one over on White off the dribble, you haven’t quite won just yet.

White’s value as a defender has never been in question, but as we’ve discussed on numerous occasions since he joined the team at last year’s trade deadline, his ability to function on the offensive end of the floor has a tangible effect on his ceiling. He’s a skilled driver and a quality connector, always keeping the ball moving and making those boring, necessary reads and passes that grease the wheels of great NBA offenses.

The problem is the shooting. In the golden age of NBA offense, nothing threatens your ability to score the basketball more than a ball handlers that can’t shoot. White has hovered between acceptable ranges and the danger zone for much of his career, and arrived in Boston on the lower end of that scale. In his first postseason with the Celtics, he didn’t have an answer. He shot just 36% from the field and 31% from three, at times bogging down the Boston offense as a non-entity from a scoring perspective.

In December, it looked like the worst version of White had returned. The whole roster collectively came down to Earth from their hot start to the year, but nobody cratered harder that he did. His shooting splits fell to .374/.235/.853, and those postseason concerns from last summer once again rose to the forefront.

White responded by simply not struggling for any other stretch of time the rest of the year. He shot 37% or better from three-point range in every other month of the season (excluding April’s four game sample), becoming a consistent deep threat that defenses could no longer ignore. He slammed on the gas at the end of January, kicking off a stretch of 20 double-digit scoring performances in 21 games. In February, he averaged a remarkable 19-4-5 stat line on 34 minutes per game, connecting on 41% of his three-pointers.

Most of White’s threes — about 80% — have been of the catch-and-shoot variety, as he’s adapted to fit snugly around the team’s primary shot-creators. There’s some off-the-dribble juice in there, too, though. He knocked down 35% of his pull-up threes this season. That’s not an incredibly remarkable number, but it’s certainly enough to occasionally punish defenders who think they can afford to go under his ball screens.

It was during this stretch that White’s season peaked. On the week of February 6, he averaged 24.5 points, 4.8 rebounds and 7.5 assists en route to a perfect 4-0 record for the Celtics. The streak earned White his third straight CelticsBlog Player of the Week award, and — perhaps more notably — the first NBA Player of the Week award, taking home the hardware alongside the Western Conference’s Gilgeous-Alexander. On February 10 against the Hornets, he had inarguably the best game of his career: 33 points, 8 made threes, 10 assists and 3 blocks.

In all, this was a revelatory season for Derrick White. Considering his defensive excellence and his significant improvement on the offensive end of the floor, he has been undoubtedly the most impactful Celtics role player this year. He’s been Boston’s iron man, and the Celtics have needed every minute. An undoubtedly deserving pick for Player of the Year.

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