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Derrick White continues to improve

Derrick White was Boston’s most impactful player on Saturday against the Hawks.

Atlanta Hawks v Boston Celtics - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

When the Boston Celtics acquired Derrick White in February 2022, the expectations were that Boston was adding a guard who could operate as a connector on both ends of the floor, not an elite offensive threat but a quick decision-maker whose presence would elevate those around him or a top-tier defender but someone that could fight through screens, switch across multiple positions and plug gaps within the team’s scheme.

During his time with the San Antonio Spurs, White earned himself a place within the fanbase's hearts, always even-keeled, rarely flashy. Just a hooper’s hooper. Yet, for a Celtics team that was looking to challenge for a championship, his addition, for some, felt like a lateral move considering Brad Stevens parted ways with Josh Richardson, who had been enjoying a renaissance off the Celtics bench, and Romeo Langford, a frustrating but still promising prospect.

White’s settling-in process was bumpy. Threes were hard to come by, and he was tasked with playing off-ball more than he was probably used to. However, in his first full season with the Celtics, White has gone from strength to strength. During the off-season, the veteran guard worked with assistant coach Ben Sullivan on his shooting form as he looked to eradicate the slight lean in his shot, and now, several months later, both he and the Celtics are reaping the rewards.

“Just go back to the basics. Try to work on not being flat, using my legs, trying to stay in the gym, and being consistent with my shot...Ben (Sullivan) was in San Antonio, so he knows a lot of the stuff I liked to do back then, and I like the stuff we’ve been working on...Higher release point, staying in it, a lot of the stuff you did when you were a kid. A lot of the time I lean back, so just trying to stay in it,” White said back in September.

As the season has worn on, White has found himself climbing the Celtics hierarchy and now is widely seen as the team’s third-best player, behind Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. In truth, those labels only serve fan and media discussions, but in practice, we’re seeing proof that White’s impact will be integral to the Celtics' postseason chances.

In Game 1, White found himself at the forefront of a Celtics performance that allowed them to smoke the Atlanta Hawks in the first half before taking their foot off the gas in the second. Yet, even when the pace had slowed, White’s decision-making, shot selection, selflessness, and defensive acumen were all still on show.

White and Dejounte Murray know each other well from their time together with the Spurs. As such, the competition between the two will be an interesting subplot for the Celtics' first-round series against the Hawks. During the first quarter of play, the above possession caught my eye as White and Murray went to battle on the perimeter, with the Celtics guard winning this head-to-head with some sound defense.

Among White’s best defensive attributes is his ability to stay in front of quick, shifty guards, opening his hips and lowering his center of gravity to steady himself and allow for rapid changes of direction and/or lateral/horizontal movements. Despite Murray looking to sell the crossover before driving to the rim, White remains locked in, challenging his former teammates' shot along with Robert Williams, who will always be a rim deterrent when healthy. A dump-off pass allows Clint Capela to score, but White’s defense ensured the Hawks were under pressure to get a bucket with the shot clock winding down. In the playoffs, consistent pressure will usually pay dividends throughout the course of a game.

One of White’s biggest improvements this season has been his shooting ability off the dribble. Throughout the regular season, 20.3% of White’s shot attempts were pull-ups, with a conversion rate of 53.2% from two-point range and 35.1% from three. As such, you can feel confident when White looks to navigate a screen before flowing into his shooting motion.

Another impressive aspect of White’s execution in the above play is how quickly he reacts to the Hawks' defense blowing up the Celtics' action. To begin the possession, it appears as if Boston is going to run something out of their Chin or UCLA series, with the only difference being whether the off-ball cut is ball-side or non-ball-side. As Atlanta cancels Tatum’s cut, White instantly pops onto the perimeter, receives a pass, and flows into an Al Horford screen before entering his shooting motion and subsequently draining a pull-up jumper.

Nevertheless, we saw more than just defense and scoring during White’s stellar outing against the Hawks. A key factor in coming through the Gregg Popovich system is learning the value of cutting without the ball and the opportunities that type of movement can generate for those around you.

As I alluded to in my article about cut creation, White is among the most impactful cutters on the Celtics roster, in part due to his scoring ability around the rim and inside the paint, utilizing floaters and push shots to punish any space a mismatched big affords him. Against the Hawks, it was actually White’s ability to penetrate with the rock and pressure the rim on drives that cause their opponents some difficulties.

First of all, can we just appreciate his exceptional use of a hesitation dribble? White’s twitchiness when on the ball must make it incredibly difficult for defenders to read his intentions, especially when he’s locked you onto his hips. It’s that unpredictability coupled with his offensive aggression that allows White to get to his spots at will, be it with the intent to score or to set the table for someone else, as he does for Jaylen Brown in this instance.

In a series where the Celtics already boast the best two players, having players who can connect everything together is essential. White is a playmaker — no, not just a player who generates opportunities for themselves or those around, but the type of playmaker New York Knicks head coach Tom Thibodeau was referring to after Josh Hart helped the Knicks defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers on Saturday — a player that gives the team what they need when they need it.

When I say playmaker, I’m not talking about a traditional sense of the past playmakers with the game leads,” Thibodeau said. “So if you need a big shot, he can provide that; if you need a big rebound, he can provide that; if you need a stop defensively, he can provide that; he goes for a loose ball, that’s what he is. He’s a playmaker. He’s gonna make hustle plays, make tough plays. He’s a great competitor. And he just plays to win. There’s no agenda other than winning.”

White, like Hart, joined his team with the expectations of being a high-level role player but has suddenly found himself thrust into the forefront of guiding his team towards their primary goal. Against the Hawks on Saturday, White shone in every area of the game, and something tells me that won’t be the only time we’re saying this before the curtain comes down on the Celtics season.

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