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Is Derrick White actually a top-15 center in the NBA?

The Celtics guard was one of the best rim protectors in the NBA last season.

Minnesota Timberwolves v Boston Celtics Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images

Rim protection is a big man’s game. Guys like Rudy Gobert and Brook Lopez have made a career out of being stalwarts in the paint, leading their teams’ respective defenses to top-notch seasons. In a league dominated by height, having a “7” in front of that number is almost a requirement. There are obvious exceptions. Slightly undersized bigs like Jaren Jackson Jr. and Robert Williams have excelled at protecting the rim thanks to their elite athleticism.

But there is no exception greater than Derrick White.

White is coming off the best season of his career, and the highlight was on the defensive end. His offensive numbers may not support the claim, but defensively, White was a top-15 center in the Association last year.

Take a look at this graph:

The Y-axis is how much better or worse players shot at the rim when guarded by a certain player, and the X-axis is how many shots that player guarded at the rim.

Not only did White guard more shots at the rim than any other player on the Boston Celtics roster, but opponents also shot roughly seven percent worse when he was guarding them. That’s right around where Al Horford ranked and better than Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

Now, look at the centers around him.

White guarded more shots at the rim than Myles Turner, Kevon Looney, Clint Capela, and Bam Adebayo and held opponents to a worse defensive field goal than expected than Joel Embiid, Evan Mobley, Deandre Ayton, and Jakob Poeltl.

White’s effectiveness around the rim has him in the top half of NBA centers. Only five centers last year guarded more shots at the rim and held opponents to a worse field goal percentage than expected - Gobert, Anthony Davis, Nicolas Claxton, Ivica Zubac, and Lopez. Included in those five players are 12 All-Defensive Team members and three DPOYs.

White wasn’t guarding the exact same caliber of players as the league’s starting centers, nor was he matching up against the same archetype of players. However, his rim-protection style is what makes him such an exceptional defender.

Rather than acting as a Lopez or Gobert on the defensive end, White plays the same role that Williams does for the Celtics and that Jaren Jackson Jr. plays for the Memphis Grizzlies — a free safety.

White was one of the best perimeter defenders in the league last year, as evidenced by his All-Defensive selection, but as a helper, he was even more effective.

Watch the Philadelphia 76ers get out in transition here. Tobias Harris finds a lane to the hoop past Grant Williams, but as he’s going up for the layup, White leaves James Harden on the perimeter and secures the chase-down block.

His awareness on the defensive end is unmatched, and despite standing at just 6-foot-4, White uses a perfect mix of timing and positioning to record some impressive blocks.

And when it came to meeting a guy at the rim, White was just as elite. Small frame and position aside, White’s timing once again reigned supreme.

Jrue Holiday blows right past Malcolm Brogdon on this play, putting the Celtics guard in the spin cycle. But rather than earning an easy bucket, Holiday got a date with White at the rim.

White’s ability to contest without fouling at the rim is a big part of what made him such a fantastic defender last year. Even when opponents got out in transition, he could still get a perfect shot contest. Just watch Cole Anthony try to draw contact on a fastbreak.

Running full speed, White was still able to jump in the air, get his hands straight up, and meet Anthony at the apex of his shot attempt.

As a guard, White will be lauded for his play on the perimeter, and rightfully so. He was one of the most effective point-of-attack defenders in the NBA last season. And as a center, White was just as effective, if not more.

White isn’t seven feet tall. He’s not 250 lbs. He won’t guard Joel Embiid or Nikola Jokic one-on-one in the post.

But when defending the rim, White is a top-15 center in the NBA.

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