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Derrick White on what makes a perfect role player: “You’ve just got to get over yourself”

White joined JJ Redick on his Old Man and the Three podcast and detailed how he learned to embrace his role, his defensive philosophy, and more. 

Boston Celtics v San Antonio Spurs Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

By now, even casual NBA fans are aware of the Derrick White All-Star campaign. While early voting returns weren’t particularly encouraging — White received the 8th most All Star votes among East guards – the modest campaign lives on. There’s been perhaps no greater Derrick White advocate than JJ Redick, whose years of D-White praise culminated in a viral Christmas Day tweet deeming White an All Star.

This week, White sat down with JJ Reddick on the Old Man and the Three podcast to talk about how he learned to thrive as a role player, what his approach to defense is, and how he’s broken out on the Celtics.

Derrick White credits a lot of his success this year to Jrue Holiday.

When Marcus Smart was first traded, White said he was initially shocked. He spent the summer preparing for the role of the Celtics’ starting point guard and embracing the notion that the ball would primarily be in his hand.

Then, the Celtics traded for Jrue Holiday just a day before training camp, a two-time All-Star point guard in his own right. What would that mean for White?

Turns out, the acquisition would help spell unprecedented success for White. The 29-year-old is averaging career-highs in almost every category – 16.8 points on 49% shooting, 5.2 assists, 4 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.3 blocks, while also converting on 41.7% of his three-point attempts.

“Jrue has just been the ultimate teammate and if I got it going or something, he’s willing to just stay in the corner and space the floor for us and make a play whenever he needs to,” White said. “Just having a guy like that who’s willing to do that who’s an All Star in this league just kind of gives me the trust to make a play, unlocks my game a little bit.”

In his first season in Boston, White shot just 30.6% from three. Now, just a year and a half later, we’re seeing him take step-back threes, pull-up threes, Steph Curry threes.

“My confidence right now is completely different from when I first joined the team, or even that whole season,” White said. “If I feel like I’m open, the team just believes in me to take and make those shots.”

In order to be a better defender, White had to accept that sometimes, elite offensive talent is just unstoppable.

While White has experienced an offensive explosion this year, he’s still a defense-first guy. He credits his time in San Antonio for teaching him to prioritize defense: “That’s kind of how I got in the rotation and into the lineup – the defensive end, just trying to chase around the best players and make them work. Eventually, my offensive game just caught up to my defense.”

White’s conversation with JJ Redick came on the heels of the Celtics’ loss to the Thunder, a game in which Shai Gilgeous-Alexander exploded for 36 points and made top-tier defenders like White and his backcourt mate, Jrue Holiday, appear average. Sometimes, that just happens.

White said as a defender, his goal is to prevent his matchup from getting to the free-throw line and getting easy baskets – oftentimes aiming to slash opponents’ free-throw attempts in half from their usual average.

“I feel like the ones that I can control are like when he gets past me and makes a layup, those are the ones where it’s like ‘I got to do better than that’,” White said. “But if I play good defense and he hits a fadeaway jumper over me… my first couple of years I used to get discouraged, get upset. But they’re good. They’re going to get shots. It’s about the ones that I can control.”

White names the key to becoming the perfect role player: getting over yourself.

Tommy Alter, a co-host of the podcast, asked Derrick White what actually makes someone a good role player.

“You got to get over yourself. It’s not about you,” White said. “There’s times when I won’t touch the ball for ten possessions in a row, and I’ve just got to be ready for when I do get my opportunity. It’s not about you out there. Obviously, you got to defend, you got to run in transition, you got to be in the right spots, and just always stay ready, which is not easy – it’s like, ‘you’re wide open, make a shot’, and it’s like ‘I haven’t touched the ball in ten minutes, this is crazy.’ But, stay ready, stay confident, and then be aggressive when it’s your turn.”

Derrick’s ability to embrace being a role player is a big reason why he has one of the highest +/- in the NBA – a +349 on the season, good for the sixth-best in the NBA. But putting winning first also means his stats aren’t always the most eye-popping. It doesn’t help his All-Star campaign, but it certainly helps the team. White has helped lead the Celtics to an NBA-best 28-7 record.

“Every time I’m out there, I’m just trying to help us win,” he said. “I’m not really trying to score 20. I don’t even care if I get 10 assists. I just want to help us win. I know there’s a bunch of little things that don’t show up on the stat sheet that help us win games. Those are the things that I’m trying to do each and every night.”

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