Sometimes, you just know it's good.
A well-timed joke in the middle of conversation. That screen
pass you've been saving for the fourth quarter in Madden because
your buddy's been spamming a run blitz on early downs. A perfectly
placed bass run in the midst of a groove, for my musician friends
There's something about sensing an opening, taking advantage of
said-opening and immediately knowing you made
the right decision. Said the right thing, chose the right thing. It
just feels good.
That had to be the Derrick White trade for the Boston Celtics
For a team that wants to lock you down defensively — by erasing
gaps with well-timed switching, or siccing its in-your-jersey
defenders on unsuspecting ball-handlers while the big hangs back in
a drop — White served as a perfect target.
There were a handful of players in the league that could
navigate screens like White; close down on ball-handlers with pesky
rearview contests; switch onto bigger players and swipe the ball
away, or beat them to spots to draw timely charges. The Celtics
were tough enough with Marcus Smart; to add another guy like that
into the fold felt unfair.
And for a team trying to fully commit to moving the ball, as
elementary as that sounds, White also served as the perfect target.
The Celtics were just hitting their stride as an offense that could
create and maintain advantages in the half-court
without halting the show. White's ability to fit in — heck, his
willingness to fit in — made him an easy fit.
He could initiate ball-screens, come off handoffs, set pin-in
screens on the weak side, set pindowns for the stars to come off
of, and act as an on-ball screener to force defenses into tough
decisions. The shooting would serve as a bellwether of sorts, but
White fit into just about everything the Celtics wanted to do on
White integrated well last season, though inconsistent
three-point shooting — and waning aggressiveness — reared its ugly
head during the playoff run.
This season, he's been even better. More comfortable, more
aggressive. More efficient. For nearly a month now, he's just been
The Celtics have been without Smart since Jan. 21, when he
turned his ankle pretty badly towards the end of the first half of
their matchup against the Toronto Raptors. White was already
starting, but he's had to assume lead ball-handling duties since
To say White has been phenomenal in this recent run would be an
Over the past 11 games, White has averaged 20.1 points while
converting 54.3% of his twos and 43.6% of his threes on high volume
(7.1 attempts). He's dishing out 5.8 dimes (9.2 potential assists) per game
while rarely turning the ball over (1.5 turnovers). He's helped on
the glass (4.6 boards), and has continued to be a menace on the
You can really have some fun with filtering White's run
- Last eight games (6-2 record): 21.5 points, 6.3 assists (1.4
turnovers), 5.1 rebounds
- Last five games (4-1): 25.0 points, 8.4 assists (1.8
turnovers), 4.2 rebounds, 1.0 blocks
White has racked up at least 25 points and 10 assists in each of
his past three games — a streak he's never had in his career. He
just won Eastern Conference Player of the
Week, another feat he had yet to accomplish until this
What stands out about White's play is, again, how easy it feels.
That isn't meant to diminish what he's doing, but to highlight how
well he fits the Celtics' ethos. He's not pounding the ball to get
assists or boogying against defenders to get his buckets. He's
taking what the defense gives him, and doing so without
Take this possession for example:
The Celtics flow out of HORNS and look to hit either Jayson
Tatum or White with a cut. Both players are defended well, with
Jaren Jackson Jr.'s ball pressure on Robert Williams III also
hindering things. The second option — two-man game with Williams
III and Sam Hauser, testing the screen navigation of Ja Morant —
doesn't hit either. The ball swings to White, and the fun
White receives a screen but doesn't take it; he just waits it
out, and gets Xavier Tillman switched onto him. After swinging it
to the corner, the ball finds him again with Tillman out of
position after attempting a steal.
White immediately attacks the basket, driving right at Jackson.
Because Tatum is on the left wing, the left corner is empty —
meaning Dillon Brooks can't help without giving up an open shot on
the perimeter. And with Williams III rolling to the basket, Jackson
now has to choose between halting White's drive or taking away the
roll — with no help behind him. He chooses the former, opening up
the easy lob.
Quietly, White has been one of the most productive drivers in
the NBA over this stretch. He's been able to finish through
contact, avoid it altogether with a funky floater he can get to at
weird times and angles, and feed open teammates if the defense
overreacts to him.
During this 11-game run, possessions featuring a drive by White
have generated 1.17 points per possession (PPP), per Second
Spectrum. That ranks seventh among 45 players with at least 100
drives in that time frame, putting him in a virtual tie with James
Harden and ahead of All-Stars like Morant (1.15 PPP), De'Aaron Fox
(1.15 PPP), Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (1.09 PPP) and DeMar DeRozan
White's work as a screener continues to be important for the
Celtics. Because he naturally draws smaller matchups than Tatum or
Jaylen Brown, his inclusion as a lead blocker forces defenses into
Anything less than pristine screen navigation means giving one
of the stars an opening to attack. Switching a smaller guy onto
either of them is asking for trouble. Trapping or hedging simply
opens up short-roll opportunities for White. You can get away with
daring bigs to make quick decisions in space; you can't really do
that with someone as smart as White is.
And the defense. Whew, buddy, the defense.
You could make the case that White has been Boston's best
defender this season — a massive feat on a roster featuring last
year's Defensive Player of the Year in Smart. Brown remains a
strong on-ball defender; Tatum, when locked in, can provide
near-elite value on and off the ball. Williams III is still
rounding into form, but remains a terrifying rim protector. Horford
has been sturdy in drop, and still showcases comfort venturing out
But yet it's White pestering folks and causing the most havoc on
a nightly basis.
Among the 161 players to defend at least 300 pick-and-rolls,
only Desmond Bane (0.22%) has been washed out by a screen at a
lower rate than White has (0.26%), per Second Spectrum.
Put another way: Of the 760 screens that have been set on White,
only 20 (!) of them have taken him out of the play.
That, my friends, is absurd.
Because of White's ability to avoid being completely taken out
of the action, he's almost always in position to affect the play.
He'll fight to get back in front, mirroring ball-handlers before
forcing them into tough looks — or passing the ball
altogether. He'll get rearview contests if necessary, throwing
off the rhythm of pull-ups and floaters.
Then, there are the action plays. He leads the team with 11
charges taken, tied with Kyle Lowry and Herb Jones (he's back,
y'all) for 10th in the league.
No guard in the East has more blocks than White (53); only
Gilgeous-Alexander (55) has more in the league (and has a two-inch
height advantage). That White can get on-ball blocks
and serve as a secondary rim protector is a rarity
The combination of productivity and availability — he's the lone
Celtic to appear in all 58 games this season — should tilt the
"Boston's best defender" argument in his favor this season. And for
what it's worth, White leads all Celtics in Defensive Estimated
Plus Minus (DEPM) this season (+1.5), edging out Smart (+1.3),
Tatum (+1.2) and Horford (+1.2).
White has been everything the Celtics have needed him to be, on
both ends of the floor. A quality role piece and a quality roll
piece. A willing spacer. An All-Defensive level contributor — he
and Jrue Holiday would be my First Team guards if I had a
And when more has been required, like this Smart-less stretch,
White has stepped up in the equation. More buckets, more
decision-making and roughly the same level of defense.
He's further proven to be one of the most valuable role players
in the NBA. Not only can he slot into the Celtics' system on both
ends, he can also scale up or down depending on who's available.
That portion isn't true for most role players — even the good ones.
He deserves his flowers for that.