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Appreciating the scale of Derrick White's play for the Celtics

Appreciating the scale of Derrick White's play for the Celtics

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 reading this. 

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 last season.

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 both ends.

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 more, period.

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 then.

To say White has been phenomenal in this recent run would be an understatement.

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 defensive end.

You can really have some fun with filtering White's run too. 

  • 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 year.

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 hesitation. 

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 begins.

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 (1.05 PPP).

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 tough situations. 

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 in space. 

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 worth celebrating. 

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 ballot. 

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.

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