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Derrick White’s coming-out party shows he’s the Spurs’ next unheralded star

Derrick White

Derrick White is the postseason’s most anonymous impact player. Well, at least for now. If the sophomore guard continues playing at the esteemed level he’s reached while leading his underdog team to a 2-1 lead over the Denver Nuggets in the first round, it seems only a matter of time until he’s the latest San Antonio Spurs gem to emerge as a star.

Just seven years ago, White committed to Division II’s Colorado-Colorado Springs as a six-foot guard without a scholarship, forced to settle for a room and board stipend after receiving no interest from any other four-year colleges. A textbook late-bloomer, he grew five inches by the time he enrolled at UCCS, starting every game of his three-year career with the Mountain Lions and leaving the school as its all-time leading scorer. After his junior year, White transferred to the University of Colorado, sitting out the 2015-16 season before becoming one of the best, if largely unheralded, players in college basketball, averaging 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game en route to First Team All-Pac-12 and All-Defense honors.

When the Spurs took him with the 29th overall pick in the 2017 draft, many league followers projected White as a likely steal – an assessment based more on San Antonio’s time-honored track record of finding meaningful contributors regardless of draft position than any unique insight into his game. If R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich believed enough in White to make him a first-round pick, he must have the tools to develop into a quality NBA player, right? But Popovich, he recently told ESPN’s Michelle Beadle, “never even knew he existed in the world” before White was drafted, and a rookie campaign spent mostly in the G-League again made him an afterthought.

When DeJounte Murray tore his ACL in an exhibition game, ending his 2018-19 season before it even started, an opportunity arose for White to break into the Spurs’ rotation. It didn’t happen immediately. White missed the first nine games with a heel injury, and after starting the first five games once he was healthy enough to play, came off the bench for 11 of the next 12 games, notching less than eight minutes of court time in three of those contests.

San Antonio was 11-14 before White took over as a full-time starter on December 9th. Popovich’s team went 36-20 over the remainder of the regular season, the league’s eighth-best record, with White emerging as its unlikely two-way bellwether. His on-court net rating of +7.3 over that timeframe ranked second on the Spurs behind Davis Bertans’, and they went just 1-5 in February when pain from plantar fasciitis in his right foot briefly kept him out of the lineup.

White’s per-game numbers – averages of 9.9 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in 25.8 minutes – during the regular season were barely notable, but digging deeper into the stats reveals a more encouraging portrait of his performance. He shot 52.9 percent on twos overall and 53.0 percent on 8.6 drives per game, using a unique blend of pace, length, and touch with the ball in his hands to establish himself as one of the league’s best perimeter finishers in the paint. Though he remains a work in progress from three, White knocked down 47.7 percent of his shots from mid-range during the regular season – a mark just better than Chris Paul’s. Speaking of the Houston Rockets star, he was the only point guard in basketball to rank above White in defensive real plus-minus, too.

Even before White exploded for a career-high 36 points in San Antonio’s Game 3 victory, he was already proving himself to a national audience on the postseason stage. White totaled 33 points on 21 shots over two games before the series shifted back to the Alamo City, helping force Denver’s Jamal Murray, broadly considered a future star, into 40 percent shooting despite his ridiculous shot-making exhibition in the fourth quarter of Game 2.

Murray, by the way, was also a non-factor on Thursday, scoring six points on as many shots and taking just one field goal attempt from inside the arc. When he wasn’t making life hell for Murray on offense, White was torching him on the other end, both in basic pick-and-roll action and while repeatedly taking advantage of the Nuggets’ plan to aggressively help off him away from the ball.

“He was obviously spectacular on both ends of the floor,” Popovich said after the game, per NBA.com’s Sekou Smith. “I’m not sure what else to say.”

Before White went off against Denver, the Spurs’ previous guard to score that many points in a playoff game was another late first-round pick with whom Popovich was mostly unfamiliar. Obviously, it’s too early to suggest White will follow in the footsteps of Tony Parker as San Antonio’s next great lead guard. But solely given the rapid development he’s made at every stop of his circuitous basketball career to date, at least, it would be foolish to expect anything less.