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Gregg Popovich credits Derrick White, Jakob Poeltl for Spurs’ defensive improvement

Derrick White, Gregg Popovich, Jakob Poeltl, Spurs

Coming into the 2018-19 season, skepticism regarding the San Antonio Spurs was mostly about the offseason losses of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green — generally considered the best pair of wing defenders in basketball. Could San Antonio, replacing two perennial All-Defensive team candidates with DeMar DeRozan and a host of unknowns, really be proficient enough on the defensive end to earn a playoff berth for a mind-blowing 22nd consecutive season?

Early returns suggested otherwise. The Spurs’ defensive rating on December 1st was 112.1, fourth-worst in the NBA. They’ve been significantly better in the interim, fortunately, ranking 18th in defensive rating while doing the heaviest lifting on the other side of the ball. As a result, San Antonio will soon clinch yet another postseason appearance.

Before his team’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers on Saturday, coach Gregg Popovich pointed to the play of youngsters Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl as the driving forces behind San Antonio’s in-season defensive turnaround.

“[Jakob Poeltl] takes up a lot of space. He’s pretty mobile and he allows [LaMarcus Aldridge] to do some other things,” he said, per Tom Orsborn of the San Antonio Express-News. “But Derrick White is a big part of that also. He sets the tone for us out on the perimeter.”

Jakob Poeltl, acquired in the Leonard-DeRozan trade last summer, has seen his playing time steadily rise of late. A seven-foot center with quicker feet than most behemoths, he’s been an objective plus defensively for the Spurs.

As Popovich suggests, though, it’s sophomore guard Derrick White who has emerged as the Spurs’ best overall defender. Routinely checking the opposition’s top perimeter threat, he ranks fifth among all guards in Defensive real plus-minus this season.