If you go to our RAPTOR reviews page, there’s something you should see right away. So far this season, just 12 players have produced at least 7.0 RAPTOR wins above replacement. Among that group are 11 players who can reasonably be considered stars: two-time reigning MVP Nikola Jokić, Luka Dončić, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, James Harden, Darius Garland, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler.
And then there’s Boston Celtics guard Derrick White. Just like it was with then-Denver Nuggets wing Will Burton a few years ago, it’s clear that White isn’t a top-12 player in the league. But he has a rating that qualifies him as such because he’s produced at an above-average level across the board, and he’s done so solely within lineups that—to use a technical term— kick.
Boston has outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with White on the floor this season, according to NBA Advanced Stats, tied with Robert Williams III for the best mark on the team. The Celtics’ scoring margin with White on the bench has dropped to just +0.2 per 100 possessions, and the 10.4 point difference between those two poles is the largest among regular Celtics by a significant margin. Clearly, White is doing something very right with his minutes. But what?
One of the main ways White has provided significant value to the Celtics is his ability to seamlessly switch between multiple roles. The Celtics acquired him at last year’s trade deadline to serve as their backup point guard and occasionally part of the bottom five when then-head coach Ime Udoka decided to go with a little look. This season, White was again ticketed as a reserve, but instead mostly played with the starters, coming off the bench in just 10 of his 62 games played.
When Williams (center) missed the first 29 games with an injury, it was White who slipped into a smaller starting lineup. With Marcus Smart (guard) recently missing about a month’s worth of action, White stepped back into a bigger lineup — and had arguably the best run of his career: In 35.1 minutes per game over 11 games, White scored 20.1 points per night. 49.1 percent shooting from the field and 43.6 percent from three, while also grabbing 4.6 rebounds and 5.8 assists per game.
He connected on multiple plays in each of those games, as well as the next three games after Smart returned to the fold. The list of players with 14-plus game streaks where they connected at least twice from beyond the arc this season isn’t very long and consists almost entirely of high-level snipers. A career 34 percent 3-point shooter before this season, White isn’t necessarily someone you’d expect to end up on this list. But there it is.
White’s career-best season was helped in part by a shift to playing off the ball more often. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he has been assisted on 50.7 percent of his 2-point shots and 89.2 percent of his 3-pointers. He also took a far greater share of his 3-pointers from the crease. Through his first five seasons, just 17.3 percent of his threes were 3-pointers. this season, that share has nearly doubled to 32.2 percent, and he’s connected on those shots at a 38.7 percent clip.
That’s not to say White hasn’t done a good job with the ball in his hands, though. In fact, the exact opposite is true. According to Second Spectrum, there are 85 players who have been the ballhandler on at least 500 pick and rolls this season. Among that group, White’s pick and rolls have racked up the 12 most points per game (1,093) when either he or a teammate has taken the shot. White has also been one of the league’s most efficient finishers on the drive this season, converting shots at the same rate as the likes of Anthony Edwards and Lauri Markkanen, according to NBA Advanced Stats. There are 120 players averaging five or more drives per game, and White is in the top quartile among that group in field goal percentage.
The key to White’s shape-shifting abilities this season, according to Celtics coach Joe Mazzulla? “I think his humility,” Mazzulla said Monday. “His career, playing at different levels. I think he’s just a guy who likes to play basketball. He can play in pick-and-rolls, he can play off the ball and just compete at a high level.”
White was virtually unrecruited out of high school, receiving exactly zero scholarship offers from Division I programs. He played three seasons at Division II Colorado Springs University, then transferred to Colorado and became a first-team All-Pac-12 player and member of the conference All-Defensive team. The San Antonio Spurs made him a first-round pick, but he was barely a factor in the rotation as a rookie. He spent most of that season either injured or in the G League. But the next year, he became a starter. The following year, he played well enough to earn a contract extension. He then stood out to the point where he became a prime trade target for a title contender. Now, he is one of the most important – and most effective – players on this team.
Perhaps his top-12 RAPTOR ranking looks a a little bit too much. But there’s no question the Celtics wouldn’t be where they are now without White playing a central role.
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