San Antonio Spurs

Derrick White has worked himself to the edge of NBA stardom

This — all of it — was unfamiliar for Derrick White, a player who wasn’t molded for the pros from a young age like so many today. Mock drafts were slotting him in the first round. NBA franchises leafed through his personal life and reached out to friends and family, inquiring about his character. Agents now courted him, tugging and grabbing on his jersey after games at the Portsmouth Invitational, an NBA pre-draft camp and tournament for collegiate seniors.

Following one game in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, his longtime trainer, Marcus Mason, whisked him away to Subway to refuel. He peered at the restaurant’s white and yellow letters, reclined in the shotgun seat, exhaled and said, “Thank you.”

Growing up, basketball served as a hobby, not a lifestyle. When he picked up the sport in kindergarten, nobody could contain him. He could dribble. Others couldn’t. He weaved through them like stationary cones. But he was small. So small. A pint-sized hooper powered by skill alone.

For nearly two decades, barriers outside of his control kept him from the elite ranks. Too short. Too skinny. A Division II star, then Division I. Good — not great.

Yet here he was, at the 2017 NBA Draft Combine in Chicago, sharing an elevator with Magic Johnson — the litmus test for point guards — hypnotized by the Hall of Famer’s mere presence.

“His eyes just lit up and I was kinda nudging him like, ‘Hey, calm down, calm down.’ When we got around the elevator and walked around the corner, he’s like, ‘You’re telling me to calm down, that’s Magic Johnson! That’s Magic Johnson!’ ” Mason said.  “I’m like, ‘Dude, that may be your boss, so chill out! You gotta act like you belong in the league because he may be your boss.’ He’s like, ‘I don’t care, that’s Magic Johnson!’ ”

Less than two years later, White is no longer starstruck by NBA aristocracy. His head coach is Gregg Popovich. He starts on a San Antonio Spurs team destined for the playoffs. He accepts the toughest defensive task each night, ranging from Kyrie Irving to Luka Doncic, all of which pose unique challenges.

“This year, it was that moment where it was like, ‘I’m out here playing against the top players.’ … I’m out here guarding the best player on the team,” White said. “I was like, ‘Wow, I’m really out here.’ I’m trying to make the most of it.”

Photo by Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Flip back to previous chapters of White’s basketball novel — ones where the word “Spurs” wasn’t splattered across his chest and he didn’t drive a car worth six figures — and the gravity of his brief moment with Johnson is revealed.

White entered Legend High School in Parker, Colorado, as a wiry, 5-foot-6 guard crowned with a bushy afro. His first year, he played tennis in the fall — simply because the team needed more members and he owned a racquet — basketball in the winter and baseball in the spring, a slap-hitting outfielder, who relied on his wheels to reach base. In 10th grade, he abandoned tennis and baseball and committed to basketball.

Legend was a brand-new school and White, a member of its first graduating class, received a starting role on the varsity basketball squad from the outset. His head coach, Kevin Boley, told anyone who asked that White — skilled but tiny — was the team’s best player.

“They’d look at him physically and they’d be like, ‘Really, that guy?’ ” Boley said. “I’d be like, ‘Yeah, he’s special.’ ”

Boley also served as the school’s strength coach and inherited a team entirely composed of freshmen unacquainted with weight-lifting practices. He taught them how to squat, bench and clean properly.

“[White] was like a little baby giraffe in the squat cage at times,” Boley quipped.

The tutelage lit a fire under White, who immersed himself in the craft and could soon explain the intricacies of various exercises. He and his father, Richard White, began venturing to their local Life Time Fitness, where Derrick leaned on his favorite lift, power cleans, to improve his explosiveness and build strength.

Adding muscle extended beyond a devotion to the weight room, though. A notoriously frugal eater whose palate largely consisted of salads and chicken nuggets, Derrick’s mother, Colleen White, pestered him to improve his diet during his younger years. When gaining weight emerged as a priority, he swapped salads for pasta with chicken and guzzled down protein shakes.

While Derrick methodically grew into a bigger frame, teammates outpaced his box-score numbers for two seasons. Then, as a junior, Boley’s confidence in the lead guard blossomed into production. Midway through the year, he ripped off a six-game stretch with 30-plus points each night.

He’d zip by defenders and hammer home dunks. He’d splash 3s off the dribble. A lethal spin move became his trademark. He’d glide into the lane and hurl passes — openings only he saw — to teammates.

“All of a sudden,” Boley said, “it was like, ‘Wow, this kid can really play.’ ”

Even then, as he rampaged through the Continental League, he didn’t hit 6-feet on a tape measure. Soon, blind faith in a growth spurt morphed into material hope.

After skying for a chase-down block in the penultimate regular-season game of his junior year, he crashed to the deck, felt a twinge in his knee and went to the doctor’s office for a diagnosis.

“The doctor said, ‘Well, you got good news and bad news,’ ” Richard said. “It was like, ‘Well, what’s the bad news?’ ‘Ok, well he’s probably not gonna play basketball anymore this season.’ ‘What’s the good news?’ ‘Well, his growth plate, because he’s a young kid, is still wide open and we see that he could grow to be 6-foot-5.’

“We kinda had that in the back pocket when they start doing the college recruiting.”

Photo By Kathryn Scott Osler/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Colleges didn’t care about those five inches. They saw a 6-foot, 155-pound senior, whose game didn’t offset physical deficiencies. Richard scoured the roster of every team in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) and sought out programs with upperclassmen-rich backcourts.

He compiled highlight tapes of his son and mailed them to universities. He signed Derrick up for team camps. They took unofficial visits to places like CSU Pueblo, Adams State and Western Colorado University. Programs labeled him a “nice player” but not the guy they wanted.

Boley preached to coaches that Derrick was worth the long-term investment, even if it required a developmental redshirt year.

“The coaches that came around just couldn’t get past how skinny, how immature physically he appeared and just weren’t willing to take that risk on him,” Boley said. “It’s ironic now because those same coaches and many more, every time they see me … they’re always asking me if I’ve got another Derrick White and my response is, ‘I told you about Derrick White the first time!’ A lot of people are kicking themselves for sure.”

One school told the White family that Derrick didn’t look mean enough or tough enough. Another, Metro State Denver, put it bluntly.

“They came and watched me play and after, they thought that I wasn’t good enough, even to walk on,” Derrick said. “That’s always stuck with me and motivated to me.”

Without any four-year scholarship offers, Derrick landed on Johnson & Wales University, a small culinary school in Denver. Yet when the head coach, Jeff Culver, was hired by University of Colorado Colorado Springs (UCCS) — which had originally prioritized other players — he extended Derrick an invitation to join him.

The plan was for Derrick to redshirt and continue developing physically, even when he sprouted up three inches after high school graduation and entered college at 6-foot-3. He was dominating in practice, clearly asserting himself as the team’s best player.

When UCCS sorely needed Derrick’s ball-handling and shot creation in a preseason scrimmage against Northern Colorado, assistant coach Jeff Sweet dialed up Culver the next day after a morning swim. Culver already knew the topic of Sweet’s call. UCCS needed Derrick. It didn’t have the depth of talent to redshirt him. Throw the plan out the window and recalibrate. Derrick was too good to watch from the bench in a suit.

That first season, the Mountain Lions finished 5-21 and Derrick, despite winning Freshman of the Year and averaging 16.9 points per game, lumped through common freshman mistakes. Missed defensive rotations. Biting on shot fakes. Sloppy turnovers. Poor shot selection.

“A lot of coaches would joke around about how bright green the light was that I gave him and I just had complete faith in his ability to do so much on the floor,” Culver said. “… He was my first recruit in. I was ready to roll with him and win or lose with him. [I] put the ball in his hands and let him go to work.”

In a game against CSU Pueblo, Derrick and fellow freshman Alex Welsh staked UCCS to an eight-point lead with 1:33 remaining. From there, the two showed their age. Derrick clanked a free throw. Welsh botched a layup. Derrick fouled a shooter, which led to a pair of game-winning free throws, and missed a 3 as time expired. UCCS fell 85-83.

Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post via Getty Images

“The next morning, we had an early practice and coach Culver actually brings us over. He’s like, ‘I’m really proud of you guys. I saw a spark of leadership.’ [He] gave us this great pep talk about how great we did,” Welsh said. “He’s like, ‘I want you to know that the reason we were in that game was because of you guys. But the reason we also probably lost it there at the end was because of you guys.’ ”

Prior to their freshman year, Welsh and Derrick established innate chemistry together during summer ball. Couldn’t explain it if they tried. They just clicked. Didn’t make sense. Didn’t have to. A fiery, outspoken big man and a steady, stoic guard dicing up opponents via the pick-and-pop.

Their synergy surfaced before they roomed together for three years. Before Welsh discovered the goofball Derrick was. The guy who regularly sat on the floor of their freshman year apartment, draped in a Snuggie, and watched “How I Met Your Mother.” The guy who was enthralled with Candy Crush, other puzzle games and often spent more time leveling up than taking notes in class, though still received better grades than Welsh. The guy who’d hit infield home runs during intramural softball. They guy who’d intentionally pick the worst teams in FIFA or NBA2K, just so he could win and talk smack. The guy who ate a bowl of Cocoa Puffs every day before 5:30 a.m. practice.

“I still give him crap today,” Welsh said. “He would eat so slow that his cereal would be mush by the time we were walking out the door.”

Oh, and he’d argue about anything.

“He’ll argue about baseball. He’ll get into it about hockey. I’ll be like, ‘Dude, when’s the last time you watched a hockey game?’ ” Welsh said. “… He gets all worked up about players and trades, especially in the NFL. He’s out there with his opinions. But he’ll argue them until the day he dies.

“He’ll argue with you that he’s not arguing.”

After that downtrodden, 5-21 first year, the duo commandeered UCCS to a 42-15 record, a pair of Division II NCAA Tournament berths and an RMAC title over the next two seasons. In the conference semifinals against Adams State his junior year, Derrick sprained his ankle, the championship only a day away.

He stayed in the pool, iced it, had it worked on by trainers and buried Metro State — the same school that once told him he wasn’t good enough to walk on — for the crown with 39 points, 10 rebounds and five assists on 11-of-21 shooting, including a long ball from NBA range that broke the game open. Back in the locker room, he donned a bucket hat, aviator shades and held up the No. 1 — his goofball personality shining through.

It was that year Derrick’s bravado materialized. He knew he was good. Really good. Too good. But it sparked an argument between him and Mason. He’d let players skate by him, confident he could swat them from behind, likening himself to LeBron James.

“I said, ‘That’s the dumbest thing I ever heard in my life. You let your guy beat you?’” Mason said.

In one particular game against Metro State, Mason was being interviewed by then-Denver Post reporter Nick Kosmider when Derrick opened the trap door for his man. Mason put the interview on pause. He knew a highlight was on the horizon. He’s gonna block this guy’s shot, Mason yelled.

As his man elevated, Derrick rose up, pinned the ball off the backboard and snatched it with two hands.

“I’ve never seen someone do that,” Mason said. “To have the mental capacity to say, ‘I can let this guy beat me. I’m gonna bait him into shooting it and then, I’m gonna block it’ as a point guard. When I saw that, I was just like, ‘Man, this dude is really good.’ ”

During his sophomore and junior seasons at UCCS, Derrick averaged 24.1 points, 6.9 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.8 blocks and 1.7 steals on 50.8 percent shooting. As a junior, he propelled UCCS to a 90-87 victory over Colorado Mines in the first round of the NCAA Tournament with 50 points, 14 rebounds, eight assists, three blocks and three steals. His final assist generated a wide-open 3-pointer with 1:11 to play and put the Mountain Lions ahead for good. By the time he left UCCS, he was the school’s all-time leader in points (1,912) and assists (343).

But Derrick’s best assists didn’t come on the court. They arrived on the bus after every game. Win or lose. Home or away. There was Derrick, touting Ziploc bags with his mom’s famous chocolate chip and snickerdoodle cookies.

“I can’t tell you how many Colleen White cookies I’ve eaten and it was a hit. He would get mobbed,” Welsh said. “It got to the point where he’d hide ’em. He’d throw ’em in his backpack and just hand one out to everybody because everyone loved them. That was money.”

Added Culver, with a slight chuckle: “I miss that just about as much as I miss him playing for me.”

NBA scouts began sniffing around the halls of UCCS that junior year. Derrick’s play had done enough to pique their interest. But he longed for a bigger stage. A place where he was more than a footnote on the national radar. A place where he could maximize his game. He’d exhausted all that UCCS had to offer. Two-time All-American. Two-time First-team All-RMAC. 2015 RMAC Tournament MVP.

He and his camp grabbed a legal pad to scribble down down the pros and cons of transferring to the University of Colorado (CU). Richard thought he should stay. Win a Division II title. Win RMAC Player of the Year. Check off more personal accomplishments. What if it didn’t pan out at CU? Why leave the perfect fit?

Everyone else supported the move. Richard was in the minority, persuaded by the allure of games on national television, a more advanced strength and conditioning program and better resources for academic success. Derrick was accepted into CU’s Leeds School of Business — one of the top business programs in the nation — furthering the list of reasons beyond basketball.

“It was my hometown state, still get to play in front of my family and friends,” Derrick said. “I used to watch Colorado growing up, so just getting an opportunity to put on that CU jersey, I thought it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Derrick had been to CU’s team camps when he was younger. Solid player, nothing more. There were hundreds of Derrick Whites out there. Every team had seven or eight just like him. He wasn’t on any Division I team’s radar. Boley shared a relationship with CU’s head coach, Tad Boyle, but even he didn’t advocate for his own athlete at the time.

“Not that Kevin Boley didn’t believe in him but I don’t think anybody projected him to be a Pac-12-level college player, much less an NBA player when he was in high school,” Boyle said. “And his high school coach loved him.”

The summer following his final year at UCCS, Derrick returned home to Parker and scrimmaged with NBAers like Jamal Crawford, Blake Griffin, Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry at Chauncey Billups Basketball Camp. Rather than grow too eager and press, attempting to leave an imprint among the crowd of professionals, Derrick merely blended in. After that stretch of chameleon-like basketball, Mason rung Billups and asked if Derrick had a shot at the NBA. Yeah, he may have a chance, Billups replied.

Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

So, Derrick packed on 20 pounds of muscle during his redshirt year. The new strength enabled him to heighten his trigger point and quicken his release. As a Buffalo, he splashed 39.6 percent of his 144 3-pointers after connecting on just 31.9 percent of them at UCCS.

Together, he and Mason refined his defensive technique. Once a stiff, upright defender who played with shoulders back and lacked leverage, Derrick transformed into a hounding pest, shoulders leaning forward, tucking himself into ball-handlers’ jerseys.

He made the CU gym his second home, spending hours alone practicing a “chair drill” to refine his ball-handling. Set up four chairs, begin at half-court, perform a distinct dribbling move at each station and finish at the rim.

“I remember him telling me one time, ‘I wanna get it like on a string, like I want my handles to be filthy,’ ” Welsh said.

When Derrick returned to the court for his final season, CU fielded three other fifth-year seniors. Derrick was still the best player. Just as Culver did years earlier, Boyle tried slotting him off the ball as a wing. Nope, that wouldn’t do. He was too good — a familiar theme — with the ball in his hands.

“It took us about a year to kinda see that and figure it out. And I see what’s happening in San Antonio now … I think San Antonio is realizing now that ‘Hey, this kid is pretty good with the ball in his hands.’ But what makes Derrick so special is his ability to play both [on and off the ball],” Boyle said. “He can play with it in his hands but he can also come off screens. He knows how to play without the ball. He understands spacing. He can cut. But man, when the ball is in his hands, he makes such good decisions. He’s gotten better and better in the pick-and-roll, even from the time he left Colorado. You see his growth in the NBA and it was much like his growth in our program. It takes us a while to figure out what he’s best at but he’s a player that just continues to grow on you every day you coach him.”

Controlling the reins, Derrick exploded, averaging 18.1 points, 4.4 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals. All-Pac-12 First Team. All-Pac-12 Defensive Team. Thirty-five points on the road at Arizona State. Thirty-one more against Utah. Another 31 in the Pac-12 Tournament against a seventh-ranked Arizona.

“As we were walking around [after the Arizona game], people were coming up, ‘Oh, your boy just made a whole lotta money tonight,’ ” Richard said.

Derrick had long been a chaotically effective defender. By design, he rarely guarded the team’s best player while at UCCS, programmed to freelance for blocks and steals. His anticipation and smarts were too lethal to pin on one player. At Legend, he dueled point guards to centers, like 6-foot-7 Josh Scott — his future teammate at CU  — when he was only 5-foot-9. Didn’t matter the matchup, Derrick would hold his opponent under their scoring average.

The Pac-12 was a different beast, though. During his redshirt year, Derrick often darted into passing lanes and plucked steals, only to be chewed out by Boyle. Gambling and wandering might have worked at UCCS or Legend but it wouldn’t here. Players were better. Athletes were more dynamic. Teams were smarter. They’d recognize those tendencies and exploit them. I’d get this steal and Tad would stop practice and yell at me for it. It’s crazy. They’re on me defensively, Welsh remembers Derrick telling him.

“I think that he was forced to be fundamental on defense,” Welsh said. “I saw that change in him.”

Once entirely left off draft boards, the production at a Division I pitstop solidified Derrick’s place in the pros, crescendoing with those invitations to the Portsmouth Invitational and NBA Draft Combine.

Draft day should have been calm. Derrick was expected to go late in the first round. Family friends hosted a watch party in Parker.

Nervously anticipating the evening’s festivities and naturally a doer, Derrick asked Welsh and former CU teammate Josh Repine if they wanted to spend the afternoon at a Colorado Rockies game. Under the blue sky and Colorado sun, those hours sped by quicker than fastballs being hurled from the mound.

They realized it was time to leave but highway traffic between Denver and Parker posed a thorny route. On the drive home, stress filled their car. They were late. Derrick rushed to throw on his nicest suit before finally settling in, expecting to be picked somewhere in the 20s. The 20th pick came: Harry Giles. Twenty-first pick: Terrance Ferguson. No worries, teams hovering around the 25th pick had previously expressed interest. Anzejs Pasecniks went 25th. Caleb Swanigan was 26th. Anxiety began to coat the room. People wondered: Was he gonna drop to the second round and miss out on a guaranteed contract?

Photo by John Leyba/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Derrick appeared unbothered, relaxing with his family. A commercial came on. His phone rang. It was the Spurs with the 29th overall selection, notifying him of his new home. But he wanted to let everyone else find out on TV, so he responded with vague pleasantries in a hushed tone. Oh, OK, cool, yeah, hey, it’s nice to meet you, too. OK, sounds good. Thanks.

He broke the news to his parents and girlfriend, Hannah, who couldn’t bottle up the joy, squealing with excitement.

“It was just surreal that a little kid from the town of Parker and [out of] all the other players, he got drafted,” Richard said. “He was never thought of super highly locally because there were always other kids. It was like, ‘Wow, he got drafted — and it was in the first round.’ It was pretty phenomenal.”

The paths Derrick traversed to reach this point are atypical. His recipe to breed an NBA rotation player is simple, though, even if they sound like recycled platitudes. He’s never dreaded an early weight room session or avoided time in the gym. When UCCS put him on a strict weight lifting program in his freshman year and flooded his diet with calories, he never complained or stopped grinding.

During the offseason, Friday nights on the town don’t exclude him from Saturday mornings in the gym. Success, at any stage, hasn’t altered his drive. At one point, the Spurs caught him firing up shots the night before a game — a tradition of his. You can’t. It’s too long of a season. You can’t be going in the night before a game and shooting, they told him.

While Derrick no longer wears sweats or basketball shorts every day — a newfound salary has spiced up the wardrobe — this sudden rise hasn’t influenced his persona. When Boley brought his Legend team to the Spurs-Nuggets game at Pepsi Center on Dec. 28, Derrick made a point to shake every athlete’s hand as they watched warmups from the court.

He remains a jokester, exchanging funny videos and posts in a Twitter group with Welsh, continues to argue about everything and seeks out any opportunities for competition.

“He’s still the same goofy dude. You’ll catch him lying around, having a bowl of cereal,” Welsh said. “He’s the same guy and sure, it’s cliche but it’s nice to see that in somebody because, obviously, it’s not the case all the time. Sometimes, people are claiming that when it’s not the case. It’s really the case. He’s the same, genuine, lighthearted [dude], just loves to hoop [and] became really good at it.”

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