San Antonio Spurs

Derrick White, deconstructed

A stat-sheet stuffer. A developmental miracle. A puppet-master. This is Derrick White, deconstructed.

The San Antonio Spurs are legendary for their ability to mine the diamonds no one else has been able to get to. Sometimes it’s a Patty Mills or Jonathon Simmons reclamation project, making use of a skilled player who hasn’t ever been put in the right position to succeed. Sometimes it’s their deep scouting and overseas connections, pulling in players like Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker or Davis Bertans. Sometimes it’s just getting creative, overlooking flaws and figuring out how to maximize a single skill in an unusual package — DeJuan Blair’s rebounding or Matt Bonner’s shooting.

Of course, the most celebrated is the imagination to simply see the diamonds no one else can see. Kawhi Leonard is the most famous because his cutting involved the biggest change and the result was the biggest and brightest. Derrick White is probably not in the same ballpark, carat-wise, but he still looks like a remarkable find. He looks like a George Hill.

The Spurs, somewhat famously, turned Hill into Kawhi but in the time before that upgrade Hill helped establish the well-worn path that Kawhi followed, the one White is now walking. The one that starts on the bench with modest expectations, which are pleasantly exceeded and yield a key role in the supporting cast. That role becomes entrenched and then expanded, continually at something more. Hill did his full flowering in Indiana and then Utah, after leaving San Antonio, but the trajectory was set both by his talent and skill and the way the Spurs cultivated and nurtured it.

White brings so much to the table for San Antonio and, like Hill and Leonard, seems set to begin a robust exploration in search of a ceiling that is, as yet, undiscovered.

Bobby Sura arrived in the NBA at the same time as League Pass and retired a year before Twitter was founded. Like many role players in the late 1990s and early 2000s, especially those on middling teams, he played his basketball career in a kind of digital vacuum, a void so dark national television couldn’t touch it. However, there was one place where Sura’s basketball talents pierced the veil of obscurity — Yahoo! Fantasy Basketball.

During his 11-year career from 1995 to 2005, Sura had 65 games with fewer than 15 points but at least 5 rebounds and 5 assists. That’s more than Gary Payton, Kevin Garnett, Penny Hardaway or Jalen Rose had over the time span. A powerfully built and athletic 6-foot-5 guard, Sura just rolled up and down the court, accumulating counting stats like Sonic the Hedgehog grabbing rings. It came to a head in his last season and a half, an 88-game stretch where he averaged 11.6 points, 6.4 rebounds, 5.2 assists and 1.0 steals per game for the Hawks and Rockets. With a narrow national television slate but fantasy basketball and box-score-watching as a window into the wider league, Sura’s tendency to fall a**-backward into ridiculous stat lines was noteworthy.

It was a simpler time for stats. Instead of mindlessly exploring Basketball-Reference’s Play Index, you (read: me) would stare at live Bob Sura box scores and let your mind extrapolate. “Shit, he’s got 4 points, 2 assists and 3 rebounds and it’s only five minutes in. Definitely a triple-double tonight.”

There isn’t connective tissue in the aesthetics of their games, but Derrick White is definitely cut from the same cloth as Sura when it comes to randomly stuffed stat lines. In his first real full season, White averaged 13.8 points, 5.5 assists, 5.1 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per 36 minutes. Those averages don’t reflect consistency though, but the mathematical smoothing of wild variation. There was his 14-point, 2-rebound, 8-assist, 2-steal performance in the second game of the year. There was a 10-point, 6-rebound, 3-assist, 6-steal gem against Denver in late December. And that epic 36-point, 5-rebound, 5-assist, 3-steal, 1-block in Game 3 against the Nuggets in the first round of the playoffs. Look through his game log for the season and it feels like some of the columns are just filled in by a random number generator.

That’s not to say there aren’t patterns, a method to the numerical madness. Like Sura, White is a player who is capable of everything — grab-and-go fastbreaks, hitting a diving big in the pick-and-roll, slicing to the basket for a nifty finish or stutter-stepping into a smooth pull-up jumper. Some players with that kind of versatility stand in the middle of the action, dictating everything around them. LeBron James. Peak Jason Kidd. Orlando Tracy McGrady. Healthy Brandon Roy.

Right now, White is supplementary, mostly using his versatility to circle outside the central action, working reactively, making plays and picking up counting stats. He’s already 25 but given the complexity of his developmental curve to this point and the way he was able to make himself such a problem for the Nuggets in the playoffs, it’s easy to imagine him stepping into a more proactive role — building ridiculous stat lines in a way that feels more intentional than incidental. To imagine White as that kind of player, filling that kind of role for the Spurs, healthy Brandon Roy is as good a template as any.

Roy’s career ended prematurely, snatched away by creaky knees, but across his first four NBA seasons, he averaged 20.2 points, 5.0 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.1 steals per game. The 6-foot-6 wing overwhelmed opponents with precision as opposed to explosiveness. He could do a bit of everything on offense but his most unique quality was decision-making, he was always in control, moving defenders, creating space, and picking the right tool for each possession. Roy was one of the most skilled players in the league and he set himself on a star trajectory by maximizing every last ounce of that skill.

Next: Examining Luke Kennard’s long-term upside

White’s emergence last season was driven, in part by unexpected opportunity. He missed almost all of his rookie season with injuries and dealt with two extended absences last year. But Dejoute Murray’s ACL injury, which kept him out all of last season, necessitated a complementary ball-handler next to DeMar DeRozan. With a backcourt rotation heavy on shooter likes Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes, White became the de facto point guard helping fill in the gaps around LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan. But both Aldridge and DeRozan are on the wrong side of 30 and playing on contracts that will be up as White hits his theoretical prime. On the current roster, there just isn’t anyone else whose track record demands a larger share of offensive primacy in the future as White. His playoff breakout against the Nuggets may even move the timeline up a bit.

Derrick White has survived with skill and talent, holding up against the buffeting dynamics of offensive and defensive systems that mostly treat him as a cog. The next step is thriving as the engine, using his versatility to turn the gears of this legendary Spurs’ machine.

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