If you head over to our RAPTOR ratings page, there’s something that should jump out at you 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 JokiÄÐâ¡, Luka DonÄÐÐiÄÐâ¡, Damian Lillard, Joel Embiid, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, James Harden, Darius Garland, Kyrie Irving, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum and Jimmy Butler.
And then there is Boston Celtics guard Derrick White. Much like was the case with then-Denver Nuggets wing Will Barton a few years ago, it’s obvious that White is not a top-12 player in the league. But he has a rating that paints him as such because he has produced at an above-average level across the board, and done so exclusively in the context of lineups that — to use a technical term — kick ass.
Boston has outscored opponents by 10.6 points per 100 possessions with White on the floor this season, per 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 plummeted to just plus-0.2 per 100 possessions, and the 10.4-point differential between those two poles is the largest among Celtics regulars by a significant margin.1 Clearly, White is doing something very right in his minutes. But what?
One of the primary ways White has provided significant value to the Celtics is in his ability to seamlessly shift between multiple roles. The Celtics acquired him at last year’s trade deadline to serve as their backup point guard and occasional part of the closing five when then-head coach Ime Udoka decided to go with a small-ball look down the stretch. This season, White was again ticketed to be a reserve but has instead typically rolled with the starters, coming off the bench in just 10 of his 62 games played.
When Williams (a center) sat out the first 29 games due to injury, it was White who slid into a smaller starting lineup.2 When Marcus Smart (a guard) recently missed about a month’s worth of action, White again stepped into a bigger lineup — and had arguably the best stretch of his career: In 35.1 minutes per game across 11 contests, White scored 20.1 points a night on 49.1 percent shooting from the field and 43.6 percent from three, while also grabbing 4.6 rebounds and dishing out 5.8 assists per game.
He connected on multiple treys in every one of those games, as well as the next three games after Smart’s return to the fold. The list of players with a 14-plus-game streak where they connected at least twice from outside the arc this season is not very long, and it consists almost exclusively of high-level snipers. A career 34 percent 3-point shooter prior to this season, White is not necessarily someone you would have expected to end up on that list. But there he is.
White’s career-best shooting season has been aided in part by his shift to playing off the ball more often. According to Basketball-Reference.com, he’s been assisted on a career-high 50.7 percent of his 2-point shots and 89.2 percent of his threes. He’s also taken a significantly larger share of his threes from the corners. Through his first five seasons, just 17.3 percent of his treys were corner threes; 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 good work with the ball in his hands, though. In fact, quite the opposite is true. According to Second Spectrum, there are 85 players who have been the ballhandler in at least 500 pick and rolls this season. Among that group, White’s pick and rolls have generated the 12th-most points per play (1.093) when either he or a teammate one pass away has taken the shot. White has also been one of the league’s most effective finishers on the drive this season, converting shots at the same rate as players like Anthony Edwards and Lauri Markkanen, per 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 on the drive.
The key to White’s shape-shifting abilities this season, according to Celtics head coach Joe Mazzulla? “I think his humility,” Mazzulla said Monday. “His career path, playing at different levels. I think he’s just a guy that loves playing basketball. He can play in pick and roll, can play off the ball, and just competes at a high level.”
White was practically unrecruited out of high school, receiving exactly zero scholarship offers from Division I programs. He played three seasons at Division II University of Colorado Colorado Springs, then transferred to Colorado and became a first-team All-Pac-12 player and a member of the conference’s 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 year after that, he became a starter. The year after that, he played well enough to earn himself a contract extension. Then, he stood out to the point that he became a primary trade target for a title contender. Now, he’s one of that team’s most important — and most effective — players.
Maybe his top-12 RAPTOR ranking feels a little bit excessive. But there’s no doubt that the Celtics wouldn’t be where they are now without White playing a central role.
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