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The Celtics Found Their Missing Piece

Derrick White is everything Boston needs, but can the former Spur get up to speed before the playoffs begin?

As his mind started to race, Derrick White couldn’t think. Gregg Popovich had just walked into his hotel room in Atlanta, on the morning of Feb. 10, to deliver surprising news: the Spurs were trading White to the Celtics.

He heard Pop’s words but couldn’t process them. We think you're going to be great out there. Keep going. They spoke for an emotional five minutes. Or maybe it was 10. White can’t remember. He thanked the only NBA coach he’d ever had for imparting crucial life lessons and reams of basketball knowledge.

When Pop left, White called his pregnant wife and told her about the cross-country move they were about to embark on. She peppered him with questions he couldn’t answer. But when he took a call from Brad Stevens, who told White how eager Boston was to have him, his feelings started to shift.

“It's kind of crazy,” White says, looking back. “Because you feel like you're not wanted in San Antonio, but then you see how much Boston gave up to pursue you and it's pretty exciting.” (To get him, the Celtics surrendered Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a top-four protected first-round pick in 2022 and a pick swap in 2028.)

After he hung up with Stevens, White looked at his phone and saw a text from Will Hardy, the 34-year-old Celtics assistant coach who, up until this season, had worked with White in San Antonio ever since the team picked him 29th overall in the 2017 draft.

White called Hardy two minutes later. “I just said to him, number one, I know that this is shocking, and probably hard and weird, and you're feeling a wide range of emotions, so I don't want to discount that at all,” Hardy recalls. “But we're really excited to have you. The entire organization, I just want you to know, man, everybody here was really, really excited when this trade happened.”

(Jayson Tatum reached out shortly thereafter. The two having played together on Team USA back in 2019, along with Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown.)

The previous night, White had scored 17 points on the losing end of a game in Cleveland, for a team that was 20–35 and a Hail Mary away from competing in the playoffs anytime soon. A few hours later, White stepped off a plane in Massachusetts, set to join a threatening upstart that had just won eight of its previous nine games. The whirlwind was just beginning. He still had to take a physical, introduce himself to new coaches and teammates, and readjust to a life that would be dramatically unlike the one he’d lived the past four years—on and off the court.

Waiting for him at the airport was Hardy. The two friends met in disbelief. For a moment, they just looked at each other in silence with faces that asked the same question: What just happened? Then, sitting side by side in Hardy’s car, all they could do was laugh.

But this wasn’t just a reunion of two minds molded by a model franchise. It was day one of a new team-player relationship that has the potential to be one of the league’s more mutually beneficial. White isn’t a star. He’s an intelligent, crafty, adaptable role player whose ego can fit through a keyhole. To take the next step and accentuate a core (Tatum, Brown, Smart, Rob Williams, etc.) that’s as gifted and dynamic as any other, this iteration of the Celtics needed exactly that—which, as opposed to an All-Star, is in some ways even harder to identify and acquire.

White, 27, personifies a solution in the short- and long-term. He was already educated in the same school of 0.5 offensive philosophy that Celtics coach Ime Udoka spends every day drilling into his new team. “We don't want ball stoppers,” Udoka says. “He's a guy that understands what we want with the quick decisions. Catch it, shoot it, drive it, pass it.” Positionally, White is the true combo guard Boston’s roster didn’t have before he arrived, comfortable on and off the ball. “He basically checked a lot of boxes,” Udoka adds. “[And] kind of does what Josh [Richardson] and Dennis [Schröder] did, wrapped into one.”

At the same time, White has appeared in only 13 games and is still working his way through a new experience. There are nights when he’s too passive on offense and makes mistakes on defense. “You come to a new place and you have guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart on your team, that have been here for a long time, the human instinct is—defer is maybe too strong of a word—but to sort of look to them,” Hardy says. “And those guys have been great at empowering Derrick, like, ‘Hey man you don't have to look for us every time. Go score! Play!’”

He’s under contract through 2025, but it’s this postseason when White’s impact can very well be the difference between Boston raising its 18th banner and scuffling toward an early postseason exit.

He’s an ideal fit, in theory. But ideal fits guarantee nothing but hope. For White and the Celtics to unlock the best version of each other before the year is through, they’ll need to grow on an accelerated timeline. It’s easier said than done. But the opportunity to try was one Boston couldn’t afford to pass on.

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Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) looks on during the second half against the Denver Nuggets.

Earlier this season, the Celtics were disjointed and exasperating. They walked into training camp with continuity and a seemingly cohesive roster that was well-stocked for a deep playoff run. Instead, their wheels teetered as they backed out of the driveway. As Udoka implemented his new system, Boston’s adjustment period included awkward chemistry issues.

"Every team is programmed and studied to stop Jayson and Jaylen,” Smart said after a total collapse against the Bulls on Nov. 1. “I think everybody's scouting report is to make those guys pass the ball. They don't want to pass the ball.” Two months later, after another disheartening loss against the Knicks, Udoka said his team lacked mental toughness and didn’t have any leadership.

Through it all, there were calls to break up Tatum and Brown, two ball-dominant phenoms who were struggling to complement each other. But as they discovered a defense-first identity and started to coalesce after a monsoon of injuries and health and safety protocol-related stays, the Celtics started to win, with a net rating that validated preseason expectations.

As the trade deadline approached, their posture was entirely unpredictable. Moving on from key contributors was out of the question, but that didn’t mean they’d prioritize present-day improvement, either. The likeliest scenario was a sell off of a veteran or two to squeeze under the luxury tax and maybe pick up some future asset for the trouble. Their in-season turnaround was reassuring, but not to the point where an immediate push felt urgent—especially with Tatum about to turn 24 and Brown having celebrated his 25th birthday in October.

Instead, shortly before the Sixers and Nets rearranged the league’s power structure with a blockbuster deal that appeared to bolster two teams in their own division, the Celtics delivered a more narrow shockwave by acquiring someone who was basically designed in a lab to complement everything they already had. At best: White could be the missing puzzle piece, a master of all the little things every winning team needs on both ends. White’s on-court priorities reflect his journey—which includes three seasons at Division II’s Colorado-Colorado Springs. “He doesn't think anything is owed to him,” Hardy says.

(White is a quiet person, almost subdued, so much to the point where Hardy’s favorite memory coaching him came in White’s hometown, in a playoff game against the Nuggets, when he dunked on Paul Millsap and let out a primal scream. “It was just kind of like one of those moments where you saw all this confidence come out of him. I seriously don't know if I'd ever seen Derrick yell up until that point.”)

He embraces subtlety and flourishes inside discombobulation. The faster and more random the action, the more relaxed he seems—whether that’s pushing it in transition, setting a ball screen or running a pick-and-roll. For the opposition, all that activity makes him so challenging to solve. When asked what the hardest part about facing White used to be, Smart starts to answer before the question is even finished: “He never stops moving.”

White currently has less offensive responsibility than he did on the Spurs earlier this season, but that’s not a problem. “Having guys like JT and JB, obviously they're going to demand the ball a little bit more, but I feel like it’s kinda like it was most of my career,” he says. “When you’re playing with [DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge] you're just cutting, spacing, driving, attacking.”

On Feb. 10, Boston ranked 21st in assist-to-turnover ratio and 19th in assist rate. Since, they’re fourth and seventh in those two categories, respectively. The percentage of their two-point field goals that are assisted with White on the floor is 13% higher than when he sits—best on the team among all players who’ve logged over 300 minutes.

It’s indicative of how reductive basic stats can be when judging White’s impact. He’s averaging 10.7 points, 3.4 rebound and 2.9 assists per game, but as someone who doesn’t think before he kicks the ball ahead, draws a charge (only two plays have taken more this season) or cuts into a gap so the man behind him will have an open three, some of White’s effect should be measured elsewhere, if it can be quantified at all.

Since he entered the NBA, his team has always outscored opponents when he’s on the court, and been better with him on it than off. According to 538’s RAPTOR metric, White currently ranks 20th overall. He also ranks third in Defensive Estimated Plus-Minus, behind only Draymond Green and Gary Payton II. On Feb. 8, two days before the trade deadline, 538 gave Boston a 7% chance to win the Finals and a 15% chance just to make an appearance. Today, both those percentages have more than doubled.

Not everything is gravy, though. White has made only 24.6% of his threes since the trade, which is third-worst among all players who’ve attempted at least 50 since the deadline. It’s a small sample size but worrisome when compounded by him shooting only 31.4% as a Spur earlier this year. The Celtics aren’t concerned, and neither is White, who made a respectable 39% of his catch-and-shoot threes in 2019–20 and 37% last season.

“I got off to a horrible start this season,” White says. “I'm not super worried about it, just knowing that I'm gonna get good looks because there's gonna be a lot of attention on other guys. I've just gotta step up and knock it down.”

Inconsistent outside shooting matters. But it may be less of a red flag for someone who understands how important it is to get the ball into the paint, who drives and kicks to create better looks, draws fouls and can finish inside without assistance. (Also, 31.7% of Boston’s shots are at the rim when he plays and 26.9% when he sits—the largest difference on the team.)

Defensively, White makes perfect sense in Boston. But it’s also taken time to familiarize himself with the complexities of a switch-everything scheme unlike anything deployed in San Antonio. “It's been fun, but sometimes in certain plays I feel like I'm just a step behind,” he says. “One step too late.”

Boston Celtics forward Jayson Tatum (0) and Derrick White (9) and forward Aaron Nesmith (26) react to a score against the Philadelphia 76ers.

At 6’4” and 190 pounds, White can hold his own against a broad variety of offensive talent. He’s tough, quick and intuitive. At the same time, whether it’s on or off the ball, becoming proficient in a system that demands split-second decisions between teammates who have to be on the same page at all times doesn’t happen overnight.

“To go from the instinct 'Oh, I have to stay with my guy’ to ‘I have to be aware of where all the other guys are coming from’… it's a different thing,” Hardy says. “When you play in a game, you're reacting, and you're trying to be instinctual, based on habits that you've built in practice. And if you haven't practiced this way much, those instincts and those habits aren't quite there yet. … He's getting a little bit better each game.”

Another hurdle White has to overcome is his former coach’s loathing of fouls; ranking near the top in defensive free-throw rate is a fundamental part of San Antonio’s identity. That’s not the case in Boston, where physicality is preached as a strength. “I've talked to him about, you know, you're gonna get a foul or two playing as aggressive as we want to at times,” Udoka says. “So you have to kind of change your mindset … it's O.K. to take a foul.”

From his debut, though, the Celtics haven’t altered anything they do with White on the floor, and don’t hesitate to put him on the opponent’s top threat. He switches onto bigs and battles to deny entry passes in the post. He blows up dribble handoffs, clogs gaps and makes countless decisions off the ball that exemplify his high IQ.

“When he comes in and we're both in, I've been guarding their best player all game,” Smart says. “I probably might need a break. So having Derrick relieve me of those duties for a little bit is something that's definitely big. He allows me to … have that energy late in the fourth.”

Udoka doesn’t enter games knowing who will close. Over the course of 48 minutes he sees who’s playing well, who’s struggling and goes from there. There are nights White watches from the bench, but having him as an option—particularly in the postseason, when teams inevitably go small—is invaluable.

“When he's playing this well we can go in a lot of different directions, based on downsizing or upsizing,” Udoka says. “We can go with Al and the starters or Rob and, at times Grant is playing really well, we want a little more size out there. But also when [White], Jayson, Jaylen and Marcus are out there it's a lot of playmakers, a lot of shooting, you don't have a lot of weaknesses out there.”

At their best, White will reinforce a playoff rotation that no longer has anyone to pick on. From Isaiah Thomas to Kyrie Irving to Kemba Walker, the Celtics have given opposing offenses a target. It’s here where Boston’s trade for White could be remembered as a transformational coup de grâce, the nudge it’s long needed to get over the top. “We've had versatility on previous teams on the offensive end, but to have that both offensively and defensively? That's what he brings,” Smart says. “It's something that's definitely going to be a factor for us going into the playoffs.”

Six weeks ago, the only NBA existence White knew was in a silver and black jersey, with a franchise that drafted, developed and taught him how to stick in a league that churns through superior athletes. He earned a four-year, $70 million contract and assumed San Antonio would be his home forever. Now he’s in Boston, playing an integral role on a title contender.

“I'm pretty excited,” he says. “I don't really want to set a limit on what we can do or what I can do. It's just go out there and try to be better than I was the game before … just try to raise that ceiling.”

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