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What to make of the Derrick White Experience

So much good, so much bad...

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Chicago Bulls Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick White approached this regular season as an exciting 2nd year prospect. First expected to lead the team’s bench unit and challenge for backcourt minutes alongside Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan, then to help offset Murray’s loss to an ACL tear, White succumbed to a preseason injury of his own, which has delayed and somewhat derailed his sophomore season. In Austin last year, and in limited time in San Antonio, Derrick showed off his decision-making skills and shooting ability, making him a potentially potent replacement for the team’s All-Defense point-guard, though it hasn’t worked out that way so far.

Simply put, his performance has not lived up to expectations. His per game stats are alarmingly low, at least in part due to only playing 18 minutes per game, though his production per 100 possessions is impressive.

Derrick White: 2018-19 stats per game and per 100 possessions

Per Pts Rebs Asts Stls Blks Tovs
Per Pts Rebs Asts Stls Blks Tovs
Game 5.2 2.3 2.8 0.7 0 1.3
100 poss 13.9 6.1 7.4 1.8 0 3.4

Still, his actual impact on the team’s ability to win games has been minimal, and that shows up better in plus-minus metrics. Fair warning, if you have a weak constitution you may need to avert your eyes.

Derrick White: 2018-19 plus/minus metrics

Stat +/- Rank
Stat +/- Rank
BPM -5.5 373
RPM -3.3 417
PIPM -1.28 352

It’s difficult to parse whether this is just an issue of fit, a bad start, or something larger, because the Spurs have really only used him in one lineup for significant minutes. He’s played alongside Bryn Forbes, DeMar DeRozan, Dante Cunningham, and LaMarcus Aldridge for 72 minutes, and that group has a net rating of -25.2 in that time. Derrick has appeared in 66 other 5-player lineups in his 12 games, but hasn’t played more than 15 minutes with any of them.

At this point, there’s a chance he just doesn’t work next to DeMar. The Spurs’ recent decision to move Derrick to the bench, and essentially treat him like DeMar’s backup at times, made it seem like that’s what the team believed. Per, In the 294 minutes DeMar has been on the court without Derrick since his return, the team has an offensive rating of 110.6, more than 4 points better than their overall offensive rating in that time. In the 134 minutes DeMar and Derrick have shared the court it has plummeted to an absurdly low 85.3.

Since being removed from the starting lineup after the loss to the Clippers on November 15th, Derrick’s minutes steadily dwindled, down to a nearly invisible 5 minutes and 22 seconds against the Bucks before picking back up against the Bulls and Timberwolves this week. In that time, Derrick has only shared the court with DeMar for 36 of his 100 minutes. The team was a -21 with both of them on the court, but a +18 in Derrick’s other 64 minutes. Even better, when Derrick’s been the primary ball handler over that stretch, that is, without DeMar or Bryn Forbes on the court, he’s a +17 in 56 minutes.

That’s great news, because it indicates the potential the team saw in Derrick is likely still there waiting to be tapped. But it’s also bad news, because DeMar plays a ton of minutes, 6th most in the league this year to be exact. If the two can’t play together, Derrick’s utility and impact will be severely limited.

It’s unlikely to be that simple, though. Part of the reason the offense has been so bad with Derrick and DeMar on the court is that Derrick is the 3rd worst shooting Point Guard in the league so far, per Cleaning the Glass (CTG), with an eFG% of 40.5. Despite projecting to be an above average shooter, he’s shot worse than, well, pretty much everybody. He has the 2nd lowest FG%, eFG% and TS% on the team and in comparison to the rest of the league, he’s 376th in FG%, 389th in eFG%, and 387th in TS%.

The thing is, Derrick’s not a bad shooter, and those numbers aren’t reflective of his ability. His eFG%, for instance, was over 51 in the G-league, and over 60, albeit in a small sample size, in 17 games in San Antonio last year. He was certainly due for a little regression, but that’s far too extreme to last. He’s not going to continue to hit just 21.4% of his catch and shoot threes.

That helps explain why the offense has struggled so much with both Derrick and DeMar on the court. With his shot not falling, Derrick’s main contribution is his ability to run plays and facilitate, which he rightly doesn’t get much chance to do alongside DeMar. Once he’s knocking down three pointers and hitting pull-up jumpers again, he’ll be much more valuable playing off the ball.

It will still make sense to stagger their minutes, as they’re easily the team’s two best playmakers. But if the Spurs can figure out a way to keep them both on the court to close games, it would dramatically improve the team’s ceiling, because Derrick is also easily the team’s best defensive guard.

Even while struggling on the offensive end since returning from his injury, Derrick’s defensive impact has been undeniable. The team’s defensive rating is 107.1 with him on the court and 110.6 when he’s off. They grab more defensive rebounds when he plays, but not enough to explain that much difference. He also grabs more steals than any other Spurs’ guard, though again it’s not enough to cover such a large gap.

His real value appears to be in making the team’s opponents miss more shots. In fact, with minimal difference in Spurs’ opponents’ shot distribution, when Derrick’s on the court, they shoot worse from almost every area.

Derrick White: Change in opponent shot frequency and accuracy when on court

Shot Rim Short Mid Long Mid Corner 3 Non Corner 3
Shot Rim Short Mid Long Mid Corner 3 Non Corner 3
Frequency +0.9% +1.1% -3.4% -1.0% +2.5%
Accuracy -1.5% -4.6% +8.8% -13.2% +2.0%

The result of that overall drop in shooting percentages is that the Spurs hold their opponents to an eFG% of 52.6 when Derrick’s on the court, 1.6% lower than the team’s average, per CTG. Without access to more sophisticated tracking data that would show changes to the openness of their opponents’ shooters or a redistribution of shots from better shooters to worse shooters, it’s difficult to ascertain how sustainable that is.

Still, it largely makes sense in context. Derrick is bigger and quicker than both Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes, and his wingspan is nearly the same as DeMar’s, with much better defensive instincts. One easy way to see the difference between him and the team’s other guards is in contested shots. Derrick contests nearly as many shots per 36 minutes as any two of Patty, Bryn, and DeMar combined. He doesn’t get beat off the dribble nearly as often, and when he does, he’s much more capable of recovering back into the play. He’s also far less vulnerable to being attacked on a mismatch, whether caused by transition matchups or switching on defense.

Fewer breakdowns at the point of attack means fewer rotations and fewer open shots. He’s no Dejounte Murray, but what he brings to the table is unique on this team, which makes him one of its most important defenders.

None of this is a revelation. The Spurs are well aware that Derrick’s shot will start falling soon, and that he’s their best perimeter defender right now. Still, his playing time has been on a yoyo for weeks, which is definitely not the best way to get a young player into a rhythm. So what gives?

The crux of the issue is that Coach Pop and the Spurs often put less stock in a player’s individual defensive impact than in their willingness to subsume themselves in the scheme. Players who can’t or won’t execute as expected of them, especially young players, don’t play. Until Derrick can do that consistently, his minutes will continue to be at risk.

The most obvious example is Derrick’s inexcusable foul on Giannis Antetokounmpo on an end-of-the-quarter heave 70 feet from the basket.

But he also reaches sometimes when he doesn’t need to, goes for blocks and gives up open layups, and gets backcut (like everybody else on the roster, to be fair).

But for every mental error it seems, Derrick makes a play that the Spurs’ other guards can’t. This sequence is pretty much an encapsulation of what Derrick has brought to the table this year.

He misses the shot, badly, but then he sees that Patty has been beat deep, and sprints back into the play, preventing an easy layup. With a little help from Jakob Poeltl and Marco Belinelli, the Spurs get the ball back instead of giving up 2 points.

That’s how Derrick has maintained such a positive defensive impact, despite the occasional blunder, which speaks volumes about how truly valuable he could be for this squad. Assuming he’s able to clean up his decision-making and temper his aggression just a bit, he should quickly move past these simple mistakes.

There’s precedent for this, and we need look no further back than last season. Dejounte began the year playing 20-30 minutes per game, but saw his playing time decline in November and December before seeing a significant rise in January, which led to his assuming the mantle of starting point guard.

Derrick’s path forward is much less clear. Without an obvious ball handler for the 2nd unit, it probably makes the most sense to bring him off the bench. But if the offense continues to roll over and play dead whenever he shares the court with DeMar, there will be a hard cap on how many minutes he can get.

Given how far along Derrick already is, and that his game is more complete, if somewhat less breath-taking, than Dejounte’s, that would be tough spot for both him and the team. They don’t have long to figure it out either. In a conference as tough as this year’s West, every game matters, and the sooner they can settle into a comfortable rotation the better. For a Spurs’ team still a hair’s breadth away from .500, it can’t come soon enough.

* Stats from Basketball Reference, Cleaning The Glass, and pbpStats.