Derrick White’s Game 3 performance was special. Only 12 other players in league history have scored 35 or more points and logged at least five rebounds and five assists in the playoffs in one of their first two seasons in the NBA. Eight of those guys are in the Hall-of-Fame. The last one to do it was Dwyane Wade, who will make it to Springfield as soon as he’s eligible. It’s good company.
As impressive as his numbers were, the way he got them is what should excite Spurs fans the most. From the start White clearly came out looking to make an impact while still adhering to his role. After getting outplayed by Jamal Murray in Game 2, he was clearly fired up to make up for what he believed was a poor performance.
That competitiveness coupled with an attuned sense of the moment and how to seize it are as encouraging as any stat line. They are also reminiscent of another guard who used to make his marks in important games in different ways while not needing to make it all about himself. Yes, I’m about to compare White to Manu Ginobili.
If it feels sacrilegious to even discuss the two in the same sentence, that’s because it probably is. Manu Ginobili is a Hall-of-Famer and four-time NBA champion who routinely upped his game in the playoffs. White is a second year player who averaged 10 points, four rebounds and four assists in the regular season and has exactly one truly great playoff performance under his belt. Manu was one of the best three players in several dominant squads that won over 50 games and contended for years while White has played for one of the worst teams in the Gregg Popovich era and largely got such a big role early because Dejounte Murray got injured. Anyone balking at the temerity of even trying to make a connection between the two at this point is probably justified in feeling that way. But the sophomore year version of White has some similarities to the rookie year version of Manu.
Both were late bloomers who joined the league later than most, though Manu was much more accomplished. White is the more productive playmaker, but Manu was the superior shooter and much better at getting to the line. In general, they both did a lot of things really well.
I first noted the similarities and made the comparison on an offseason post about White, which now reads like someone saying that Einstein was smart for a patent clerk.
“It’s that ability to adjust his game to fit the needs of the team that could make White a reasonable Manu Ginobili facsimile. For years Manu scored when needed, assisted when needed and made plays on defense when needed. White could do that, albeit at a lower level and in a smaller role, if what he showed in G-League and Summer League play translates to the next level.”
Even then it was easy to recognize White’s versatility as one of his main strengths. His all-around game has been in full display in the post season, just like Manu’s was back then. The offensive explosion from Game 3 was nice and certainly much needed, but Jamal Murray had one of those in Game 2 and the history of the playoffs is filled with guys who just go crazy for a night, as Spurs fans know all too well. What’s made White so important both in the regular season and so far in the playoffs is the fact that he’s been able to adjust his game to what the team needed and deliver. On Thursday, it was scoring. In past games it has been defense and passing. White adds what’s missing, just like Manu used to.
Versatility alone is not enough to draw a parallel between two players. The way that versatility manifested itself at exactly the right moments, however, was a big part of what made Manu special, and it’s a trait White seems to possess. Even when he didn’t have a standout game, Ginobili used to have stretches in which he essentially took over, not only with his scoring but with his defensive playmaking and passing. If the Spurs were struggling, he almost single handedly kept them in it; if they were doing well, he helped them create separation. It’s one of the reasons why he always had such great on/off court splits. White has shown a similar ability to assert himself for spells, which has only been more noticeable and valuable in the playoffs.
In Game 1 White had just 16 points, but he did most of his damage in the second quarter to help the Spurs get a double-digit lead. Then, in the third quarter he detonated on Paul Millsap for a huge dunk to stop a 8-2 run and got a steal to seal the victory late in the fourth. In Game 2 he didn’t make an impact as a playmaker, looking instead to hunt for his shot because that’s what the team needed. Once again he took over in the second quarter to extend San Antonio’s lead while playing terrific on defense against Murray, at one point getting a big block against him at the rim. Yet despite making big contributions on offense in those games on offense, his usage was the fourth and third highest on the team, respectively. He picked his spots instead of dominating the ball. It’s exactly what he needs to do on a team featuring two other high usage weapons, as Manu understood back in the day.
Despite his willingness to accept a complementary role, Manu had a a lot of flash to his game, for better and for worse, while White is considered even by his own coach to be more stable:
“He’s pretty steady,” Gregg Popovich said after Game 1, according to the San Antonio Express-News. “It’s not like watching Manu [Ginobili]. You know what you are going to get from Derrick.”
That’s not necessarily true, though. White was wildly inconsistent during the regular season, but the good moments more than made up for the games in which he disappeared. He also does try some crazy plays from time to time, from no-look passes in tight quarters to risky block attempts and reach-ins. In fact he seems to be at his best when he plays loose and takes some chances, another trait he shares with Ginobili.
I won’t blame anyone for considering this whole exercise a sad attempt to fill the Manu-sized hole in my heart, but I promise you that I wouldn’t make this comparison lightly. There are some similarities to how the two play, the role they occupy in the team’s hierarchy, and the production both had at similar times at their career.
Time will tell if White can have as much success as Ginobili. The odds are against it, simply because Manu was such a unique star and such an accomplished winner. Maybe there’s a change in the roster that shifts White’s role, rendering the comparison moot. Maybe Derrick White will be the first Derrick White, not the next Manu Ginobili.
For now, I’m going to enjoy feeling a similar joy that I felt when Manu was still around. There’s nothing like watching a Spurs guard wreak havoc at timely points in a game and outplay more renowned opponents on the biggest of stages. I thought those days were over, at least for a while, when Manu retired, but fortunately Derrick White has come along to pick up the mantle.