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What Derrick White’s experience with Team USA means for the Spurs

Players often have their best season after a summer with the national team.

Basketball: USA Basketball Men’s National Team Exhibition -Spain at USA Gary A. Vasquez-USA TODAY Sports

On Monday, Derrick White played in his 4th exhibition game as a member of the U.S. Men’s National Basketball Team, an 84-68 victory over Canada. He didn’t play much, as he’s still behind Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart in the rotation, but he played well. More importantly, just like everywhere else he’s been, the team looked better with him on the court.

It’s hard to believe it was just over 16 months ago that Derrick played his last game in the G League, on April 10th, 2018, as he helped the Austin Spurs win the G League championship. Less than a year ago he was still in line to be the Spurs’ backup point guard for the season. It hasn’t even been 10 months since he started his first NBA game — a November 7th loss to the Heat in Miami — but he’s come a long way.

Derrick spent last season proving to be a critical part of the Spurs’ playoff drive and exploded into the national consciousness with his Game 3 dominance in the team’s first round series against the Nuggets. That led to his invitation to participate with USA basketball as a member of the US Select Team, then, thanks to his heady play and a series of withdrawals, his eventual inclusion on the team that will play its first game in the FIBA World Cup this weekend.

That Derrick is on this team at all is an incredible accomplishment and one that will no doubt make him a better player. But he’s not just on the team: he’s really good. Even on the court with the collection of stars and borderline stars that comprise this particular version of Team USA, Derrick is more than holding his own.

It’s not that he’s evolved as a player or brought some incredible new skill to the table, either. He’s doing the exact same stuff that made him one of the most valuable players in San Antonio, just at a higher level.

His defense has been extraordinary. He consistently shuts down whoever he’s guarding, breaks up plays on a regular basis, and contests everything: shots, rebounds, passes . . . it doesn’t matter.

And, as ever, the worst place for Derrick to be is behind you.

The team looks more composed on the other end of the floor with Derrick on the court, too, especially when he’s the lone guard. Put simply, he runs the offense. That’s at least in part because he’s so much more familiar with the plays, but nothing the team runs is overly complex. That’s just who he is as a player. He’ll improvise when the time is right, but for the most part, he executes.

When he’s in the game as the lead ball handler, it’s easy to see how comfortable he is orchestrating the action.

That’s a little different than much of the rest of the team, many of whom will rely on their skill and athletic advantages to go one-on-one a bit more often. For some, like Kemba, that’s part and parcel of the deal, and to be fair, he’s an efficient offense unto himself. For others, it leads to jagged and uneven possessions. The team hasn’t had too much of an issue scoring in it’s four exhibition games, but it remains to be seen whether they will be able to sustain that as the level of competition increases.

Derrick has had some issues dealing with pressure from physical defenders, as have a few other players on the team. It’s not uncommon for it to take a little bit for NBA players to adjust to the amount and type of contact allowed in the international game. But Derrick’s a strong ball handler and should be able to adapt to the challenge quickly.

Off the ball, he has continued to show a talent for finding open lanes to the basket. Even a moment’s inattention is enough to spring him for a slicing layup or dunk.

His poise and command of the floor is a big reason why the team has performed so well with him as the primary initiator. It’s a very small sample size, just 16.8 minutes, but Team USA has a higher Net Rating with Derrick as the lone guard than it does in any other guard configuration. Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s better than the team’s other 1s and 2s, but it does help show just how easily he fits in at this level of play.

That he’s managed to show that kind of value without hitting from outside is a bit surprising. In his 33 minutes of play, he’s 5/13 from the field, including 0/3 from deep. Thirty-three minutes isn’t a lot of time, and 13 attempts aren’t a lot of shots, so those numbers may not mean anything at all, but it’s a good sign that he’s been a net positive despite shooting poorly. If and when he does start hitting threes, look out.

If Derrick continues to struggle with his shot, it may limit his utility, especially when teams sink into zone defenses. At the same time, his willingness to commit to the offense and not go one-on-one may be just what the team needs in that situation. Depending on the match-up, it’s not hard to see how he could find himself in a bigger role as the tournament goes on. He provides a little better overall defense than Kemba or Donovan and more consistent offensive execution than Donovan or Marcus. There may be a point where the combination of those two things outweighs the advantages one of those three players has on Derrick individually, moving him a little higher in the pecking order.

Looking forward to the NBA season, this experience seems bound to catapult Derrick to another level. He’s subbing in for an All-NBA player with little noticeable drop off in level of play (a fact that ought to have NBA odds makers double checking their work). He’s also clearly very comfortable in any role. He’s spent significant chunks of time on the court running from one end to the other without getting near the ball on offense. He still locks down his man, moves with a purpose, and stays engaged, even when he doesn’t get touches, which will be important on the Spurs’ guard-heavy roster.

Spending an extra month with Gregg Popovich, and getting time with Steve Kerr, Jeff Van Gundy, and the rest of the Team USA staff can’t hurt either. For a player who thinks the game through at such a high level already, that exposure will be invaluable. There’s a reason why so many players have had their best seasons after a summer with the National Team. Long story short, Derrick’s going to be a handful this season, no matter what part the Spurs ask him to play.