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Rethinking Derrick White’s role on the Spurs

How Derrick’s versatility could define the Spurs’ season.

2019 FIBA World Cup - Serbia v USA Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Derrick White’s time with Team USA provides a rare opportunity to reconsider how he fits in with the Spurs’ deep rotation of guards. While the level of his play reinforced much of what excited the team and its fans about his emergence last season, it’s the unique and versatile nature of his game that will have the most impact on this year’s squad.

Playing alongside Kemba Walker, Donovan Mitchell and Marcus Smart is almost a little too on the nose in terms of standing in for the Spurs’ ones and twos. You don’t even have to squint to see the similarities between DeMar DeRozan and Kemba (high-usage scorer and facilitator), Lonnie Walker IV and Donovan (explosive playmaker), and Dejounte Murray and Marcus (defensive nightmare).

There are obvious differences — Kemba and Marcus’ three point shooting, for instance — and Lonnie hasn’t even started an NBA game yet, so the comparison isn’t perfect. Still, watching Derrick shift between various types of guard play over the last 3 weeks as he fit in and around Team USA’s other ball handlers presents a valuable window into what he might look like in the silver and black this year.

Like last season with the Spurs, there were times with Team USA where Derrick’s presence on the court clarified roles and responsibilities, enabling the rest of the team to perform at a higher level. He’s a Swiss army knife on that end of the floor, able to provide structure and initiate, move off the ball, find the open man, or get to the rim if necessary. He can be effective as the primary ball handler, a secondary creator, or even a slashing wing in stints.

That flexibility will be incredibly important to the Spurs this season, as most of the players he’ll share the court with are more limited in their roles. Dejounte and DeMar are both most dangerous with the ball in their hands, while Patty Mills and Bryn Forbes are far more efficient when spotting up, running off screens, and using their gravity to distort the defense. Derrick’s ability to move seamlessly between pairings with any of the four would make him a mainstay in the rotation even if he wasn’t such a good defender.

It’s his defense, though, that demands starter’s minutes. Derrick is an excellent on ball defender who manages to disrupt passing and driving lanes without compromising his position: a key tenet of the Spurs’ conservative system. Players who can get deflections and steals without fouling or giving away open shots are critical to both limiting their opponent’s scoring opportunities and generating high value looks for the team’s offense.

More importantly, Derrick is a magnificent help defender. He’s always aware of the ball, moves to close openings before they even exist and can single-handedly shut down weak side actions. Last year, that made him unique among the team’s guard corps, but that won’t be the case this season.

With the return of Dejounte, they’ll have two defensive aces to throw at opposing teams. It’s not just opposing ball handlers who should be dreading their dates with the Spurs, either; every creator and facilitator on the other team, regardless of position, will have to deal with one or both wrecking havoc off the ball.

That is, of course, assuming the Spurs can figure out a way to play the two together. There is the obvious problem of positional overlap, as they’re both point guards, at least nominally. There’s also the fact that neither has shown much propensity for three-point shooting, which has become close to a requirement for success in the modern NBA.

The first issue isn’t an actual problem, because Derrick has more than enough other skills to be effective on offense regardless of what role he plays. The second, however, is a bit more concerning. It’s not so much that the two can’t play together as it’s unclear how the Spurs will be able to score efficiently if they put both on the floor with DeMar, another guard who doesn’t take or make many attempts from deep.

It’s not a matter of creating shots, as the Spurs’ drive and kick game will be as fluid as it’s been since the 2014 championship team with those three in the game. They’ll generate a ton of open looks as they collapse the defense with penetration from every side. The problem is that unless they get to the rim, it will be difficult for them to knock down the open looks they find at a rate that really hurts the defense.

That won’t matter as much during the regular season, when teams stick to their base schemes and talent is more important than fit, but come playoff time, the Spurs might be facing a problem. Bringing one of Dejounte or Derrick off the bench seems like an easy solution, but each needs to get close to 30 minutes a night for the team to be at its best. While the Spurs should certainly stagger the two as much as they can, keeping one on the floor at all times to maximize their defense impact, there will still be overlap. The Spurs can’t just punt on offense in those minutes.

The same holds true in the closing minutes of close games. The Spurs’ best players are DeMar and LaMarcus Aldridge. The team will be worse if they can’t play both Dejounte and Derrick alongside those two in crunch time.

It’s possible that one or both will shoot better than anticipated this season. Derrick’s the obvious candidate, having hit 36.1% of his threes so far in his career, but that’s on just 155 attempts. His ability to provide spacing, whether through shooting or cutting and movement may be the thing that determine just how much run Dejounte can get, especially late in games, which will likely determine how close this team gets to the best version of itself.

(Just for the record: If Dejounte is knocking down threes with regularity, the Spurs are getting home court.)

Of course it’s also possible that Rudy Gay will take more threes or that slotting DeMarre Carroll into the last spot in that lineup will provide just enough space for the offense to survive. If the Spurs dial back the clock to 2015 and ask LaMarcus to pop to the three point line and space to the corner like he did during his last season in Portland, that’s probably the case.

On the other hand, it might not even matter. A defense built around Dejounte, Derrick and LaMarcus could be so hard to score on that efficient offense is an afterthought. The game might turn into a rock fight, but that doesn’t seem like something Coach Popovich would mind at all.

Still, it’s hard to imagine how the Spurs will score often enough to survive when 4 of the 5 defenders have a foot in the paint for the whole possession, which is exactly why Bryn and Patty played the 3rd and 4th most clutch minutes on the team last season, respectively. If that continues this season, it will likely be Derrick playing alongside one or the other, orchestrating the offense on one end and guarding the most dangerous perimeter player on the other, mitigating the limitations of a more offensive-minded lineup.

Derrick’s versatility, his ability to offset the weaknesses of the players around him, is a rare gift. If that extends to Dejounte — whether those two can play crunch time minutes together instead — might be the single most important question facing the team this season. If they can, the Spurs will be far more dangerous, an easy 50-win squad with deep playoff prospects. If not, they’ll look an awful lot like last year’s team, and likely find themselves heading home for the summer much earlier than they’d like.