Looking back, Derrick White’s Team USA experience seems rather unremarkable. Had it not been for multiple absences and dropouts, he surely would not have made the squad. He got most of his run in the World Cup late in the tournament — when the US was out of the run for gold — and didn’t put up eye-popping numbers.
As exciting as it was to see him make the squad, it’s possible to make the case that it would have been better if he had been cut late. The Spurs are expecting big things from White this upcoming season, so it’s fair to wonder if he would have been better off focusing on his game and preparing for the NBA season.
Yet, the experience of playing for the national team could end up being extremely valuable for White, as demonstrated by another late-blooming Spurs guard of the past. Just like it did with Manu Ginobili, international ball could help mold White’s identity and speed up his development.
Any comparison to a future Hall-of-Famer tends to do a disservice to young players, especially when they are still as unproven as White. There might be some Manu in his game, but he’s clearly not Ginobili. Expecting him to reach the same heights is foolish, and it only sets White up to disappoint. That being said, it’s impossible to ignore some of the similarities between the paths both followed early on in their careers.
Both Ginobili and White were considered marginal prospects when they were 18 years old, largely because of their physique. Both had late growth spurts that gave them the length to play at a high level, but both also struggled with strength. Manu made a leap as his body started to catch up with his skill, but he went from the Argentine league to Italy’s second division. It would take him four years after his pro debut to reach the highest level outside of the NBA, when he made his move to Kinder Bologna. Similarly, White (now famously) had to play for a D2 culinary school before reaching D1 with Colorado as a fifth-year senior and getting drafted.
There are some common threads between the early careers of White and Ginobili, with one significant difference: Ginobili was a member of Argentina’s national team throughout his early basketball adulthood, which made a big impact on how he developed.
Manu has mentioned that his time representing Argentina helped him become the player and person he ended up being. It makes sense, as doing so exposed him to a lot of experiences he wouldn’t have had otherwise and accelerated his growth. He went from being a bench player on a veteran roster when he made his debut in 1999 to a part of a winning core, and then the biggest star of the squad in a very short span with Argentina. He saw talented players put their egos behind them, accept smaller roles than the ones they were used to, and be rewarded for it at the team level. Manu learned how to handle being a featured player and how important sacrificing personal glory can be to overall success in no small part by playing with the national team.
White’s career with Team USA started later, is much shorter and might be interrupted as superstars are already deciding to play in the Olympics, but that doesn’t mean what little experience he already has hasn’t been beneficial. As has been the case throughout his entire career, he had to work his way up. He made his debut alongside G-League players in the qualifiers, which probably helped him get a spot on the select team. From there, he went on to surprisingly make the final roster over more heralded players. It’s a microcosm of his career, which should help him remember that he’s not overlooked anymore. He’ll remain hungry, because that’s clearly how he’s wired, but he’s gotten a taste of what it means to be an established player, which is what he’ll be for the Spurs next season.
Yet, an even more important experience for White was — arguably for the first time — to face the burden of expectations and failing to deliver. It’s a hard lesson to learn but one that could prepare him for what’s coming. White is used to proving doubters wrong and being a nice surprise. That was his experience in college and in San Antonio. He now knows what it’s like to be considered a favorite and falling short. As the Spurs enter a crucial season in which their playoff streak could get challenged — and the young guys are supposed to play a big role to prevent that from happening — knowing how to handle that type of pressure could be huge for White’s psyche. He knows what disappointment feels like and will surely do whatever it takes to avoid it.
There are players who seem predestined to stardom. They learn to handle pressure and expectations early on and never had to adjust their mindset. White, just like Manu before him, is not one of those players. For guys like him, so used to toiling in the shadows, finding themselves in the spotlight and learning how to be stars can be a challenge.
Playing for the national team can help speed up the process, while also teaching late bloomers other important lessons that would have taken entire seasons to set in otherwise. That was the case with Ginobili and countless other players who had to evolve as their careers did.
There have not been workout videos or a lot of highlights featuring White this summer, but that doesn’t mean he’s not been improving. In fact, his time with Team USA might have been the best preparation he could have had for what could be the defining season of his young career.