Derrick White might not have taken The Leap many were hoping for after his stellar play last season, but he has showed enough incremental improvement in several key areas in his third year in the league to remain a valuable prospect and potentially a cornerstone for the Spurs.
One part of his game, however, has not developed enough yet, and unfortunately it’s the one that might determine his ceiling. Three-point shooting is a must from guards at the NBA level unless they are athletic freaks who can get to the rim at will, which White is not. In order to be the do-it-all starting-quality piece he could be, White needs to become a more willing and consistent shooter.
As the last stretch of the season approaches and we get closer to an offseason in which White will be eligible for an extension, let’s look at his rather strange shooting profile to try to determine if he could eventually improve enough to make the three-pointer a big part of his game.
At first glance, White seems to be going in the right direction, both in number of attempts and shooting percentage. Last season he was one of just 20 guards who took three threes or fewer per 36 minutes. For comparison, that’s the same amount as defensive specialist Cory Joseph and the notoriously passive Jeff Teague. This year, White averages almost four per 36 minutes. It’s too small an increment to get too confident about his future as a volume shooter but an encouraging sign. The same applies to his efficacy from outside, since his three-point shooting percentage has climbed from 34 percent to 36 percent, another small uptick that provides reasons for optimism.
Things get more interesting the closer we look into White’s three-point shooting. The first curious thing is that he surprisingly does slightly better on pull ups than catch-and-shoot opportunities beyond the arc despite taking more shots spotting up than he does off the bounce. White’s 36.4 percent on pull ups is down from the scorching pace his set earlier in the season but still remains similar to that of stars like James Harden and Paul George. His one attempt a game, on the other hand, is more in line with the numbers of role players. There’s a case to be made for White to take more pull-up threes going forward, since he seems to be making them at a good clip, especially on straight away threes when the defense goes under high screens. If he hits enough of those, his man will have to play him closer, and that could unlock his driving.
The other side of the coin is that White is pretty bad on catch-and-shoot three-pointers. The 36 percent he makes on those looks is not impressive at all, but it would be decent enough for him to be able to play alongside another dominant ball handler. Not on such a low number of attempts, though. White is one of just 35 guards to play more than 1,000 minutes and attempt fewer than 100 catch-and-shoot threes this season. That list is largely comprised of primary ball handlers and also features two other Spurs, DeMar DeRozan and Dejounte Murray. For a player who’s appeal on offense relies largely on his potential to play both on and off the ball, White needs to be more comfortable firing off the catch. Right now, an alarmingly high number of his catch-and-shoot attempts comes late in possessions or with the clock running out, when he has no other choice but to let it fly.
With White’s shooting there’s the good, the bad and the just plain weird. The best example of the latter is his hilariously lopsided shot chart. For whatever reason, White is excellent at shooting from the top of the arc and the right side of the floor but an abject disaster from the left side.
After going through all his outside shots from this season, there’s really no conclusive explanation as to why. He took a few more last second shots from the left side but, as mentioned, a lot of his threes come late. He just seems to feel more comfortable pulling up while going to his right, but even that factor doesn’t account for why he’s missed often from the left corner but not the right one.
Weirdness aside, White’s shooting profile seems to suggest he could be an efficient shooter, but likely not a very prolific one. Not taking a lot of threes wouldn’t be a problem on most teams, but it could potentially be one in San Antonio since Dejounte Murray is around and also takes very few outside shots. The pairing might simply not be viable without having marksmen slotted at the other three positions.
The next few weeks could be instrumental in either changing that perception for good or giving the Spurs pause before discussing an extension with White. Gregg Popovich is finally playing White and Murray together more often, and the offense has been scorching hot with both on the court. In February the pairing posted an offensive rating of 121 points in an admittedly tiny sample size that includes arguably Murray’s best outside shooting stretch of the season — a ridiculous 57 percent — but a disastrous one for White. Maybe volume is not that important as long as at least one of them hits an obscene amount of the ones they do take.
Regardless of what the numbers about any duo say, White would do himself a big favor by simply shooting more. Outside shooting will likely never be one of his main strengths, but if his pull up becomes an actual weapon opponents have to respect and he doesn’t hesitate to fire off the catch when left open, his already impressive versatility would get a boost, making him the perfect complementary piece for the Spurs, no matter who else is part of the core.