Derrick White didn’t look like himself to start the season, at least on offense. He was dishing out a decent amount of assists, but he was struggling with his shot and was mostly a non-factor when it came to attacking the rim. It seemed like he was lost in the starting unit and perhaps a move to the bench would benefit him.
Luckily the coaching staff was patient with him, because in the past few games White has been exactly the player the Spurs were hoping he would be, looking as active and confident on offense as he had been on defense. Mostly by playing with increased aggressiveness with the ball in his hands, White has re-established himself as a featured option and as the one player who could help the team play to its maximum potential.
A bad individual performance can sometimes be easily ignored, but the reason why White’s was affecting the team on offense is because he’s arguably the Spurs most important player on that end due to his versatility. Jakob Poeltl is a screener and finisher. Dejounte Murray is a primary ball handler who does enough to not kill the team off the ball. Doug McDermott and Keldon Johnson, in different ways, are weak side threats. The bench is filled with finishers with still raw shot creation skills. What that roster needs to click is a reliable secondary ball handler who can take over when needed. In theory, White fit the bill.
Unfortunately, early on, he wasn’t doing either of those jobs. For some reason he seemed extremely timid when it came to running pick and rolls and generally going downhill, almost as if he was playing at half speed. His troubles with injury and the lack of confidence that followed partially explain why. Spending the last year playing next to Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan and working on reshaping his game to be more of a shooter probably had an impact as well. Whatever the reason, White’s lack of aggression was a huge hindrance to his game. In the first two months of the season, he was averaging under 11 drives per game and scoring at a 38 percent clip on those situations while only getting two free throws a game.
Since then, White has upped his drives to 14 per game and has made almost 70 percent of his shots resulting from them. The gigantic leap in efficiency is likely just averaging up to the mean and probably unsustainable, but even more important than the numbers has been the effect they’ve had on the team. For example, the Spurs have ranked highly in assists all year but struggled to get to the line. White’s newfound confidence has resulted in a slightly lower assist percentage on drives recently, since he’s not always looking to pass like before, but his free throw attempts on drives have skyrocketed, which is helping the Spurs in an area in which they desperately needed it. He’s plugging holes no one else can, just like he was expected to.
That White is doing all this without really fixing his outside shot yet is both impressive and potentially a sign that he could be even more dangerous in the future. Even during his recent surge in offensive output, White is still posting terrible splits in both catch-and-shoot and especially pull-up threes. The good thing is that he’s not afraid to pull the trigger. In the last 10 games he’s shot under 30 percent but has taken almost seven attempts a game from beyond the arc. Opponents can’t really go under picks all the time against White or ignore him off the ball, because he will rise up for a three. If some of the looks that have rattled out all season long — and there have been a lot of them — start falling and he approaches league-average efficiency from outside, White’s value would increase exponentially.
Even if the shot takes a while to become consistent, his aggressiveness in looking for his own shot and putting pressure on the defense should help no only the starters but also other units. For most of the season, any five-man group lacking Dejounte Murray was a disaster on offense. A more confident White should help there. It’s too early to draw any conclusions on any White-led units, since lineup data becomes more reliable the more minutes a group logs, but there have been good signs recently. Against the Pelicans on Sunday, for example, in the 13 minutes in which White was on the court without Murray, the Spurs did fantastic on offense, in no small part because White scored 16 of his points in that span. Those Murray-less minutes should be all about White running the show, and White is finally understanding that.
It was not hard to give White some time to figure things out on offense because his defense and hustle made him a key player even when he was timid with the ball in his hands, but it was also a little bizarre to watch a player who burst into the scene as a sophomore by being aggressive as a starting point guard look so hesitant just when more touches became available. Now it’s all back to normal. White is once again a pain for defenses because of his knack for creating both for himself and others. His combination of scoring, ability to get to the line and vision to find big men inside is unique on this roster and it helps mask a lot of issues. If the outside shot comes along, then we could be witnessing a genuine leap from quality starter to borderline All-Star.
It’s fair to wonder if a postseason berth will stop being a pipe dream if White can continue to play like this, but for now, it seems wiser to avoid thinking of loftier goals and focus on the original one. This season was all about figuring out how San Antonio’s young core fits together, and it was impossible to judge that without having this version of White around to help the roster make sense. Now that it’s here, we are finally getting to see what the Spurs really have.