If none of the three youngsters taken at the same draft spot makes it to the rafters in the AT&T Center, I think the San Antonio Spurs should at least consider retiring the number 29 — out of respect for Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson, and Derrick White all being selected with the 29th pick of their respective drafts.
Regardless of what the so many NBA podcasters are saying, I don’t think any of them can be classified a “role player”. In Keldon’s case, he’s a player that no one yet knows what his ceiling is. As for Dejounte, he’s past Pat Beverley status. His drives to the rim, and his mid-range shots already look like the next best thing to signature moves you can’t stop. However, it’s Derrick White I’ve been impressed with the most.
In the last game before “the bubble” — an emphatic win over the Dallas Mavericks — and then in “the bubble”, for the first time since the 2017 playoffs I saw a player in Silver & Black who gave me the feeling that this was “his team”. Most of all, I got that feeling when he had to leave the hardwood injured in the game against the Pelicans in the Bubble, when he had been posting 20-5-5 numbers up until that point.
20-5-5 is a routine night for DeMar DeRozan. But with regards to Derrick, that stat line to me felt more than routine. The first reason is obvious: he hadn’t been putting up numbers like that over a six-game stretch before. The second one is more meaningful: it wasn’t just any stretch, though us Spurs fans were told — by Pop, no less — that the bubble was entirely about development. But Derrick made it about more than that. It was because of him that some developmental games started to mean something. However, the Spurs had gotten there, and all of a sudden there was a chance of making the playoffs. Though it wasn’t meant to be in the end, this chance had one name on it: Derrick White.
And though I just said “in the end”, it didn’t feel like an end. It felt like a beginning. A beginning to be continued at the start of the coming season.
Unfortunatley, that same level of play has been hard for Derrick to come by this season. He missed the beginning of the season while recovering from the same toe injury that ended the previous one. And when his season finally began, it was over again due to another injury to the same toe and later COVID. But he’s back now, and although he has struggled, it has been as part of a winning team team that, at for a while, can afford him shooting just 38% from the field instead of 48% in the bubble and 31 % from beyond the arc on 6 attempts per game instead of 44% on 8 in the bubble.
But if his recent play is any indication of where his form is trending, then the 20-5-5 Derrick we saw in the bubble is getting closer. The question is, will he make a complete return?
Keldon and Dejounte have taken major leaps forward in Derrick’s absence. He might not be able to command the role he had in Orlando. But Derrick doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who is fazed by his teammates getting better. He’s more the guy who wants everyone in his team getting better all the time. He knows it’s a team sport. But what I’m sometimes still a bit worried about is how much of a major player he can be in the team sport he professes in.
I might have my fiesta colors-tinged glasses on when think about Derrick — after all, I bought a city edition jersey with the number 4 on its back in December. And I didn’t just do that because I love it how eagerly and reliably Derrick is challenging each and every shot there is for him to challenge, because he’s a role model in terms of “how to stay in front of your man”, because he’s a 6’4 rim protector, or because he’s so elite in taking charges that he’d able to say to Manu, “I’m second to none in drawing offensive fouls”. All that plays a role, but what I maybe like most about him is his modesty and his witty, slightly sarcastic post-game interviews.
Imagine a Spurs team with Derrick back to his best, or maybe even better, and with him making everyone else better (yes, he’s that kind of guy!), with Keldon and Dejounte closer to their ceiling, which neither have reached.
I relish this season as much as any other season, but I somehow feel the next season can’t come soon enough. I want to see those three guys take charge and rule. I truly believe they can.