One of the reasons why the Spurs looked so go in the bubble and fueled the hopes of fans coming into the season was the play of Derrick White. An injury derailed the beginning of this season for him, but he was expected to be a major piece in San Antonio’s offense in 2020/21.
The return to form took a while, but it’s finally here, as White has averaged 18 points per game for the Spurs in April, the second highest mark in the month. Yet more interesting than the amount of buckets he’s getting is how. The three-pointer, which was a big part of White’s game at the end of last season, has become arguably his main weapon now as he’s transitioned to an off-ball role.
It’s important to remember that when he entered the league, White struggled with range. He was neither a very efficient outside shooter nor a very prolific one, connecting on 33 percent of his makes in his sophomore season, when he joined the big team full-time, and a league-average 36.6 in his third season before the bubble. On those years, he attempted three and 2.7 three-pointers per 36 minutes, respectively. The team could live with those numbers because White was an excellent defenders as well as a good playmaker who had the ball in his hands a fair bit. His flaw was acceptable. White was a passable low volume shooter and that was enough.
Everything changed in he bubble. White’s efficiency didn’t rise much, going to 38 percent, but his volume skyrocketed to 7.8 attempts a game. White still handled the ball at times, but also became a deadly off ball threat. The same is happening now, thanks to his newfound aggression from outside.
White is attempting 6.7 threes a game this season, but 7.8 in April, the same amount that he averaged in the bubble. He’s only making 35 percent of his attempts for the season, but hitting 38.4 over the past month. The symmetry with his play in the bubble is staggering and could signal two huge developments for San Antonio. The first is that White is back to looking like the type of potent offensive player who earned an extension. The second, which is much more interesting and could potentially have long term ramifications for the roster and White himself, is that he seems to be transitioning to a more off-ball role going forward.
For White, Dejounte Murray and DeMar DeRozan to be able to coexist, at least one of them was going to have to become an off-ball threat. White was always the more likely to make that transformation, but was seemingly forced to by essentially having to adjust to the other two on the go, since he started the season late. Murray had already made a mini-leap by then and DeRozan remained the center of the offense, but neither were was shooting well. DeRozan remains extremely reluctant to take threes and has missed almost all of the ones he has taken and Murray seems stuck as a below league average three-point shooter even with low volume. There simply was not a lot of room for White to handle the ball without his backcourt mates killing the spacing.
It was the furthest from an ideal situation for a good pick and roll player like White, but he’s been trying to make it work. The amount of his offense coming from pull-ups as opposed to catch-and-shoot situations has flipped, with White now taking more shots as a spot up threat instead of off the dribble, something we hoped would happen all the way back in 2019. Both the amount of touches White gets and the average duration of his touches has decreased. That last number is telling, because last season he was ahead of Murray in the amount of seconds he held the ball per touch while this season he’s firmly below. Simply put, White has been leaning towards being a finisher instead of a creator, and his best weapon to end possessions while getting points has become the three-pointer.
There are clear benefits for this metamorphosis on the short term. While the offense remains an issue, the trio of Murray, White and DeRozan have done really well on that end in general and have also improved a little on defense in April. Having their three best perimeter players on the court at the same time is a win for the Spurs and it’s been possible in no small part by White turning into a volume shooter. It’s also been good for the development of both White and Murray, since the former has now become much more well-rounded and the latter has been able to have a more prominent role as a shot creator.That duo seems a lot more compatible now that at least one of them can shoot.
There have been some potentially negative trade-offs, however. White’s not driving a lot despite being good at it, which partially explains why his free throw attempts per minute have gone down compared to last season. His assist numbers are down too, as he moves away further and further from the point guard role. Perhaps more worrying than that is that he’s gone from being a borderline elite scorer out of the pick and roll, according to Synergy, to being a complete disaster this season. Gregg Popovich seems to have noticed that White will need touches as the ball handler to retain his skill in that setting, which is why he’s been getting more opportunities to run the show for stretches with the bench.
Regardless of the potential issues with White’s embrace of an off ball role, in the aggregate it seems like a fantastic development. White remains an elite defender who can now hurt opponents off the dribble if they play him to close, or spot up, catch the ball and drop a three-pointer on the defense if it packs the paint.
The Spurs needed one of their young guys to become a volume shooter to space the floor and make the core more viable in the modern game, and it seems that after teasing the potential to be that type of player in the past, Derrick White has finally answered the call. Good things will continue to happen as long as he lets it fly.