February 10, 2022 was a chaotic day that I didn’t need. Just as I was finishing writing the What We Learned for the Spurs loss to the Cavaliers — which I detailed being oddly at peace with as someone who is never happy about a loss — chaos ensued, and the feeling of peace was gone. I got an urgent data load request at work that would take my undivided attention for the next two days, so of course the Spurs chose this of all years to go full bore at the trade deadline. (If you haven’t given it already, a big shoutout to Noah for covering everything as it happened!)
Amidst all the chaos going on at work, the Spurs did something I didn’t expect: trade Derrick White. There had been a few rumors going around with his name attached, but mostly ones that didn’t feel realistic, like including him in a package that would bring back Atlanta’s John Collins. (My biggest fear were the Jakob Poeltl rumors, and I’m grateful that didn’t go through. It would have been too much for one day.) All the other moves the Spurs had made had been on the fringe of the roster, and it felt like they were going to be content going into the offseason with their same core intact while acquiring some draft assets, so the news of White being traded shook me a bit as I tried to keep my concentration on my fulltime job.
I have always loved everything about Derrick. He embodies everything the Spurs love in their players: selfless, tough, a team player, defensive-minded, and perhaps most of all, an underdog story. Everyone knows it by now. He was a late bloomer, a skinny, baby-faced six-footer at the time of his high school graduation who went unnoticed by college scouts. He ended up signing with the culinary school at Johnson & Wales University, but fortunately for him the basketball coach there moved to Div. II school Colorado-Colorado Springs and took White with him.
There, he earned a scholarship and continued to grow both as a basketball player and physically, as he spurted up to 6’5”. In his junior season, he averaged 25.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists for the Mountain Lions, leading the team to the 2015 NCAA Tournament and being named an All American. He transferred to the University of Colorado to play Div. I ball his senior year, and after sitting a year per NCAA transfer rules of the time, he was named to the All Pac-12 team and All-Defense.
Despite his admirable college story, he was still a relatively unknown prospect, and when the Spurs drafted him at their coveted spot of 29th in the first round of the 2017 NBA draft, the response was mostly the same as usual: “I don’t know much about this guy, but the Spurs always know what they’re doing, so I trust them.” That was the right decision, as once again the Spurs found a diamond in the rough and not only made him legit a NBA player, but if the 2017 NBA Draft class were to be redrafted today, he would be a lottery pick at worst, maybe even top 10 despite it being a very deep class.
After doing what Spurs rookies do and spending most of his rookie season developing in the G-League, he broke into the main rotation his second season, taking over the starting shooting guard spot that Danny Green had held for the last seven years. He had perhaps the best game of his career in the 2019 playoffs, scoring 36 points in Game 3 vs. the Nuggets to lead the Spurs to victory and take a 2-1 lead. While they would go on to fall in seven games, it felt like his breakout had come.
His numbers would continue to rise the next two seasons, and the Spurs signed him to a four-year extension. Although the COVID-condensed 2020-21 ended up being an injury-riddled one for White, if anything his absence showed his value just as much as his actual play. With DeMar DeRozan leaving last summer and the Spurs committing to the young core they had built through the draft over the last six years, this would be White’s time to shine as the Spurs’ newly-minted highest paid player.
He did that to an extent, but a down year shooting from outside plus Dejounte Murray breaking out into an All Star took some of the luster away. Even so, the two of them made up perhaps the best defensive backcourt duo in the league, and combined Jakob Poeltl, the Spurs appeared to have a legit trio to work with. White did all the dirty work, sacrificing his body to lead the league in charges — with scars and chipped teeth to show for it — but he never complained about being second fiddle to Murray, and his backcourt mate was just as shocked as everyone else when the trade was announced.
Long story short, White was one of the Spursiest of all Spurs, and seeing him get traded tugged at the heart strings right up there with George Hill and Danny Green: two of his competitors for the title. He admitted to being shocked when Gregg Popovich came to his hotel room to tell him the news. I’m sure some tears were involved, but White did what he always does: handle it with grace and get up off the mat. He thanked the Spurs and headed straight to Boston, and he was able to play in their next game on Friday, putting up an efficient 15 points, 6 rebounds and 4 assists off the bench in a 108-102 win over the Denver Nuggets — and winning over any skeptical Celtics fans in the process.
Despite being sad about leaving San Antonio, White admitted to feeling a sense of jubilation once he got to Boston, and he could hardly be in a better situation. His father was always a huge Celtics fan, and head coach Ime Udoka and assistant Will Hardy — both former Spurs assistants and Pop disciples — know how to use him well and likely bring him a level of comfort most players don’t have when they’re suddenly sent to a new home.
When I think of some of the harder Spurs trades to swallow, this one will always be towards the top. He’s a Spurs success story through-and-through, and while I personally couldn’t be more excited to see him in a situation where he can thrive even more than he already has, it will always sting a little seeing him in another uniform. I get why the Spurs did it, and even if it works out being just as good of a move for them as it was for the Celtics, it will always hurt. (But at least now when Boston fans complain that they should have gotten Tim Duncan, Spurs fans can say, “At least we gave you Derrick White.”)
So with that, we say good-bye to Derrick. You will always be loved here in San Antonio for all you did both on and off the court. You are and always will be a Spur. You embraced the culture, the city, and the team like few others have. Good luck in Boston and wherever else your career may take you, but no matter where you go, you will always be welcomed back here with open arms and shown nothing but love and gratitude.
May we meet again soon.