Derrick White will be the first former Division II player in the NBA since Ben Wallace retired in 2012. After three seasons at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs, he transferred to the state’s flagship university in Boulder, where he was first team All-Pac-12 as a senior. White didn’t get much publicity on a mediocre team that wound up losing in the first round of the NIT, but he has impressed decision-makers around the NBA in the predraft process, climbing from no. 50 in the DraftExpress mock in late April to no. 26 in their most recent. The only question now is how much further White could rise.
In an era when versatility on the perimeter is at a premium, White’s well-rounded game would make him a good fit on almost every team in the league. He was a Swiss army knife for the Buffaloes last season, averaging 18.1 points on 50.7 percent shooting, 4.4 assists, 4.1 rebounds, 1.2 steals, and 1.4 blocks a game. He was their leading scorer, assist man, and most efficient 3-point shooter, as well as their best perimeter defender and best shot blocker. The only hole in White’s game is a lack of elite athleticism, and he’s much more athletic than you would expect a former Division II player to be.
"He’s a stud. One of my favorite players in the draft," said an executive for one lottery team.
At 6-foot-5 and 200 pounds with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, the biggest concern about White when projecting him to the next level is that he’s somewhat stuck between positions. He was a point guard for Colorado, but he lacks the burst of the best players at the position in the NBA, and he’s a little undersized to match up with bigger shooting guards like Klay Thompson and Rodney Hood. In that respect, White shares many similarities with C.J. McCollum, another combo guard from a smaller school without elite physical tools.
"The two guys in the NBA I probably watch the most are Damian [Lillard] and C.J. in Portland," White told me in a phone interview last week. "I’m a student of the game. I’m trying to learn what they are doing."
Like Lillard and McCollum, White spent four seasons in college playing on teams where he was by far the most talented player. Every defense he faced was geared up to stop him, and he had to learn how to balance looking for his own shot with setting up his teammates.
"[Playing at a small school] allows teams to see how good you really are," Lillard said in an interview with USA Today in 2012. "It allows them to see how you react to teams putting two guards against you, having to play extra hard because everything is focused on stopping you. I think that really helps and allows (people) to evaluate what you can do with what you’re working with. They’ll see where it translates to having NBA-level guys around you."
Without the benefit of much NBA-caliber talent around White, Colorado coach Tad Boyle built an offense designed to maximize his star’s ability. By the end of their season, the Buffaloes started three 3-point shooters (Xavier Johnson, George King, and Dominique Collier) and one roll man (Wesley Gordon) around White, and then involved their star guard in multiple pick-and-rolls until he either had an open shot or collapsed the defense enough to kick the ball out. It was an effective strategy: According to the tracking numbers at Synergy Sports, White was one of the best pick-and-roll scorers among any of the top NCAA guards in this year’s draft.
White can shoot the ball off the dribble, and he has an innate feel for how to find cracks in the defense and create space for himself to score:
"He’s athletic, he’s a solid shooter, and he’s very good at attacking the rim off the pick-and-roll," one scout told me.
And while most guards with his skill set are score-first players, White always plays with his head up. He can read the floor on the move, and he’s not afraid to give the ball up and make the right pass when the play presents itself to him:
"I played in a lot of pick-and-roll situations at Colorado, and I got comfortable with all the different ways the defense could defend me," said White.
The reason White wound up playing Division II basketball was his body, not his basketball IQ. A late bloomer physically, he didn’t garner much interest from the recruiting services as a 6-foot, 150-pound high school senior, and the only NCAA scholarship offer he received came from UC–Colorado Springs. He sprouted up once he got to campus, growing five inches in the summer before his freshman season of college, and he has been steadily adding weight to his frame ever since.
"There are a lot of good players at the Division II level who got overlooked in high school," White said. "Many of them end up transferring to Division I by the end of their college careers. I think playing at that level really helped me prepare."
For White, most of the difference in competition between the two levels came down not to skill, but to the overall size and speed of Division I players. He redshirted his first season at Boulder, spending a lot of time in the weight room in order to get bigger and stronger. The added strength allowed White to not just survive defensively, but excel, with Synergy rating him as one of the best isolation defenders in the country last season. In this sequence, he fights over a ball screen to recover to Markelle Fultz, the presumptive no. 1 overall pick, and gets his hands straight up to challenge his shot without fouling:
The most anomalous aspect of White’s defensive profile is his ability to block shots. He had the same block rate (4.9 percent) as Bam Adebayo, a power forward projected to go in the first round in this year’s draft, and he blocked more shots per-40 minutes than traditional center prospects like Tony Bradley and Ivan Rabb. Most of his blocks came on the ball, when he timed his contest perfectly and surprised the man he was guarding with his length. V.J. Beachem, a 6-foot-8 swingman from Notre Dame projected to go in the second round in this year’s draft, can rise up and shoot over the top of most NCAA defenders. When he tried that against White, he got his shot sent back at him:
"Shot-blocking is all about timing. The key is just getting yourself in the right position," White told me.
Matching up with bigger perimeter players will play a huge factor in how well White transitions to the NBA. Like almost all players drafted outside the lottery, he will have to fill a specific role at the next level, instead of being given the freedom to dominate the ball like he had at Colorado. The more positions he can guard, the easier it will be for him to earn playing time, and sliding him around the lineup will allow him to stay on the floor without having to match up with some of the speed demons he would face at the point guard position.
White can also play off the ball on offense, where his lack of an elite first step would be less of an issue. Defenses overloaded to get the ball out of his hands in college, but he will be able to play off better players in the NBA, attacking closeouts and taking advantage of defensive rotations. His shooting percentages compare favorably with those of specialists like Luke Kennard, especially when you consider the shot-creation burden that he had to shoulder for his team:
"Kennard has gotten a big boost in NBA circles because he’s considered the best shooter in the draft," said one executive. "White isn’t seen as being in the same category, but he’s not that much worse and he’s a much more versatile player."
White is currently being projected as a late-first-round pick on most mock drafts, but he’s a much better fit with the teams in that range than many of the more traditional big men (Adebayo, Justin Patton, and Ike Anigbogu) expected to go in the middle of the first round. White could immediately fill a role as a floor spacer and a secondary playmaker for frontcourt-heavy teams like the Thunder, Jazz, and Bucks. Teams that don’t need their first-round picks to contribute much right away often like to take gambles on high-upside players, and a fifth-year senior who started his career in Division II doesn’t necessarily fit that bill. However, White will still be only 23 years old on opening night, and he wouldn’t be the first jump-shooting guard from a smaller school to exceed expectations in the NBA.
"Never give up on your dreams, no matter where you are recruited," White said. "If you can play, basketball will find you."