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The Trade That Completed Derrick White—and Maybe the Celtics

It’s been a winding path, but Boston’s biggest Finals X factor has finally found a home. The Celtics’ midseason trade rounded out their roster with the ultimate glue guy.

Joel Kimmel

Derrick White didn’t see it coming. It was just hours before the NBA’s trade deadline, a notoriously nerve-racking day. A friend asked White whether he thought he’d get traded, but White shook off the thought. Besides, he was starting to find his groove, averaging career numbers as the San Antonio Spurs’ starting shooting guard.

He was sitting in his hotel room, as he and his teammates were beginning a long road trip. Spurs coach Gregg Popovich called White to meet. Something shifted in White. He didn’t have the best feeling. He knew something was up.

“Pop’s coming to my room,” he called and told his wife, Hannah. “I don’t know what this means.”

His instincts would soon be proved right: Popovich told the fifth-year Spur that he had been traded to the Boston Celtics. “I was shocked,” White says. In a few seconds, his life suddenly looked completely different.

Where am I going to live? he thought. And there were more serious concerns. Hannah was around 30 weeks pregnant. They’d have to find new doctors. And then a tiny seed of doubt, one he had been trying to suppress throughout his career, surfaced:

Why didn’t they want me?

He’d loved his time in San Antonio. He loved Pop. “It was a world of emotions,” White says. But he didn’t have time to dwell. He had a job to do—and a flight to catch. As he flew to Boston that night, he stared out the plane window, telling himself that he had to make the most of the opportunity.

It’s incredibly difficult to join a new team midway through the season, much less one with championship aspirations. Every trade deadline, teams try to find a missing piece, or one more rotation player—but it’s often more complex than a spin on the Trade Machine. Forecasting how someone can fit in with a team’s still-developing chemistry, and strike the delicate balance between adding to it without disrupting it, is tricky. White had to learn a new system, adjust to new teammates and coaches, and find a way to acclimate on the fly. He and Hannah would live out of suitcases in a small apartment near TD Garden for five to six weeks while awaiting their new home. White was determined to find his way on the Celtics, turning to something a former teammate shared with him during White’s rookie season in 2017-18 when the two were playing for the Spurs’ G League affiliate:

“Wherever life takes you,” the teammate said, “ride the wave.”

White has spent his life doing just that. He didn’t receive a single scholarship offer out of high school. At times he wasn’t the best, second-best, or even third-best player on some of his prep teams. He was so skinny, so small, so green, some teammates called him “Gerber Baby.” He played three years at Division II University of Colorado–Colorado Springs (UCCS), fighting to prove his worth, and serendipitously sprouting about four inches in the process. He transferred to the University of Colorado before his senior year, morphing into a star and an unlikely NBA first-round pick. Once the Spurs drafted him, he evolved even further, transforming from a two-way role player into a reliable starter with potential.

He thrived on outsmarting and outhustling players. He’d often defend an opponent’s best player. By all accounts, White looked like another vintage Spurs pick. His brilliant instincts helped him anticipate well, making split-second decisions and winning plays like making the extra pass, grabbing an offensive rebound, or deflecting the ball on defense. “Some people just have limits when it comes to basketball IQ,” Popovich says. “Well, he’s off the charts.”

Gregg Popovich coached Derrick White for more than four years in San Antonio.
Photo by Ronald Cortes/Getty Images

White’s play impressed more teams than just the Spurs. Brad Stevens, who had recently moved from the Celtics’ bench to the front office, was intrigued. Boston’s former head coach and new president of basketball operations had been watching White since his time with Team USA’s Select camp in 2019, when he earned a spot on the national team’s FIBA World Cup roster. Ahead of the 2022 trade deadline, the Celtics sat in seventh place in the East and were looking to bolster their roster. Stevens was looking for players to complement Boston’s two big wings, Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown.

“How could we surround them with the best versatile defenders, the best savvy passers, and the most unselfish guys we could find?” Stevens says. “Derrick, in basketball circles, is really, really, really highly thought of in all of those regards. We had seen that up close.”

Stevens knew that White could make winning plays with or without the ball. He could get the alphas the ball and set solid screens. He could open the floor for people. “Imagine the best teammate, the guy who will do anything to win, the guy who doesn’t care if he gets his name in the paper, the guy who doesn’t care if he ever shoots a shot,” Stevens says. “He’s all about the right stuff.”

First-year Celtics head coach Ime Udoka and assistant Will Hardy had formerly coached White in San Antonio on Popovich’s staff, and knew what he was capable of. The Celtics believed White could fit in. His soft-spoken demeanor, his ability to get along with anyone, his humility, made him an ideal teammate. Someone who exemplified the team culture that Udoka was trying to instill. A team that desperately needed a jolt of energy after a disastrous 16-19 start to the season, at one point sitting 11th place in the East. They were still below .500 through mid-January.

“Derrick is a no-excuses, just-keep-going kind of guy,” Hardy says. “That’s what our team’s done this year. We haven’t made excuses. We haven’t pointed a finger. We haven’t complained, and said that this isn’t fair.”

“That’s exactly how Derrick’s journey has been,” Hardy says. “He’s just kept working. … His personality and the personality of our team are very similar.”

Midseason trades don’t always work out, but this one flourished immediately. The Celtics turned around their season to make an unexpected Finals run, and are now knotted 1-1 against the Warriors. Since White has joined, the Celtics have gone an astounding 33-13 (.717). What’s more, he has sacrificed a starting role to come off the bench, wholeheartedly embracing the change.

Though he struggled with his shot early in the playoffs, White is starting to find his rhythm again. He was magnificent in Boston’s come-from-behind Finals Game 1 victory, scoring 21 points, hitting five 3s, and playing lockdown defense. He held Steph Curry to just five points on the 17 possessions on which he defended him.

White has long been a darling of advanced metrics. Over the last three seasons, his defensive regularized adjusted plus-minus ranks 12th among all NBA players and fourth among guards. He shows that value can be unconventional. He doesn’t have to dazzle athletically or statistically. Value can be found elsewhere, like in transition defense against the Heat in the Eastern Conference finals. During one play in Game 5, White sprinted back to get in front of everyone, stealing a pass under the basket. He was practically flying out of bounds, but still had the poise and smarts, midair, to know that he couldn’t throw the ball back inbounds under his team’s basket, so he threw it to the crowd—even if that meant a turnover would be attributed to him.

He doesn’t care about individual stats. If he scores zero points and the team wins, he’s happy. He played his best—scoring 22 points with five assists, one block, and three steals—in a crucial Game 6 loss to Miami, and couldn’t crack a smile. “You did so well,” Hannah told him afterward.

“We really needed that win,” he said.

“It doesn’t matter if I’m starting or coming off the bench,” White says. “My attitude, my effort—they have to stay the same. From there, it’s just basketball.”

White doesn’t necessarily believe things are meant to be, or that there’s a certain order in the universe, but it kind of feels like joining the Celtics was supposed to happen. His dad, Richard, is from Boston and grew up loving the team. Richard’s father would schedule his haircuts right after Celtics road trips in hopes of running into his favorite players at the barbershop. “It’s kind of come full circle,” Richard says.

Part of what has made the transition easier for Derrick was that he got to know Tatum, Brown, and Marcus Smart while playing with Team USA in 2019. He felt welcomed by his new teammates, attending a slew of birthday parties in March and early April and bonding with them away from the floor.

White got to know his teammates on a personal level, seeing how they interacted around friends and family. That was important to him, coming from a fantastic culture in San Antonio where he established long-lasting relationships with nearly everyone. “It just kind of grew everybody’s relationship together,” White says. He began to see that his own work ethic meshed with the team’s, as Boston had clawed its way back from ugly losses before White arrived.

It’s a motto for this Boston team: “We always say that ‘We’ve been through a lot,’” White says. “When you go through things together, you just have that bond and that closeness that you’ll just keep going. Whether we’re up or down, we always believe in each other.”

2022 NBA Finals - Boston Celtics v Golden State Warriors Photo by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

White’s doing his best to fit in, but the Celtics just want him to trust his instincts. Do what he does best. His teammates encourage him. There are moments when Tatum gets on White for passing up shots. For being too unselfish. “Stop looking for me,” Tatum tells him. “Go score.”

Tatum, Brown, Smart, and Al Horford often tell him: “Go for it.”

“Those guys empowered him,” Hardy says.

They remind White that what he does matters. Stevens does, too. “That decision [to make the trade] wasn’t just made for this run,” Stevens says. “In fact, the run was one of the last things we were thinking about, versus trying to do something that would help us in the long term.”

All his life, White has been searching for something like this; a team to believe and invest in him for the long haul. At times, trying to navigate his winding path, he struggled with confidence. If he made a mistake, it was often because he was unsure of himself, unsure of his role. He was too passive. Too eager to set someone else up.

You need to believe that you belong here, Popovich would tell him many times over the past five years. White is finally starting to. Before every game, he tells himself something Udoka shared with him when White joined the Celtics, when the two were discussing his role:

“Just be you,” Udoka said.

Just be you. Three simple words that a player who wasn’t ranked, who received no scholarship offers, who had to spend three years playing D-II to get a call-up, needs to hear. He knows he doesn’t have to be a star. He doesn’t have to be someone he’s not.

He is starting to realize that he is enough—just as he is. And maybe, he could be even more.

After he goes home from a practice or game, White doesn’t take a break from basketball. He watches two to three other games a night. He’s obsessed with scouting reports. Hannah asks to watch Netflix, but he’ll insist: “Can we finish this quarter?”

“He just keeps staying hungry,” Hannah says.

When scouting an opponent, he watches for not just what makes a player successful, but also the things that player doesn’t like to do. “I just try to outthink them,” White says.

White is a stickler for details, able to see something once and commit it to memory. He’s so focused, so quiet, that Marcus Mason, his longtime trainer and a former coach at the University of Denver, often jokes that White should play poker. “Sometimes you’ll be with Derrick, and you’ll never know what he’s thinking,” Mason says. “He’s processing every single situation.”

Even on the couch, watching these late-night games, White will grab a basketball and shoot it in the air, tinkering with his form as if he’s a kid again. As if he’s still the kid in Colorado Springs, shooting countless 3s in midnight workouts, trying to prove he could compete at the Division I level.

Hannah was there on many of those nights, rebounding inside the empty gym. They celebrated their nine-year anniversary last Thursday. The last couple of weeks have been a whirlwind for them. Hannah was supposed to be induced to deliver their first child, Hendrix, on May 22, in between games 3 and 4 of the East finals, when they’d be in Boston.

Before Derrick left for Game 1 in Miami, he touched Hannah’s stomach to talk to Hendrix: “Stay in there, little buddy,” he said. “I’ll be back in a couple of days.”

But Hendrix couldn’t wait. Hannah went into labor on the 19th. White missed Game 2, racing to take the first flight out of Miami. While on the plane he stared at the flight tracker on the screen in front of him, trying to will the plane to move faster. He missed Hendrix’s birth by an hour, but it didn’t matter once he arrived in the hospital room and held his son for the first time.

White always has been afraid of holding babies, but that anxiety quickly dissipated once he held his own. Instinct took over as he tucked his son into his arms. He couldn’t stop smiling.

As Derrick navigates being a new father with playing on the biggest stage of his life, he still manages to sing to Hendrix before bedtime. Recently, Hannah asked him how he’s handling all of it.

“Honestly,” Derrick said, “I know that you’ve got home. As long as you’re there with him, I have nothing to worry about. I’ll bring you guys home a ring.”

White never really dreamed of playing in the NBA while growing up in Parker, Colorado, a suburb of Denver. He just loved basketball, playing all day except for the occasional trip to Wendy’s in between. “He always had a ball in his hand,” says Colleen, his mother.

When playing on the defensive line of his youth football team, he’d tell Richard that being smaller than the other kids had its advantages: “I can slip through the cracks that they can’t! They can’t block me!”

But his size would be his biggest impediment. Derrick was a skilled player, but his body wasn’t developed. He wasn’t even his high school basketball team’s go-to scorer until his junior year. Legend High coach Kevin Boley would tell colleges that White was talented but just needed time to develop. “He was doing some amazing things on the court,” Boley says. But they kept telling him that White was too skinny. Not big enough.

“It’s an indictment on the system where coaches feel like they have to win now,” Boley says. “They can’t take a chance on a kid, redshirt, and let him grow.”

White stood at just 6 feet as a high school senior. He was brilliant in the open floor, outscoring and even dunking on opponents. But he still had to go D-II. His growth spurt had just begun at UCCS. “He was still adjusting to his newfound body,” Richard says.

The plan was for Derrick to redshirt his freshman year, but he didn’t stay on the scout team for very long. “[White] was killing everyone,” says Alex Welsh, a former teammate and a close friend. The team was playing so poorly in games that coach Jeff Culver pulled White’s redshirt and inserted him into the starting lineup. He dominated, setting the conference single-season scoring record. “He became special,” Culver says.

White was All-Pac-12 First Team at Colorado.
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

He had to sit out a year after transferring to Colorado. He pushed himself to get better, stronger. He had a ways to go on defense, resembling little of the lockdown defender he would later become.

He struggled early on. “Everything was at a whole different level than what I was used to,” White says. “I was like, ‘I don’t know if I can do this.’” He’d often get chewed out for grabbing a rebound without boxing out, and the team would have to run. “He was just a little unsure of himself,” says Tad Boyle, Colorado’s coach.

White continued to trust the work he was putting in, and his confidence began to grow. The following year, he averaged 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.4 assists, and was named All-Pac-12 First Team and named to the conference’s All-Defensive Team. “Everybody wants to fast-forward the process,” Boyle says. “The reality is, you’ve gotta play your way to the NBA. Derrick White played his way to the NBA.”

His first year in the NBA, spent mostly in the G League, was tough. There were times he felt he might not be good enough. Or that maybe the opportunity would fizzle out. Maybe he would just be a G League player.

“He was always kind of worried about what was going to happen in the future for him,” Welsh says.

He refused to quit, continuing to get better, helping the Austin Spurs to a G League championship as the team’s leading scorer. That experience bought him time to catch up to players who had been accustomed to being the guy their whole lives. And, as he moved up to play for Popovich, he realized he had to compete even harder and be more aggressive.

You need to believe that you belong here.

Popovich’s words swirled in White’s mind. It wasn’t easy to feel assured, juggling so many roles over the course of his life. “In the span of 18 months, he went from playing Division II basketball to being a first-round draft pick in the NBA, which is not something you see a lot,” Hardy says. “The big thing with Pop was to … give him the confidence that he did belong, because all the coaches and all the players saw what happened when Derrick played.”

He was becoming more comfortable. Trusting himself more. And, since joining the Celtics, that confidence has only continued to blossom. Maybe he has become the missing piece Boston needed, but White doesn’t get into labels. There is a championship to win. He lives possession to possession. Tells himself not to get too high or too low. To do whatever his coaches ask of him.

He now knows that confidence wasn’t something he could fake, or even purchase. It had to come from within. From the deepest part of his core that believed in himself when few did.

Just be you.

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