How Derrick White became an analytics darling by doing all the little things

Weeks after his buzzer-beating putback, that flying finish with tenths of a second left in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, Derrick White visited a close friend’s salon back in his hometown of Denver. Those mirrors lining each chair grabbed everyone by their own reflection. And when the group checked over White’s curls that poofed from his headband as he rebounded his way into Boston playoff lore, out came the clippers, and clump after clump fell to the parlor floor.

“We were just kinda sitting there,” White told Yahoo Sports. “And we were just like, ‘Cut it!’ It was a real spur-of-the-moment decision.”

The finished product, zeros all the way around, quickly populated niche forums of offseason basketball internet, where Reddit users track anything from players’ haircuts to fresh ink. When White showed up at Celtics media day in September, his shaved head sparkled under the news conference lights. “I’ve just been rocking it ever since,” White said. He has figured out the proper razors and technique to maintain everything without a barber, before his wife, Hannah, checks his handiwork. She makes sure the entire surface looks good and he hasn’t missed a spot, just as White makes sure any five-man Boston lineup that includes the 6-foot-5 combo guard is as well-rounded and complete as can be.

White’s game isn’t so much elastic as it is fluid, able to take any shape, like water filling a cup. White occupies the nooks and crannies of each contest, rocketing to the offensive glass, materializing in opponents’ passing lanes, rejecting far more shots than most players his stature have any business doing. White denies so many looks from so many spots at every sequence of his assignment’s mechanics. He can absorb Julius Randle with his chest and strip him before the bruising forward even raises the rock from his hip. He can recover from a crossover to throw Kyrie Irving’s scoop off the backboard. He can even fly by a deadeye shooter's pump fake and still swipe Michael Porter Jr. from behind.

Minnesota Timberwolves guard Anthony Edwards (5) shoots over Boston Celtics guard Derrick White (9) during an NBA basketball game, Wednesday, Jan. 10, 2024, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

White chases stops, not numbers, helping Boston tally the NBA’s best record at 31-9, including 19 undefeated games at home. “And there’s a lot that goes into that,” White said. Here lies the irony, where such a player winds up an analytics darling, ranking atop various advanced metrics even if he can't explain them. “Some of the stuff,” White said, “I don’t know what it really means.”

He is one of only three players, for example, to rank in the 90th percentile for both OLEBRON and DLEBRON. Which, for White, and for all the other uninitiated hoopheads, is a model from the website BBall Index that stands for “Luck-adjusted player estimate using a box prior regularized on-off” and better measures a players’ impact per 100 possessions on the floor compared to standard stats. In that vein, White also boasts the highest net point differential of any member of his NBA-best Celtics, according to Cleaning the Glass, good for fifth in the NBA. He has the best net rating of any player in the league, according It's to the point that observers such as sharpshooter-turned-media personality JJ Redick and throngs of fans during a road trip to San Antonio are campaigning for White’s inclusion at next month’s All-Star Game in Indianapolis.

For an event that highlights the sports’ brightest skill sets, White’s selection would bring a spotlight to the fundamentals that beget the game’s flash. “When I go out there, I’m not trying to make it look good,” White said. “I’m just trying to win games and do everything I can on both sides, and I think that’s what those numbers reflect.”

Count his father, Richard, as another ranking officer on the frontlines of Redick’s growing movement. The man who first positioned White as a deferential point guard in youth ball now posts on Twitter after each Celtics outing, logging the few points White allowed per number of possessions, including his steals, blocks, deflections and shot contests. After messaging about the team, Dan Greenberg, a Celtics writer for Barstool, showed Richard where to find the data on, which the proud Boston native and lifelong Celtics fan then saves into a personal spreadsheet, following his son’s career across multiple tabs.

“Keeping track of charges, secondary assists, screen assists, those things that aren’t at the forefront of people’s minds,” Richard said. “There are numbers out there that bely the talent that’s abundant in the NBA.”

It would have been hard for anyone, Dad included, to calculate that White would reach these peaks. He was an undersized playmaker with no Division I offers out of high school. It took three years at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs before White started seeing scouts in the stands, and he transferred to lead Colorado against the rest of the Pac-12. White then competed at the Portsmouth Invitational, a longstanding exhibition for graduating seniors, where two stellar games earned White an invite to the 2017 NBA Draft Combine, which he wasn’t otherwise guaranteed to receive.

His rookie year brought just 17 games of action for a San Antonio playoff team, as he sat all the way down on a Spurs bench that still included Hall of Famers Tony Parker and Manu Ginóbili from championship days past. Dejounte Murray already came before White in the club’s vaunted development program. “The confidence and the belief that I deserve to be here and I belong, just that belonging, I think was what really took the longest,” White said. Yet Gregg Popovich and his coaching staff, like assistant Will Hardy, always found little windows to charge White’s battery. “They believed in me more than I believed in myself,” White said.

So he watched, strapping into a first-row seat for Ginóbili’s masterclass in the little things. Any advantage he could gain, Ginóbili would snatch in a blink, like a knight snuffing an unsuspecting pawn. Ginóbili knew how to read every angle. He’d catch certain balls on the run to gain a head-start downhill. His footwork was second to none and unforgiving, even at the ripe age of 40. “How he could manipulate things,” White said, “he was probably our best guard that year.” On the opposite end, Danny Green offered the first of many tricks that earned White his first All-Defense nod last season. Green was most cagey guarding two-on-one transition breaks with the odds stacked so clearly against him. Yet the veteran always seemed to time each instance perfectly. He would stay so poised and vertical when “a lot of guys panic and foul,” White said.

Following Green was how White earned his minutes as a sophomore, scratching and clawing as he guarded the league’s best playmakers. His strong production in those playoffs, a 2019 seven-game series against Nikola Jokić’s upstart Denver Nuggets, finally gave White the confidence that he could be a problem at this level. When Boston sent a first-round pick, plus a 2028 first-round pick swap, to acquire his services at the 2022 trade deadline, the Celtics stamped White as a key piece for a burgeoning title contender.

“I knew the Spurs were thinking about going toward a rebuild,” White said, “but I thought I was gonna be part of the rebuild.” His tide changed abruptly. An hour before the deal to Boston was finalized, White was at the Spurs’ team hotel in Atlanta, lifting weights with Drew Eubanks, when they learned the reserve center was being moved to Toronto in a package that featured Thaddeus Young. “Man, that’s crazy!” a stunned White told Eubanks. “I couldn't imagine getting traded …” Before long, back in White’s room, Popovich phoned his cell asking what number he was staying in. And the next 20 seconds until the coach knocked on his door bloated with unrelenting reality.

Hannah was seven months pregnant. The couple needed to find new doctors, not to mention new housing. White was trying to digest the X’s and O’s of Boston’s playbook while trying not to get lost circling Massachusetts' many roundabout roads. He was building furniture for their first born’s nursery in between playoff games, as the Celtics marched to within two wins of capturing the NBA Finals that June. “It was so much, all at once,” White said.

His first full season with Boston, last year’s 2022-23 campaign, White settled into his new digs. He sniped a career-best 38.1% from distance — only surpassed, so far, by this season’s 41.2% clip. He focused with assistant coach Ben Sullivan on rediscovering the joys of the game that became his journey. After every shootaround, when staffers and players divided into small groups at individual baskets, White and Sullivan, along with Grant Williams, the former Celtics swingman now with Dallas, battled in wacky bouts of Floater P-I-G. They would throw the ball in the air, spin around and then catch it with the backs of their hands before lofting a push shot toward the rim and adding letters like they were back on some schoolyard blacktop. They created their own rules, like if the other two competitors nailed your shot, it was actually the first person who was spelling ever closer to his own end.

Maybe all those acrobatics helped tune White’s instincts as much as his energy. After he inbounded to Marcus Smart with three ticks left in that Game 6 victory over Miami and raced down the baseline to flip the putback home, the broadcast captured White and Sullivan embracing on the court during all the postgame chaos. White had remembered one of Joe Muzzala’s training camp teaching points months in the rearview, when Boston’s head coach wanted all five guys flocking the offensive boards during end-of-game situations. It is a sequence scripted for remember-whens. White knows that effort created a moment he and Celtics fans won’t soon forget, “but it would have meant more if we won Game 7.”

Boston and White have certainly regrouped. Gone are Smart and Williams, in are All-Star guard Jrue Holiday and 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porziņģis. Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and the Celtics bill as the class of the conference they hope to conquer once again. With a sixth starting-caliber veteran in Al Horford, Boston can argue that it boasts the strongest top line across the entire league.

The last team so successful that featured the Celtics’ ageless big, the 2015 Hawks, sent four All-Stars, including Horford, to the midseason affair. White can do this math on his fingers.

“Obviously JT, JB, for sure,” said White. “Then KP should make it, for sure, and then we’ll see after that.”

He can remain deferential when there’s an army of analytics ready to make his case.