Derrick White Is More than a Motivational Poster

It was June 1st when “NBA on ESPN” tweeted the following:

Derrick White had ZERO D-I scholarship offers out of HS.

Went from scout team to All-American at the D-II level

Transferred and played one season at Colorado (D-I)

Used his first NBA contract to pay off student loans Now, he’ll be playing in the NBA Finals

Below the text were juxtaposed pictures, one of a skinny high school kid dribbling through contact, the other a Boston Celtic; both were Derrick White. While the post came before the start of the Finals it wasn’t until White’s Game 1 showing that it spread like wildfire. To this point it’s been liked nearly 30,000 times. It probably would have better metrics if White used his own personal social media reach, but his Instagram has a whopping 37 posts and he has only made 1 Twitter post since his trade to the Celtics which is preceded by a small litany of San Antonio Spurs and Legend High School retweets. This will come as a shock to many, but it seems like there is a professional basketball player who doesn’t use social media for personal gain. His unassuming personality and basketball IQ seem like a product of nearly 5 years under one of the greatest basketball minds in history, but White’s style made him seem like a forever-Spur, but on Feb. 10th his career arc took a dramatic turn. Through no fault of White’s, the Spurs are in uncharted territory. Prior to 2019-2020, the Spurs hadn’t missed the playoffs since 1996-1997 which in itself disrupted a 7-year streak but also led to the greatest draft in San Antonio history landing them Tim Duncan and eventually 5 titles. Rebuild was never even in Popovich’s vocabulary but at this current crossroads, the powers-that-be had to go all-in on a restart or mire in mediocrity for the foreseeable future. The Derrickk White trade came as a shock to everyone, especially White, and in an interview with Mirin Fader of The Ringer, White says, “It was a world of emotions,” especially with his wife being 30 weeks pregnant. So instead of settling into fatherhood at the end of the regular season, it was off to Boston to rebuild their lives and extend his work with the playoff bound Celtics.

Across the league, the trade was more about the Spurs than the Celtics much less White himself. What the Spurs had flipped for picks and possible diamonds in the rough was the “real” story. Boston fans were hopeful that White could become an X-Factor off the bench, while Brad Stevens dug his heels in deep with the trade as it meant sending off the team’s first round pick for a second consecutive year. Now depending on how you interpret success, you can judge Steven’s coaching tenure with the Celtics any way you like: with 3 trips to the conference finals, some will say successful; with no finals appearances and a less than mediocre COVID season, others will say overrated. His transition to President of Basketball Operations opened the door for a person who could better communicate with professional athletes, but still gave the Celtics the brain of Brad to acquire the talent. His win-now investment has certainly paid off, and the hire of Ime Udoka has been brilliant because on June 9th 2022 the world woke up to the Celtics leading the Warriors 2-1 in the NBA finals and Derrick White playing his role to perfection. His Game 1 state line may be an anomaly with 21 points shooting over 60% from the 3-point line, but his defensive prowess and basketball IQ fit the Boston scheme perfectly as they are on the precipice of their 18th championship and 1st since 2008. But who is Derrek White, the unsung star of all this basketball drama, this legend from Legend that is quietly becoming the fan favorite of this year’s finals and the unequivocal missing piece for this Boston team?

Legend HS sits less than 10 miles east of I-25 in Parker, CO. While Parker is officially a Denver suburb, it is 30 miles from the capital city’s downtown. Closer to Castle Pines, famous for Castle Pines Golf Club which plays host to a number of PGA and LPGA events, Legend HS currently boasts an enrollment of over 2,200, one of the larger high schools in Colorado. Not legendary in terms of the high level athletic turnout that other Denver area schools have, but they do proudly rate as one of the top academic schools in the state. The 6-foot combo guard was a Titan by mascot alone. While he did help lead Legend to the 5A “Sweet 16” during his senior year, his thin frame and applaudable state line didn’t pave the way to any college interest, but timing is everything. If it weren’t for a guy named Jeff Culver and a local DII trying to make its mark, White may of been the best player in the oft-ignored NAIA. Coach Culver led the men’s basketball team at Johnson & Wales Denver while also pulling double duty as athletic director trying to solidify enrollment at the now defunct institution that was primarily known for its culinary arts program. Culver was able to proudly write 3x Association of Independent Institutions (A.I.I) championships, 3 appearances in the NAIA Division II National Tournament, and 3x A.I.I. Coach of the Year on his resume. Culver must have an affinity for acronyms as he followed up his act at JWU and the A.I.I by heading to UCCS (University of Colorado Colorado Springs) which competes in the RMAC (Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference) of the NCAA DII. Culver had recruited White to Johnson & Wales but after landing the job at UCCS offered White a preferred redshirt position and a $3,000 scholarship. For an institution that has a tuition rate north of $8,000/year for full-time students, not to mention room and board, $3,000 is a hair higher than meager in terms of scholarship. That coupled with a preferred redshirt role otherwise known as the “Aladdin Treatment,” where a coach is hoping that a magic lamp will fall into a players hands and he’ll turn out to be a proverbial “diamond in the rough,” wouldn’t give anyone a lot of confidence in their future. For White it was an opportunity that he was willing to take even if no lamp rubbing came. Some magic arrived though by way of a 4-inch post-high school growth spurt and a mound of muscle that paired perfectly with his NBA work ethic. Beautifully fused together, White transformed from low-end high school prospect into a 2x DII All-American taking the Mountain Lions to the national tournament in 2015 on the backs of a 25.8 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.2 assists season stat line which included a 50-spot in the big dance.

When it comes to college recruiting, every coach has to recruit up a division to bolster enough talent to compete: DII teams have to have some mid-major DI talent, mid-major’s have to have high-major talent, and high-majors have to get the 4 and 5 star kids otherwise they’ll be left in the dust by their competition. This is why you see so many coaches who may not be very good with X’s and O’s but are phenomenal recruiters continue to have jobs and success because sometimes (a lot of the times) high talent will beat a good scheme that only has average talent. The old adage that has become an ever popular social media post, “Hard Work Beats Talent When Talent Doesn’t Work Hard,” is really a farce: Lazy talent is going to beat hardworking mediocre talent, but that doesn’t make for much of a t-shirt. That’s not to beleaguer hard working athletes because that’s an obligation if you are striving to be among the best, but you have to have that perfect storm of natural gifts and hard work to reach any kind of pinnacle. The timing of White’s physical development along with the staging of his basketball growth brought him to this moment in time where he is nearing an NBA Championship. Being able to acclimate himself to college basketball then dominate DII was pivotal and it was a recipe that he was able to put on repeat as his talent grew. When he transferred to CU-Boulder for his senior year of college he was forced to sit out a year due to transfer rules, but that year of watching, learning, and practicing at a Pac-12 school prepared him for one of the highest levels of collegiate play which helped him earn 1st Team All Pac-12 and All-Defensive Team in his lone season of competition with the Buffs. He was then able to be cultivated by Greg Popovich his rookie year with the Spurs after being drafted 29th, and while he only played in 17 games that opening season, he started 53 in his sophomore campaign. His rise hasn’t been meteoric but focused, intentional, unwavering, and consistent just like his play.

So who is Derrick White? He’s already become a motivational poster for many, and his journey has allowed him to be credited as such. His transformation from a skinny, undersized, unrecruited, NAIA-level guard into a potential NBA champion is a captivating story, but while that’s what the media, both professional and social, have made him out to be, it’s his character within that transformation that makes him special–something that truly goes unrecognized in professional sports. White is a marketing manager’s dream, but instead he’s a humble husband and father who happens to play basketball because he loves it and has the ability to do so. His simple social media accounts read like they are only for his friends and family, certainly not catered to the 150k followers he has. He doesn’t make comments to draw headlines or build a brand, he placates. When given the opportunity to clap back at Draymond Green’s Game 1 comment of, “…15-for-23 from those guys, eh, you know, so, we’ll be fine,” White responded with, “I mean, it is what it is. He said what he said. Just going into Game 2, just have the right mindset and whatever it takes to help us win games.” He’s not grabbing or reaching for clicks or comments, and he’s not trying to make waves, he’s being a human with honest and genuine priorities. He’s the kind of individual who when he talks people listen, because when he does talk it’s with purpose and is not self-directed. He possess the potential for great influence and when he’s ready to use it he will do so in a thoughtful, heart-driven manner, that will captivate and be heard instead of be drowned out in the noise. Derrick White is inspirational not because of his journey but because of the person he was and continues to be within that journey.


  • Kyle Spencer

    Not a jack-of-all trades just a master of none. Former Assistant Coach for 2x Middle School Soccer Championship team. Coached a few other things along the journey, but focusing on leading my family well and mentoring students.

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