Derrick White could be the next great San Antonio Spurs sixth man
By Ethan Farina
Coming off of a breakout sophomore season, Derrick White could very well be a starter for the San Antonio Spurs, but the Spurs and White might both be better off with him taking over the role as the sixth man.
The 2018 NBA season did not start how Derrick White would have hoped. Shortly after being named the San Antonio Spurs’ starting point guard, it was announced that he would have to miss the first six-to-eight weeks of the season with a heel injury. A minor setback in what was a breakout season for the former Colorado Buffalo.
White would take over the starting role in mid-December and never looked back. He was a consistent offensive presence for the Spurs, an able and willing defender and rarely looked thrown off his game. Not bad for a player who was hardly recruited coming out of high school.
Fast forward a few months and White is coming off of a strong post-season and a globe-trotting summer. An impressive playoff performance against the Denver Nuggets was followed up by making the final Team USA roster and traveling to China for the 2019 FIBA World Cup.
Now looking ahead to his third year with the Spurs, White’s role is somewhat unclear. The return of Dejounte Murray complicates the backcourt in San Antonio. Will Gregg Popovich decide to start two point guards alongside each other or go with a more conventional lineup?
Starting Murray and White alongside each other would be an interesting experiment. Both are very good defenders, opposing backcourts would be pressed to score against that duo. But they both still have offensive limitations to their games.
Tempting as it may be to hand the reins of the team to their two up and coming guards, the San Antonio Spurs would be better off letting White loose against opposing second units as their new sixth man and leader of the bench mob and here’s why.
Next: Three-Point Shooting
One downside of potentially playing White and Murray alongside each other is the limitations it would put on the Spurs ability to space the floor. Both players have strong areas of their offensive games, but three-point shooting isn’t one of them. That could complicate things for a team that already relies quite a bit on mid-range scorers.
LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan are going to start for the Spurs on opening night. Those two are going to be the offensive engines for San Antonio on a nightly basis and both prefer to operate from mid-range.
The Spurs would be wise to put as many shooters as possible around the two. Put DeRozan and Aldridge in positions where they can either go to one of their preferred moves or kick to an open shooter. That’s easier to do when you have players who can keep the defense honest.
Neither Murray or White have been able to consistently connect from deep so far in their young careers. They’re 31.6 and 36.1 percent shooters from deep, respectively. That could change soon, we’ve seen videos of Dejounte comfortably pulling up from deep in pick-up games this summer. But hitting shots like that in a pick-up is one thing, it’s another to do it in an actual game.
Having White take over the second unit would open up a spot in the starting lineup for a more intimidating three-point threat. Bryn Forbes and Lonnie Walker IV are both viable options. In this league, if you have legitimate championship aspirations, you almost always need to have at least one three-point shooter in your starting lineup who can hit open shots at close to a 40 percent rate.
Forbes met that mark last season, connecting on 42.6 percent of his three-point attempts. Walker shot 42.9 percent from deep in Vegas Summer League this off-season. Now, that percentage comes as a result of smaller sample size and lesser competition but the point remains the same. The Spurs need more three-point shooting in their starting lineup. Moving White to the bench and starting one of Forbes or Walker would be a route to achieving that.
Next: Defensive Impact
If White and Murray are the starters, then Forbes and Patty Mills would presumably be the second unit guards. While that would lead to some explosive shooting nights, it also opens up the Spurs to a world of hurt on the defensive end.
Neither Forbes or Mills have ever been above average defenders. They’ve ranged from opportunistic and bothersome at times to serious liabilities on that end of the floor. Pairing one of them with White as the second unit’s guards would help bring balance to the bench mob.
White should have received some consideration for the NBA All-Defensive team last season. He was easily the Spurs best defensive guard and arguably one of the best defensive guards in the league.
White is an aggressive defender, you can find him locked to his man’s hip on almost every possession. He contested 9.4 shots per game and gave up .81 points per possession in pick and roll. For comparison, Jrue Holiday, one of the best defenders in the league and member of the NBA All-Defensive team each of the last two seasons, contested 8.6 shots per game and gave up .74 points per possession in pick and roll.
There would be times when White could be inserted into the starting lineup to counter a particularly potent opposing backcourt. As important as three-point shooting is I don’t think asking Bryn Forbes try to lock down James Harden over a seven-game series a good strategy.
But generally speaking, I believe handing the reins of the second unit to White would help balance the Spurs and increase the defensive potential of their bench unit.
Next: Historical Precedent
If the Spurs were to bring White off the bench it wouldn’t be the first time that they’ve asked one of their best players to make a necessary sacrifice to help the team. After all, coming off the bench wasn’t the easiest transition for Manu Ginobili either. He opened up to Spurs Zone’s Jeff Garcia about taking over the sixth man role back in 2018.
“At the beginning it was kind of hard. It took me a while to understand it,” said Ginobili. “To get my ego out of the middle between Pop (Popovich) and me or the game and me and just do what has to be done for a team to be better.”
The move ultimately turned out to be the right decision. Manu won the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year award, multiple NBA Championships, and will go down as one of the most beloved Spurs of all time. These kinds of things become possible when the team is put before the individual.
White seems like the kind of player who would be open to the move. Everyone within the organization raves about his work ethic and low-key nature.
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Bringing Manu off the bench was one of the biggest reasons for San Antonio’s continual success throughout the 2000s. When opposing teams had to put in their second units, he would go to work. Many bench units focus on either holding a lead or making sure it doesn’t get any bigger. The Spurs bench unit, thanks to the leadership provided by Ginobili, was able to focus on closing the gap or pulling away.
Additionally, bringing White off the bench wouldn’t prevent him from being on the court in clutch moments at all. Even though Manu was the Spurs sixth man for the majority of his career he was almost always on the court when the final buzzer sounded.
San Antonio has always had one of the strongest bench units in the league. This year they will need them more than ever. This current Spurs team doesn’t have the star power to match the Lakers, Clippers, or Warriors. But where they can find an advantage is with White leading their second unit.
The Western Conference might be more star-studded this year than ever before. Bringing Derrick White off the bench as the next great Spurs sixth man might be just the change-up San Antonio needs to lock up a playoff spot for the 23rd consecutive season.