Derrick White is having the best season of his NBA career, as the Celtics stand with the league's best record at 26-7.
Despite Boston's most recent 127-123 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder, where they nearly pulled off an 18-point comeback, it was White's 19 points on 7-of-12 shooting, including 5-of-9 from deep to go along with six assists that was key in the team's rally late in the fourth quarter.
On New Year's Eve in a 134-101 blowout victory over San Antonio, a group of C's fans led a "White's an All-Star!" chant in the fourth quarter while White was the bench facing off against his former team.
It was a full circle moment for White, who just smiled with his arms folded and his current teammates clapped and joined in on the chant, as the veteran guard was selected by the Spurs with the No. 29th overall pick in the 2017 Draft -- before being traded to the Celtics four and half years later.
White's former head coach Gregg Popovich had a unique perspective on how far the career of the All-Defensive guard has come since his days of playing in the same building that is now named Frost Bank Center.
"I just couldn't be more proud of a player," Popovich said in his pregame comments. "When he first came [to San Antonio], I don't think he believed he belonged in the NBA. And to watch him develop through the years here, starting with the G-League and playing with us and then starting for us, and then taking more steps in Boston, has just been a thrill to watch."
The only guard this season to have at least 30 blocks (38 and counting so far) -- the most by anyone who plays in the backcourt, White has emerged as one of the best two-way players in the league and credits the guidance of Popovich while in San Antonio as being a huge reason he now has a starting role in Boston.
"He just kept pushing me. He saw something in me that I didn't see in myself," White said in Sunday's postgame presser when reflecting on playing for Pop. "I used to be in the mailroom, and he'd walk in and just say 'You belong' and walk out. Just little things like that are cool to hear from the greatest coach of all time."
On the night where he finished with 17 points and five assists against his former team, White capped off the month of December averaging 20.3 points per game on 50.8% shooting from the field and 43.5% from 3-point range. White also had a team-best 5.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.8 blocks in the span with the Celtics going 12-2 to wrap up the 2023 calendar year.
Still, it was Popovich that recalls giving White that much needed confidence to a 23-year old that just needed that little boast six years ago.
"He had a natural understanding of the game, IQ-wise, and I don't think he knew that about himself," said Popovich. "He's an innately good passer, for instance. And you could see it immediately, but he didn't think of himself that way. He was too humble, I guess, to start out. Now he's figured it out."
Fast forward to the start of the 2023-24 campaign and White has a fighter's chance to make an All-Star team, following the league's first return of fan votes -- where all five Celtics starters are in the top-10 of the respective positions when it comes to guards and frontcourt players.
"It's fun to see him recognized for how good he is," Brad Stevens said of White in his post-practice presser Thursday. "I just love being around him. He's really good. The way he impacts basketball games is really special."
While Stevens says he won't be campaign opposing head coaches in the East to select White, "no one watches more film than those 14 coaches." He also added that when he was a coach, Stevens believed that winning was always a tiebreaker for voting -- which White clearly has an edge in.
With averages of 17 points on 49.4% from the floor, including 42.2% from 3-point range (all career-highs), 3.9 rebounds, 5.3 assists, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 steals per contest (30 games and all starts), White definitely has a shot to make the All-Star team in the East -- even if it's an injury replacement.
Photo used courtesy of USA Today
Photo used courtesy of USA Today