NBA

Why Celtics’ Derrick White is the best little shot blocker in the NBA

Why Celtics’ Derrick White is the best little shot blocker in the NBA

After seeing Spencer Dinwiddie dart down the middle of the lane earlier this month, Robert Williams feared for Derrick White.

“I ain’t gonna lie,” said Williams told The Athletic. “I thought that was gonna be bad.”

Like Williams, Marcus Smart considered a Dinwiddie dunk the likely outcome of the play. During the early January matchup, the Mavericks guard had beaten White off the dribble and taken an angle directly toward the rim. Even Smart, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, didn’t see any way White could recover in time.

“We were all looking like, ‘Oh, don’t jump D-White,’” Smart told The Athletic. “Because (Dinwiddie) had him beat and we thought it was fixing to be over. And next thing you know (White) comes out of nowhere and denies it.”

As amazed Celtics teammates point out, White delivers plays like that frequently. At 6-foot-4, 190 pounds, he doesn’t have the frame of a top rim protector. By NBA standards, he’s not a particularly high flier. He said he has a relatively average NBA wingspan at 6-foot-7.5 inches. Nothing about his physique or athleticism screams he should be able to batter opponents’ shots the way he does, but he is still on pace for one of the best shot-blocking seasons ever for a player his size. 

Since 1973-74, only four players 6-foot-4 or shorter (White, Dwayne Wade, Patrick Beverley and Eric Bledsoe) have ever notched a block percentage of at least three while qualifying for the league leaderboard in minutes per game. White, who did it once in San Antonio, entered Monday on track to become the first player on the list twice. With 41 blocked shots over 45 games played, he also has a small chance to join Wade as the first 6-foot-4 or shorter player to average at least one block per game with the same playing time stipulation since Dennis Johnson did so for the Seattle Supersonics during the 1979-80 season. Including Wade, who did it six times, only four players at White’s height or shorter have achieved that feat since the NBA began tracking blocks during the 1973-74 season. Johnson and David Thompson each did it twice. 

White entered Monday ranked 27th in the NBA in block percentage this season. That may not sound remarkable, but every player above him on that leaderboard is at least 6-foot-7. Among others, White has a higher block percentage this season than Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bam Adebayo, Draymond Green, Mikal Bridges, Al Horford and Herbert Jones. Those guys should all be candidates for an all-defensive team. White deserves consideration, too. The Celtics’ defense has been 4.7 points per 100 possessions better with White on the court, according to NBA.com. He is a king of the little things, a master of being in the right place. But he doesn’t just contribute in quiet ways. Some of his blocks have been louder than a siren.

White preserved a win against the Clippers by meeting Paul George at the rim and redirecting his shot:

“I try to tell people that I’m a shot blocker,” White told The Athletic after that game.

He’s not lying when he says that, but he failed to track down any rejections Monday, when the Celtics beat Charlotte 130-118 behind Jayson Tatum’s 51-point outburst. Though White still had 19 points and eight assists, it marked the first time since Dec. 25 that he finished a game in good health without blocking a shot. Before a neck sprain forced him off the court four minutes into Saturday’s win against the same Hornets team, White had blocked at least one shot in nine straight games. These days, a zero for him in that category counts as a surprise.

How does a physically unassuming guard emerge as such a dangerous shot blocker? In some ways, White believes he always had a knack for it. When he was young, he and his friends occasionally played on lower rims so they could try dunking on each other. Whenever they did that, White said he had a gift for slapping away his buddies’ tries. The talent didn’t always produce denials on a full-sized basket. As a skinny, 6-foot-tall high school senior, White said he didn’t pile up many blocks in games.

“But when I got taller, bigger, more athletic, it just kind of translated,” said White.

A late growth spurt helped turn White into an NBA prospect. When the Spurs drafted him in the first round of the 2017 draft, he landed on a team with one of the best perimeter shot blockers ever. White said he picked up knowledge just from watching Danny Green during their lone season as teammates.

“Dwyane Wade’s probably the best of all time but Danny was really good too,” White said. “He’s not a freak athlete or nothing but he just had good timing and good positioning. And I just learned from that.”

During his season as White’s teammate, Green posted a career-high block percentage of 3.7, which ranks among the best shot-blocking seasons ever among players 6-foot-6 or shorter. White said he would ask Green how he managed to block certain shots. Sometimes, Green would jump even before the shooter did. Regardless of the circumstances, White also noticed Green never gave up on a play. Even when defending a 2-on-1 or 3-on-1 fast break, Green had an uncanny ability to disrupt his opponent’s plans.

“I tried to take that,” White said. “Whether they get a layup or not, just try to make it difficult.”

When asked recently about White’s shot-blocking, coach Joe Mazzulla mentioned the work the guard did throughout last season’s Eastern Conference Finals against the Heat. Because the Celtics didn’t do as much switching in that series, they asked White to run over and under screens. He had seven blocks over six games played in the series while helping to hold Heat sharpshooter Max Strus to 20-for-66 shooting from the field, including a 14-for-48 showing from behind the 3-point arc.

“I just think he brings multiple efforts on the defensive end,” said Mazzulla. “So go back to the Miami series, I think he did a great job chasing and challenging and fighting through off-ball screens.”

White believes timing is the most crucial ingredient to his blocks. Celtics teammates describe his technique almost like he’s a lion waiting for the right moment to pounce. Even when opponents appear safe, White never stops looking for an opening to hunt them down. Smart believes White can effectively “hide his athleticism.”

“When guys get by him, you don’t see Derrick White as a guy who’s going to explode for a block from behind, a chase down,” said Smart. “Out of nowhere he comes and he surprises you. He does a really good job of I guess in a way playing possum. He baits you into being able to block a shot.”

White is a constant nuisance. He never quits on screens. He never stops chasing a ball handler. Even when he appears to be out of a play, he often sticks with it, catches up to his man and impacts a shot. During a November win against Denver, White recovered to Michael Porter Jr. three times over a span of two seconds before smacking away Porter’s shot. Even with a six-inch advantage on White, Porter couldn’t escape far enough away to release a shot cleanly.

Oftentimes, offensive players seem shocked by White’s shot-blocking radius.

“Most guys get beat and just let it go,” Smart said. “You think, ‘I’ve got a big that’s gotta clean up for me.’ Or, ‘OK, this is just one I got beat on.’ But he doesn’t think like that. And I think it surprises a lot of guards.”

White noticed how Green was able to impact opposing shots without fouling. Celtics teammates marvel at White’s ability to do the same.

“Every time I try to swipe down in the paint I’m getting called for a foul,” said Robert Williams. “He’s getting it (clean) though. And he’s swiping hard. That’s one of his best traits, man, honestly.”

Grant Williams knows he wouldn’t be able to defend so cleanly while impacting the ball.

“Maybe it’s my wide body,” Williams said.

White doesn’t have the typical body for a shot blocker, either. Still, his list of victims so far this season includes some of the NBA’s most explosive athletes. He got Donovan Mitchell by rotating over from the weak side:

White caught up to Ja Morant to clean up his shot like a windshield wiper:

White has also bested some of the NBA’s craftiest guards. During a win against Atlanta, he stayed attached to Trae Young around a screen before flicking away a shot attempt from behind. While beating the Pelicans, White refused to bite on a CJ McCollum head fake before punishing McCollum for the crime of trying to shoot in White’s vicinity. In one victory against the Nets, White recovered to pound a Kyrie Irving layup off the backboard after Irving appeared to beat him off the dribble. During the second half of a December loss to Golden State, White followed Stephen Curry step for step in transition before turning aside a left-handed layup from the two-time MVP. Minutes later during the same game, White blocked Curry again, this time by scooting over a screen and timing a contest perfectly on Curry’s stepback 3-point attempt. Curry has only been blocked two other times on 3-point attempts this season.

The world’s best scorers are bound to have success against any defender over a large sample size. When White does get scored on, it never seems to hold him down for long.

“It’s tough to play defense,” Smart said. “And then you play good defense and you get beat, it’s tough to stay with the play. Nobody loves playing defense. So when you get a guy who actually loves and cares about it, you get opportunities with stuff like D-White, catching guys at the rim.”

It takes plenty of tricks to block shots consistently at White’s size. He has them all. He shows quick hands while retreating in transition:

He uses the off hand when it makes sense:

He regularly catches up to ball handlers from behind:

“Sometimes he looks like he’s beat,” said Robert Williams. “A lot of the times actually (on his blocks). His ability to recover and just hold his ground against any sized player, guard through center, is crazy.”

Williams ranks as one of the league’s most menacing shot blockers. He believes he wouldn’t be close to White’s level at the same size.

“I don’t know if I could block shots if I were 6-4, to be honest,” Williams said. “I need my height.”

White plays closer to the ground than Williams does. Still, White believes one of his secret advantages is how quickly he jumps off the floor. Smart said White, like former Celtics wing Josh Richardson, is also among the best at recovering after players drive by him.

“Derrick, when he came here, that was one of the things that we noticed, myself included,” Smart said. “We can be doing something, he can get beat, and his ability to get back into the play and change it by coming up with a block, either from the side of you or the front of you or from behind you, that’s incredible.”

White knows what offensive players want to do after they burst past him.

“I feel like the floater is one of the most popular shots,” said White. “People are trying to get to that floater. And I’m just trying to get to the side of them, get behind them, so you can just use your arm and not hit them with the body or anything like that. Sometimes I’ve gotten some fouls on it, but I think I’ve done a pretty good job of making it difficult on them even if I don’t block it.”

White leads the Celtics in charges drawn with nine. He’s willing to sacrifice his body in collisions but can also stomp on an opponent’s plans with a challenge at the rim. During a recent win against the Bulls, Mazzulla said the Celtics messed up their coverage on a sideline out-of-bounds play, but it didn’t matter because White recovered to slap away Ayo Dosunmo’s layup attempt:

After recent blocks, White has started to remind his teammates that this is what he does. He doesn’t need to tell the other Celtics, though. They already know. White’s opponents are the ones who often fail to recognize his talent until it’s too late.

“He’s kind of quiet with it,” said Rob Williams. “He’s sneaky. So you think you can try him but he surprises you every time.”





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