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Buffaloes in the NBA: Derrick White breaking out for Spurs

White had a coming out party against the Thunder on Thursday night.

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NBA: Oklahoma City Thunder at San Antonio Spurs Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Derrick White just keeps getting better. The former Colorado Buffaloes star has been superb in his second season with the San Antonio Spurs, and he’s one of the main reasons they have gone from the lottery to a top-four seed in the Western Conference. He showcased Thursday just how good he is, and where the next stage of development will take him.

After Dejounte Murray, one of the elite defenders in the NBA, tore his ACL before the season, the Spurs looked to be in trouble. White was poised to start despite having played just 139 minutes the season before. But he too was bit by the injury bug and missed the first three weeks with a heel injury. With Bryn Forbes starting at point guard, then later when White was still getting adjusted, the Spurs were awful on defense and that dragged them to an uncharacteristic 10-14 record.

In the weeks since, however, White has looked more and more like a building block in post-Kawhi San Antonio. The Spurs have gone 14-3 in their last 17 games, and in that span, White has emerged as a crucial role player and potentially a building block in the post-Kawhi San Antonio. His shooting ability (38% from 3) and passing help the offense in a supporting role, but it’s his defense that stand out the most.

The Ringer’s Dan Devine wrote about White:

Derrick White has played a big role, too. After being reinserted into the starting lineup on December 9, the second-year point guard out of Colorado has provided both steady offensive contributions (11.2 points and 3.7 assists in 28.1 minutes per game on 55/38/86 shooting splits) and a needed injection of size on the perimeter.

At 6-foot-4 with a 6-foot-8 wingspan, White has what Bryn Forbes and Patty Mills lack: the length to hector ball handlers, disrupt passing lanes, and bother shots. Since Pop put him back in the starting lineup, White has 24 steals, 13 blocks, and a team-high 42 deflections, with more shots contested than any guard in the league. White has increasingly been asked to check opponents’ top perimeter options—he has matched up with Donovan Mitchell, Kyrie Irving, James Harden, Lou Williams, Mike Conley, De’Aaron Fox, and, in a breakout performance on national TV, the departed Kawhi Leonard—and the 24-year-old has held his own.

The breakout performance Devine mentions came in the Spurs’ blowout of Toronto wherein he quieted Kawhi Leonard while scoring 19 points of his own on 8-11 shooting. White followed that with what may be an even more impressive game on Thursday night. In San Antonio’s 154-147 double overtime win over Oklahoma City, White was everywhere. While LaMarcus Aldridge will get the attention for his 56 points, as well as Russell Westbrook and his absurd 24-24-13 triple double, White was fantastic in his own right. He had 23 points, 8 rebounds, 5 assists, 2 steals and a block, which is basically what he had at CU whenever Tad needed him to carry the team. More importantly, White hit a clutch, go-ahead three in the final minute of regulation, and he made many high-IQ plays in overtime, including the game-sealing steal.

(The only downside to the Thunder-Spurs game was that Andre Roberson is still sidelined with a ruptured patellar tendon.)

For a visual breakdown of his defensive ability, Eric Shap’s breakdown is a good watch.

It’s always great to see a former Buffalo break out in the NBA. With White, the feeling is greater because of how much he has grown since being an unheralded recruit out of Legacy HS in Broomfield. We know, too, that his improvement will never stop, because he never settles for anything less than his full potential.

UPDATE: Derrick White was featured on Zach Lowe’s weekly “Ten things I like and don’t like” column, which is essential reading for any NBA fan.

On the Spurs’ newfound success, Lowe wrote:

The happiest revelation: Derrick White. It is a fun sensation watching someone over extended minutes for the first time, and understanding immediately, “OK, this dude knows how to play.”

White just feels the game. He is a cat burglar sidling into open spaces when the defense is focused on DeMar DeRozan or LaMarcus Aldridge. He has already mastered the Manu Ginobili thing of running into the catch. (Go to Lowe’s article on ESPN for the videos.)

This is going to sound weird, but White reads feet well. He notices early when a help defender’s momentum is skittering too fast toward midcourt, and blows by that victim without pausing. (Another video here.)

White has a soft midrange game. He’s a semi-respectable 20-of-60 on 3s. He’s a sneaky dunker. He’s a crafty passer out of the pick-and-roll, and has happily taken the responsibility of defending the most dangerous opposing scorer so Popovich can hide DeRozan and Bryn Forbes.

I can’t wait to see the Dejounte Murray-White backcourt.