The difference in Derrick White — how confident he plays, how much he smiles, how easily he maneuvers to the basket, and how comfortable he is in his first full season in Boston — is what makes the Celtics a considerably better postseason team than last year.
It’s been evident for months now that White has transformed into the player the Celtics believed they were getting at the trade deadline last year. His first half-season in Boston was an adjustment, and he had to adapt to a new system and increased expectations after playing for years for a Spurs team in rebuild mode.
White struggled to meet those expectations as the Celtics made a deep playoff run, and this season he promised to improve, to mesh better into the team concept and play to his capabilities.
He has accomplished that feat so far, making play after play Tuesday in the Celtics’ Game 2 win over the Hawks, 119-106, in the Eastern Conference first-round series at TD Garden.
White scored 26 points, with 7 rebounds and 3 blocks to helpe the Celtics again fight off a Hawks rally and build an ample lead in the final minutes. White scored 8 consecutive points during a 23-9 run that sealed another impressive win. The Celtics did not trail for the final 36 minutes, 48 seconds.
White’s ascension is beginning to gain traction. During a fourth-quarter trip to the free throw line, White began hearing “MVP” chants from the Garden crowd. Amazed at the development, he asked teammate Jayson Tatum, “That’s what it feels like?”
Tatum confirmed that giddy feeling.
“We’re so much more of a dynamic team when D-White is asserting himself and being aggressive and not being passive,” Tatum said. “We talked about it, being too passive, looking for guys too much. He’s like too good of a guy but these last few games, being aggressive, making the right play, attacking the rim, not necessarily waiting, just makes us that much better of a team.”
White is not your typical professional athlete filled with bravado and brimming with confidence. A native of Parker, Colo., a suburb of Denver, White began his college career in Division 2 before transferring to the University of Colorado. His rise to an NBA first-round pick was an improbable journey, and there have been times where White still hasn’t felt like he quite belonged. So former coach Gregg Popovich had to implore him in San Antonio to unleash his skill set and play with assurance.
When he was traded to the Celtics in February 2022, that message had to be reiterated by Ime Udoka, and this year, Joe Mazzulla. They told White he’s a good ballplayer and he wouldn’t be admonished for aggressive mistakes. During timeouts, teammate Jaylen Brown would urge him to play with more fortitude and less timidity.
“When you have a group of guys, you have to make sure they feel valued,” Mazzulla said. “I think everybody goes through situations where you want to make sure you’re appreciated. He’s not different than anybody else. So I think it’s an idea of just managing relationships and understanding that we have a great team and he’s where he could be really effective for us. Luckily he has that attitude.”
White has an ”aw shucks” personality, never one to boast after good performances or promote anything but his teammates. It’s easy to root for White because he is the everyman, wanting so badly to blend in with his new environment it has taken a while to be himself.
Last season he was timid. He played as if he was afraid to fail, scared to look over his shoulder at Udoka after a missed shot. He shot 40.9 percent from the field in his 26-game regular season stretch compared with 46.2 this season. He made barely over 30 percent of his 3-pointers last season. He made 38 percent this year.
He made one 3-pointer during the first-round sweep last season against the Brooklyn Nets. He’s made six in the first two games against the Hawks.
“It’s cool to hear [encouragement] from those guys,” White said. “They all empower me to go out there and play my game and I’m just trying to have fun and get some wins.”
Fun is using his size and craft to drive for layups and floaters. Fun is knocking down the open 3-pointer because defenses are so focused on Brown and Tatum. And on Tuesday, fun is even leaning his head on Atlanta’s relentless rebounder Onyeka Okongwu after he forced a jump ball when the two were chasing a missed shot.
Overall, this year has been fun for Derrick White. Last year was awkward and uncomfortable.
“I’ve been saying last year was kind of a whirlwind since I got traded for a lot of reasons,” White said. “This year, from the first day I just felt comfortable. And the team is doing a great job of inspiring me and helping me out throughout the whole [time].”
An engaged and productive White makes the Celtics even more of an imposing team and championship threat than when they finished two games shy last season.