NBA Finals 2022: Celtics found a hero in Derrick White
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Steph Curry lost sleep after Game 1 of the NBA Finals. Draymond Green took to Twitter to "shut up" everyone who was saying, "Draymond, you suck." Klay Thompson called the Warriors' implosion a "harsh reminder" that they had gotten too comfortable.
A big reason the Warriors' superstars were reeling?
For White, who had an improbable path to the NBA, it was all a bit surreal.
"This is what you work for," White told FOX Sports. "This is the moment everybody dreams about."
White's phone was buzzing nonstop after Thursday's game.
In his first appearance in the NBA Finals, he shot 6-for-11 from the field, including 5-for-8 on 3-pointers. He was a lockdown defender. And he finished with the highest plus-minus (+25) of anyone on the court.
"I got a bunch of texts from old teammates, old coaches," White said, flashing a smile.
For anybody who knows White, it's hard not to be overjoyed for the 6-foot-4, 190-pound shooting guard who clawed his way into the league.
White didn't have a single scholarship offer from a four-year university coming out of Legend High in Parker, Colorado, in 2012. He was just shy of 6-feet tall until his senior year. And even though he averaged 17.1 points in his final season, few believed he could thrive at the next level.
Following his incredible Game 1 performance, which he described as the highlight of his career, White stood in a dimly lit hallway and discussed the time when he thought he'd have to walk away from basketball.
"When I was in high school, I had no offers," White told FOX Sports. "I was thinking I wouldn't play basketball at the college level, just be a regular student. That was probably the lowest point. But I love basketball, just kept working, and good things started happening for me."
White ended up getting a non-scholarship offer from Johnson & Wales, an NAIA school that's well known for producing renowned chefs, not future NBA players.
Then things took an unexpected turn.
As the deadline approached for White to make a decision, the coach who recruited him, Jeff Culver, received a head-coaching offer at Division II University of Colorado-Colorado Springs. Culver then offered White a $3,000 room-and-board stipend, changing his path.
During his three seasons at UCCS, White made a name for himself as a prolific scorer, skilled playmaker and gritty defender. His body transformed. He grew. He became a star.
During a game in 2014, he finished with 50 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. He went on to lead his team to the 2015 NCAA Division II men's basketball tournament and was named a Division II All-American in 2014 and 2015.
In 2015, White gained enough clout to transfer to the University of Colorado, where he averaged 18.1 points, 4.4 assists and 1.2 steals in 2016-17. It was enough to catch the eye of NBA scouts across the nation.
The San Antonio Spurs selected him as the 29th overall pick in the 2017 draft. He spent four-and-a-half seasons in San Antonio before the Celtics acquired him at the trade deadline in February.
Now, White is not just playing on one of the largest stages in sports; he's thriving on it.
"We love Derrick," Al Horford said after Thursday's win. "What he's brought to our group, just his energy, his commitment to working hard. He continues to work no matter how it is going for him individually. He continues to prepare."
It has all paid off for White. He was key to the Celtics' advancing past the Miami Heat in seven games in the Eastern Conference finals, scoring at least 13 points in three games, including a 22-point performance in Game 6.
None of that surprises Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, who has always believed in White's potential. He invited him to play for Team USA at the FIBA World Cup in 2019 after many superstars declined to participate.
When the Celtics advanced to the Finals, Popovich texted White. He congratulated him and wrote a sentence that has reverberated with White ever since.
"I was made for it," White told FOX Sports.
Celtics point guard Marcus Smart also saw something special in White when they were teammates at the 2019 World Cup.
But he laughed when recalling the first time they met. At the time, White wasn't sure anyone knew who he was.
"First thing Derrick said was, 'My name is Derrick,'" Smart recalled, chuckling.
When White was traded to the Celtics, Smart was thrilled to play alongside him. He knew first-hand that White never backed down. He had witnessed White's deep understanding of the game.
But for White, being traded midseason wasn't easy.
"It took a while to even know the plays," he told FOX Sports. "It was kinda weird, they'd call a play, and I'd be looking around, like, 'Where should I be?'"
But his teammates helped ease the transition.
"Everybody was like, 'Just be you. We brought you here because we love what you do,'" White said. "So that made it a lot easier."
It's clear that White no longer feels like an outsider.
On Thursday, he was a big reason the Celtics were able to storm back from a 15-point deficit in the fourth quarter. He made two key 3-pointers as his team outscored the Warriors 40-16 in the final 12 minutes.
White is no longer uncertain. He's no longer tentative. He was entirely unafraid against the league's most recent dynasty.
In front of millions of people, he went toe-to-toe with the three-time champions, playing incredibly smart defense on one end of the court and lighting them up on the other.
It's a stunning amount of growth for someone who thought he was finished playing basketball 10 years ago. Today, he's making the best NBA players in the business scratch their heads.
This much is for sure: Derrick White no longer has to introduce himself.
Now, the entire world knows his name.
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.