The role model: how Derrick White defines the Celtics’ style

I hate calling Derrick White a role player.

The ocean of role players is vast. It includes guys who play a minimal part in the success or failure of their team, like Robert Covington, all the way up to guys like Chris Paul, who, despite no longer being an All-Star, impacts how the Suns operate profoundly.

Derrick White has very little in common with the first type of role player, so little that I think we need a new word to describe the Whites, Pauls, and Anunobys. Something that captures the outsized importance of these not-quite stars. I’m open to suggestions, but for current purposes and until we find something better, let’s go with “role models.”

The Celtics are littered with role models around their two stars, but Derrick White has been the best of that talented collection this season. The role models’ traditional stats generally won’t capture how important they are, and White is no exception. The advanced stats get there (he’s got the highest on/off net rating differential at +9.7, 4.1 points per 100 possessions higher than Rob Williams at 2), but they don’t tell you how.

The impact White has on dictating the Celtics’ style on both ends starts with his mentality, the fundamental way in which he approaches the game of basketball. They tell us the Celtics are much better with White on the court despite his relatively modest counting stats, but the best way to appreciate White is the old-fashioned way: the eye test.

It didn’t take White very long to provide an example of why he’s so important, and so good, in Game 1 against the Hawks.

Much like the best version of the Celtics, White’s game, and this clip, starts on the defensive end. First, it’s about staying engaged and reading the play. White does so here by picking up in transition and stopping the ball. It sounds simple, but many elite players drive easy offense in these types of situations.

Second, it’s about fight and effort. Next, he wriggles through the Clint Capela screen like a terrified cat after my kid grabs ahold of her. Then, he engages the lock and trail and follows Trae Young on his way to the rim, lurking behind him ready to strike. By the time Young starts to attempt a layup, White’s in position to swat it away. But that’s not all, he goes full Bill Russell and comes up with the rebound himself.

We next see the third parable of Boston Celtics success play out: pace and decision-making. The Tommy Heinsohn corollary. There is zero hesitation in White’s game. He recovers his own block and he’s immediately heading the other way. But instead of keeping the ball himself or forcing things, he makes the correct decision and throws the simple hit ahead pass. The ball moves faster than bodies, and White preserves a potential transition bucket. When that fizzles out, and Jaylen Brown is forced to kick the ball off his drive, there’s White wide open. Instead of taking the good shot, he waits just a beat to pull in the defender on Jayson Tatum in the corner and then whips a perfect pass to him for a great shot.

Perfect reads, defensive effort, quick decisions, and playing with pace. The Celtics are unbeatable when they play like this, and Derrick White embodies these tenets so thoroughly we almost start to take it for granted. Derrick White makes playing the right way such a fundamental part of his game that it feels routine, but it’s not.

White wills the team forward figuratively, and at times literally like in the clip above, to conform to what drives success in the NBA, and every single advanced metric seems to agree. Derrick White leads by example, heck, you might even call him a role model.

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