A Local Legend Turning into a Rising NBA Star: Derrick White

Zach Gotlieb | July 20th, 2019

Ten years ago, he was just a kid putting up shots and working on his game in the town’s local rec center. Today, Derrick White is sitting on the edge of basketball stardom. “Crazy” is the sentiment repeatedly conveyed by the San Antonio Spurs point guard while talking about his journey from the local rec center gym all the way to getting selected in the first round of the NBA draft. He’s not wrong, his story is crazy, but also extraordinary.

Derrick grew up in the small town of Parker, Colorado. If you’re looking for it on a map, you probably won’t find it, but I can assure you that it’s approximately 27 miles, or a half an hour drive, south of Denver. Parker has multiple parks to play some streetball and places to play indoors. That’s where the story begins for Derrick White. He was in seventh grade when he met former D-I assistant basketball coach Marcus Mason.

At that time, Mason, formerly an assistant at the University of Denver and Middle Tennessee State, was still just starting up his basketball development program, Nothing But Net (NBN), which has become one of the premier organizations for youth basketball development. NBN runs camps for kids ranging from ages 6-15 during school breaks that last Mondays-Thursdays. On weekends, he runs small classes that focus on individual skills such as shooting and dribbling. He also provides private one-on-one training.

White attended these camps frequently. He also had a ton of one-on-one practices with Coach Mason. He puts it simply, “Each day I was just trying to get better.”

His mindset is not like your standard NBA prospect. These days, all of the up-and-coming prospects’ sole focus is on how they can add to their game wholly just to make it to the NBA. Derrick said his focus isn’t about that. “It wasn’t like ‘I need to do this to make the NBA’ or whatever; it was playing the game that I love, and just trying to have fun and get better, and be the best player I can be, and good things started happening.” The next step for White was high school, and he’d take another big step up there.

In Parker, there are four main high schools: Lutheran High School, Ponderosa High School, Chaparral High School, and Legend High School. White was initially slated to attend Ponderosa. In another interview, with The Express-News, in Texas, Derrick recounted, “I’m a small guy, and I didn’t feel like the coach at [Ponderosa] really believed in me, so I started looking around. I heard Coach [Kevin] Boley was going to take the job at Legend, so I went to an open gym he had, and I loved what he was doing there, so I decided to go to Legend.”

Legend High School is the youngest of the four schools, having been founded just eleven years ago at the time of writing. White was a part of the school’s first class. As with any new school and sports program, it takes time to develop and to grow a culture to become a place that people want to attend. Derrick, part of the inaugural graduating class, was a big tone-setter for Legend athletics.

Despite Derrick entering Legend as a 5’6″ freshman, it didn’t deter him from showing up and proving that he would be one of the most talented players to ever come through Legend. Coach Boley spoke to how he began on the team, saying, “He might have been our most talented player.”

When I asked Coach Boley about Derrick being a leader on his brand-new young program, he said, “He was not one of our vocal leaders, but based on how he played, if somebody would walk in and say, ‘who’s your best player?’ you would point at Derrick, and Derrick was the kid who could make all the plays, and was a hard worker, and was a great teammate – so he was a leader in that sense.”

When Legend first opened and started its athletics programs, it began competing against schools in the 3A division – good schools, but not great. After a couple of years competing at the 3A level, Legend became the only school in Colorado’s history to jump straight from 3A to 5A – the state’s highest division. In making the jump, the school was placed in the Continental League, which at the time was considered one of the top two toughest leagues in Colorado – and is still widely regarded as one of the, if not the, toughest league in Colorado high school sports.

When looking back at his high school career, Derrick obviously improved his game, if for no other reason than constantly being in the gym every chance he got to work on his game. His most significant growth was that whole line, “you can’t teach size.” Being only 5’6″ going into high school meant he had to rely a lot on finesse, to fully utilize his strengths, particularly on the defensive end, by using impressive anticipation and sneaky good hands. …And, by his senior year of high school, he’d grown to 6’2″ and started to fill out his frame, which allowed him to play a more physical type of basketball – translating, for him, on both ends of the floor.

After graduating high school, White did not receive any scholarship offers for basketball, so he chose to stay home in Colorado and to attend the University of Colorado – Colorado Springs (UCCS), where he walked on to the basketball team.

Don’t get it twisted, yes UCCS is a Division II school, but the league he was in – the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference (RMAC) – is a tough conference with players who aren’t scrubs. Derrick tore them apart anyway. His highlight games included a game against Metro State University where he put up 32 points, 11 rebounds, and four blocked shots and a game against the Colorado School of Mines where he put up 50 points. He displayed dominance at times and led his team to win the RMAC and make it to the second round of the NCAA Division II Tournament in his final year at the school.

White spent three years at UCCS before transferring to the University of Colorado Boulder to play in the Pac-12.

By the time White got to CU, he had grown to 6’5″ and added more to his game, which has always been a constant for him. Going into his senior year, head coach Tad Boyle was asked by The Gazette reporter Paul Klee if Derrick White was his best player. Boyle’s answer was simple, “Without Josh Scott (who had graduated the previous year), yes.” His ability to defend and create plays for himself and his teammates really shined through, and by the end of his only season at CU, he was rewarded with an All-Pac-12 first-team selection.

This is where the story goes, as White puts it, “crazy.” The dream of playing professionally was at hand. Where he would be playing professional basketball was, however, a big question mark.

Coach Boley said, “I always thought he would get paid to play; I did not know that he could be an NBA player. So what I meant by that was whether it was going overseas to play in Europe or, you know, in one of the Italian leagues, or something like that. Or maybe as his college career became more successful, I thought he might have had a chance in the G League or something like that, but certainly coming through high school in those early years of college, I did not expect him to be a first-round draft pick.”

Coach Mason recounted a story that occurred during Derrick’s first annual basketball camp, telling Derrick to get his passport ready, so he could try and latch onto a Euroleague team. Derrick responded to Mason, saying, “I don’t have a passport.” Both coaches were aware of the possibility of him playing professionally, but it wasn’t until after he finished his senior year at CU that the potential NBA dream gained any water.

After a first-round exit in the NIT tournament, White was invited to the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament, which is only for the top 68 college seniors in the country. He had an excellent showing there, which earned him an invite to the NBA combine in Chicago. White showed up and had a very good showing in both the measurables and the scrimmage, which really helped him pick up some steam towards getting drafted.

The real story, however, coming from the combine, was what Mason said is one of his favorite stories of Derrick. “I would probably say the best story is when I went to Chicago to the NBA combine-which was next on the list – and he and I were on the elevator with Magic Johnson, and he’s nudging me in the elevator. I’m kind of nudging him back, saying, ‘Hey chill. Play it cool.’ So we finally get off the elevator, and we turn the corner and kind of walk, kind of get some space between us and Magic. I was just like ‘Hey man, you got to chill out. Like, that could be your boss next year.’…And he’s like ‘I don’t care. That’s… That’s Magic Johnson. That’s Magic Johnson.’ So, it was just a super cool experience, you know.”
“Derrick’s a big guard. Guys like Magic, Penny Hardaway – those are guys you grow up idolizing. Patterning your game after those guys. To actually be there with arguably the greatest point guard ever and trying to make a roster. I just thought it was really cool, just to show his vulnerability and him as a human being.”

The next step was the pre-draft workouts, which included workouts with his hometown Denver Nuggets, the Philadelphia 76ers, and his eventual team, the San Antonio Spurs.

On June 22, 2017, Derrick White became one of only 24 players who played high school basketball in Colorado and been picked in the NBA draft.

Guys like former point guard and NBA Finals MVP Chauncey Billups, from George Washington High School in Denver, and current Detroit Pistons point guard, Reggie Jackson, from Palmer High School, in Colorado Springs are two of the biggest names to come out of the Colorado high school basketball program.

Derrick White (25) was drafted 29th overall, out of the University of Colorado, by the San Antonio Spurs, in the 2017 draft. He quickly shot up from playing the majority of his rookie year in the G-League, appearing in just 17 NBA games, all the way to starting point guard in his second year. He has improved in nearly every stat from year one to year two, including averaging over 10 points, 3.5 rebounds and almost 4 assists per game which is a huge improvement from last year. His offensive game is improving, but that’s not where his biggest value lies, which is in defense, and his head coach, arguably the greatest basketball coach ever, Gregg Popovich, knew it.

Going into the year, Popovich talked to Mason during training camp and told him, “Derrick was gonna play. That was before Dejounte [Murray] got hurt. Now how much, I don’t know, but he was gonna play,” said Mason. Dejounte Murray had torn his ACL during a preseason game, which opened up an opportunity for White to play extended minutes, once he had recovered from a torn ligament in his heel, which occurred shortly after the Murray injury.

Eventually, he worked his way into the lineup if for nothing other than his defensive ability- guarding the opposing team’s best guard/wing player every night. His defense was great, and may possibly earn him an all-defensive team selection at some point, but it was his pure point guard ability on the offensive end which is what kept him in the starting lineup this year, and what makes next year’s starting lineup decisions, with the return of Murray, very difficult for Coach Pop.

That is the story of Derrick White that everyone is going to hear. Derrick is an extremely hard worker, and no doubt will continue to improve his game as he gains more exposure to the NBA. The thing that makes Derrick so special is less about his talent and relentless work ethic, and as much about his impact on his community.

Derrick loves Parker. He takes every opportunity he can to come home. Whether it’s to support his old high school, work out with Marcus Mason, or just visit his family and friends, he cherishes every chance he gets to come home.

Legend’s first JV basketball coach, and also one of the founding teachers of the school was named Jason Ritter. Ask any of the students, teachers, or admin that ever got to meet him, they’ll tell you that Mr. Ritter was one of the best people they’ve ever met. I asked Derrick what his relationship was like with Ritter as both a teacher and a coach. As with everyone else, he said nothing but nice things, “It was amazing. He used to bring a smile to the whole school’s face. I mean he kinda just set the tone for the school. Everybody just looked to him and loved him. And as a basketball coach, he was just always there supporting, pushing me to get better and all the little things. It was great, he was an amazing guy, with an amazing family. Even if you didn’t go there, and you just meet him one time, he leaves a lasting impact.”

March 2011, Legend suffered a tragedy when Jason Ritter passed away after battling a rare form of stomach cancer. A tragedy that would never be forgotten by anyone that walks through Legend’s doors. To this day, every uniform for every sport has a small white circular patch with the letters JR sewn inside of the circle. Perhaps the coolest thing that Legend does to honor Coach Ritter is their annual 3v3 Ritter Roundball basketball tournament, which takes place during homecoming week. Derrick makes it a point to come back just to watch the tournament. “Ritter means a lot to me, so I want to be there every year, and just support and do whatever it takes.”

Earlier this year, the school holds an annual Wish Week – a spirit week which leads up to the winter formal dance, where the whole school dresses up every day and donates money to help a kid have his/her wish granted through the Make a Wish Foundation. This past year, Wish Week perfectly coincided with Legend’s biggest rivalry game of the year, and with the NBA All-Star break. Derrick was able to come to the game against cross-town rival Chaparral.

Coach Boley took advantage of the opportunity and spoke about his interactions with White before the big game, “It was funny because we had him in the locker room before the game, and I asked him to come and speak. Here’s this guy who’s an NBA star now and he’s in the locker room, and he’s just one of the guys. Like I was here once before, and he was humble like he always is and soft-spoken and all that.”

This summer, everything started to come full-circle. Through Nothing But Net, Marcus planned with Derrick, the first ever Derrick White Basketball Academy. Four days, a morning session for younger kids and an afternoon session for the older kids. Every day filled with drills focusing on shooting, passing, ball handling and defense; agility training; competitive 5-on-5 tournaments; and the most important part to Derrick, the chalk talk or film study.

Along with all of the coaches who were at the camp helping out, it was impressive to watch Derrick be as hands-on as he was. He made sure to take time with every kid, coaching drills, watching and cheering on teams during 5-on-5, participating in the other games that went on during the camp. Just a really personal, down to Earth kind of guy who views himself as just another coach, teaching kids and helping them fall in love with the game he loves.

He’s a guy that you’ll just see around town. As “typical” humans, we tend to see athletes as something more than just other humans. Turns out they’re just like us. Derrick is the kind of kid you’ll see just walking out of the local Walmart, or bringing out fast food from a local fast food joint. He’s just like us, except more famous.

In Parker, more people than not are gonna be able to recognize the only kid who went from the small town to the NBA. He’s consistently getting asked to sign autographs and take pictures; taking time out of whatever he is doing to make someone else happy. It’s everything he stands for. “If I’m in a position to where I can take a picture or sign an autograph to make someone’s day better, Imma do it. I mean, I don’t like saying no to people cause at the end of the day, we all the same and if that makes their day better then I’m cool with it,” said Derrick.

“He’s genuine Number one. That’s what we need more of in society.” It’s this humble approach to life, and how he carries himself that makes him a true role model.

Derrick’s personality was described by Boley as, “playful, he was really, he was kind of quiet, but always had this funny, playful kind of talk smack, you know, under his breath, you know, kind of dig at ya kinda thing. Great personality, fun to be around, you know, everyone loved him from the moment he walked in the door,” by his former head coach. His teammates loved him. Derrick White is not a “ra ra” guy. He’s a guy that is, as Boley said, “humble and soft-spoken.” He’s not going lead by being the loudest or most vocal in the room. He’s going to lead by being true to who he is and what got him to the point that he’s at. He puts in the effort on the floor shows that he’s going to work harder than everyone else, and just as hard off the court within his community.

Parker is a small town and a tight-knit community with only 54,202 residents. Derrick is one of the brightest lights to come out of this small community. His story, full of adversity and challenges, is inspiring. It is a true testament to the tenacity it takes to achieve your dreams. He’s a player on the edge of stardom in the NBA and will continue to grow his talents. He does all of that, while still being completely personable and down to Earth.

“I just never forgot where I came from, and all the people that supported me.” The way that White continues to come back to his hometown and to support his friends, family, and all of the people who were a part of his journey is a true testament to that. As he continues to improve, the rest of the NBA will begin to take notice, but the people of Parker will always know who he is: A kid from a small town with a huge story.

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