Inside a quiet gym near White Plains, N.Y., Derrick White was no longer the 6-foot, 150-pound high school senior recruiting services ignored. He was no longer the player whose only offers to play college basketball came from a junior college in Wyoming and a fledgling NCAA Division II program in Colorado Springs.
As he spent his days last week going toe to toe in private workouts with highly regarded prospects such as Malik Monk of Kentucky and Dillon Brooks, the reigning Pac-12 player of the year from Oregon, White’s rise from obscurity had finally reached a level playing field in the pursuit of a professional basketball career. When the NBA combine ramps up in Chicago on Wednesday, scouts will have their eyes on the player who was once constantly ignored.
Just don’t expect him to stop playing like he still has something to prove.
“We are all out there trying to compete against each other, and it’s like a job interview,” said White, a first-team all-Pac-12 selection in his lone season at Colorado. “We all have the same goal in mind, so I’ve just got to keep that chip on my shoulder and maintain confidence and just try to play my game and block out all the noise.”
The pain of being overlooked has long motivated White. As peers in his graduating class gained Division I attention, White settled for a late offer from coach Jeff Culver to play at University of Colorado at Colorado Springs, where he was expected to redshirt during his first season. Instead, propelled by a growth spurt that pushed him to 6-5, he averaged 17 points per game as a freshman. He was a Division II All-American by his junior year. After sitting out one season following his transfer to CU, White became one of the Pac-12’s best players.
Now he’s on the verge of making a living in the world’s premier league.
“He’ll be the best story (at the combine),” said ESPN college basketball analyst Jeff Goodman, who will be part of the network’s coverage of the event Thursday and Friday. “He gets in via the Portsmouth (Invitational), which is not easy to do these days. They’ll take four or five guys and let them into the combine. He’s done it the hard way, but I think a lot of people, if they know his story, will be rooting for him.”
The Portsmouth Invitational is an annual showcase of college seniors in Virginia. While top players like Monk or White’s Pac-12 counterparts Lonzo Ball and Markelle Fultz can be highly selective of the predraft workouts in which they participate, a borderline first-round prospect like White needs every chance to showcase his talent. So one week after CU was knocked out of the NIT by Central Florida in March, White awoke around sunrise and headed the gym in Boulder to work with his longtime trainer, Marcus Mason, who would be on the road from Parker by 5:30 a.m. to put his pupil through workouts.
Every summer since White was in the seventh grade, he and Mason would target one area for the player to attack in the offseason, a process they continued from Legend High School to Colorado Springs to CU. The idea was to add another weapon to his game, piece by piece, building an all-around basketball player even as coaches and scouts outside remained fixated on White’s scrawny frame.
The offseason this time was condensed, so Mason broke White’s upcoming job audition into four quarters. First up was Portsmouth. To prepare, early mornings in Boulder centered around becoming more consistent with the deeper 3-point line. Mason also challenged White to become more physical in the trenches, preparing him for the bigger bodies he will face in the buildup to the draft.
White averaged 15 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.7 assists in three games during the tournament, displaying the same two-way excellence that CU fans came to adore, only to have to bid it farewell sooner than any of them would have liked.
“He made NBA plays,” Mason said. “He went on stretches where he completely dominated the game. He shot the ball well at times from very long distance. In the second game, his team was down 17 points with about 10 minutes to go. He had about a seven-minute stretch where, on offense and defense, he made every play. The funny thing is, it’s the same thing he did in high school, the exact same thing he did in Division II, the exact same thing he did at Colorado, where he has this ability to affect the game on both ends.”
Scouts marveled at the growth White has made in a short time against top-flight competition. In his third conference game last season, against Arizona, White managed just seven points and struggled to find his rhythm. During the Pac-12 tournament two months later, against the same Wildcats teeming with potential NBA players, White went for 31 points, six rebounds and five assists in a loss.
“I think that if he did really well in workouts, there’s a chance someone in the 20s could take him (in the first round),” ESPN draft analyst Fran Fraschilla said. “He’s comfortably ensconced in the second round. He really knows how to play the game, and he fits what the NBA is looking for: a shooter who makes good decisions who is a great teammate and who has great character off the court.”
Quarter two of the offseason plan the trainer and player built gets underway at the combine, where White will once again attempt to prove he belongs. He recently finished his degree at CU, but he’ll miss Friday’s graduation ceremony to move even closer to a dream nobody thought he should harbor just a few years ago.
“I’m trying to stay in the moment and enjoy the process as much as I can,” White said. “I’m looking forward to continuing to showcase what I can do and have some fun. I just want to enjoy the game of basketball and keep doing the things that have put me in this position.”