G-League Rookie Grinds on Distant Courts, Waits for NBA to Call
By Michael Shapiro
Photography By Andrea Garcia
Spurs rookie Derrick White stood at midcourt at Oracle Arena in Oakland, California, reflecting on how far he’d come.
He was a long way from his hometown of Parker, Colorado, and his stops at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs and University of Colorado at Boulder. He was even farther from where he’d stood less than two months prior, in front of a meager 2,000 spectators at the Landers Center in Memphis, Tennessee.
One night in the NBA. Another in the G-League. White has a foot in each court.
White has spent his rookie season in professional basketball toggling between two teams, playing for both the San Antonio Spurs and their G-League affiliate, the Austin Spurs. His nomadic first year has taken him from sparsely attended G-League games in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to the most famous arenas in the NBA.
The G-League is a 26-team developmental arm of the NBA, founded in 2001 as the NBA’s version of minor league baseball. Known first as the National Basketball Developmental League, it rebranded as the G-League in partnership with Gatorade in 2017.
But despite its corporate sponsorship, no one mistakes the G-League for the glitz and glamour of the world’s preeminent basketball league. Instead of lavish hotels in New York and private jets to Miami, life in the G-League often consists of bus rides to the Rio Grande Valley and layovers on the way to Reno.
“Traveling with the G-League team you fly commercial, pack through security, crowded seats and all of that.” White said. “We got the team plane at the NBA level, nice places to stay every night, which is nice. But we’re treated well with the G-League team, still able to focus on basketball.”
White checked into the San Antonio lineup on Feb. 10 with eight minutes to go in the first quarter. His assignment was far from the string of near-anonymous guards White shadowed previously in his career. He was tasked with guarding Warriors dynamo Steph Curry, the two-time NBA MVP and NBA champion.
So much for the 23-year-old easing his way into the league.
“At the beginning of the year it was a bit of a whirlwind and I had some of those ‘wow’ moments facing NBA teams,” White said after an Austin home victory on March 9. “But my time in the G-League has helped a lot. I felt comfortable stepping onto the floor against the Warriors, felt prepared to attack the game the same way I always have.”
White tallied 11 points in 28 minutes in front of capacity crowd of nearly 20,000 fans clad in Warriors yellow and blue. He avoided the wrath of Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich, providing a burst on the defensive end.
But a permanent spot on an NBA roster won’t come for White during the 2017-18 season. For now, the Spurs’ first-round pick is a part-time NBA player, shifting his time between two sets of coaches, teammates, airlines, uniforms, playbooks and prestige.
Selected with the No. 29 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, White has played sparingly for San Antonio this season. He’d logged 10-plus minutes in just five contests, appearing in 17 of the Spurs’ 80 games as of April 9. For the rest of the season, White has been grinding it out in the minor-league circuit.
Fortunately for White, life in the G-League shouldn’t be permanent. First-round selections often spend their entire rookie years with the NBA club, and those who enter the G-League out of college don’t often stay for multiple years. Of the 90 draftees selected in the first round from 2014-16, only nine have failed to crack 50 NBA games in their first two seasons. And White doesn’t expect to stay away from San Antonio for long.
“I want to be out in San Antonio helping them win and fight for the playoffs,” White said. “It’s about growing as a player, and if I do that, I can stay at the NBA level for a long time.”
White’s teammates and coaches in Austin don’t envision him sticking with the G-League team, either. With a lanky frame and crafty inside game, White has been a quintessential Spur, focused on both ends of the floor while bringing consistent defensive intensity.
“(White) has come to Austin with a great mindset every day,” Austin Spurs head coach Blake Ahearn said. “I’m bargaining for him to be here for the rest of the season, selfishly. But he’s got all the tools to succeed at the NBA level. He’s a big guard, he’s unselfish, he can pass it, he can shoot it. And what’s really impressed me is no matter what happens offensively, he guards each and every night.”
While taking the floor that February night at Oracle Arena was a momentous occasion for White, even landing in the G-League once looked like a long shot. The Legend High School product had no Division I offers following his senior year of high school, landing a non-scholarship roster spot at UCCS.
White entered high school a slim 5-foot-6 kid and didn’t crack 6 feet upon graduating from Legend. Nobody could see White earning a spot on the All-Pac-12 Conference First Team in 2017 and a four-year NBA contract three and a half months later. Now standing at 6 feet 4 inches and weighing 190 pounds, White continues to evolve as a player, finding his role with both Austin and San Antonio.
“He’s grown every day he’s been here, learning the pro game and developing as a player,” Austin Spurs guard Nick Johnson said. “We had a game in Utah a couple weeks ago where five or six plays straight he made the right pass to an easy layup, and once they stopped that he found his shot. He’s got great poise for a young kid.”
White’s underdog status has faded. He’s a first-round pick with NBA experience, averaging over 19 points per game on the G-League’s top seed in the Western Conference. And in Austin’s first game of the G-League Finals on April 8, he erupted for a team-high 35 points, leading the way in the Spurs’ 105-93 victory.
White has remained hungry, eager to jump from a part-time piece in the NBA to a fixture in the league for years to come.
“I’m always going to be that underdog that nobody thought would be here,” White said. “I’ll always keep that chip on my shoulder regardless of where I land during my career.”