Gregg Popovich ‘Thrilled’ by Growth of Celtics’ Derrick White

The Celtics' Derrick White

Getty The Celtics' Derrick White

BOSTON — San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich was into his pregame chat Wednesday night when Derrick White’s name was raised.

White had been a Spur of modest renown before being dealt to Boston at the February 2022 trade deadline. He’s since become a revelation with the Celtics, though he was missing this latest game between the clubs with a left ankle sprain.

“He’s afraid of us,” cracked Popovich. “He’s not playin’ tonight. He’s sittin’ it out.

“I had stuff planned for him,” the coach went on, moving his hand across the table in the visitors’ interview room as if to symbolize some grand strategy. “We were gonna just destroy him, so he sat out.”

A while later, White was out on the Garden floor going through his shooting routine with assistant coach Matt Reynolds. (His ankle issue isn’t all that serious, and he’s fully expected to be active Friday night when the defending champion Nuggets come to town.)

Apprised of his former coach’s initial comments, White smiled and said, “I’m terrified.”

Told the rest of Popovich’s paragraph, White feigned anger and added, “Now I wish I was playing.”

He was kidding — and so was Pop.

The first question to the Hall of Fame coach was a wondering of whether it is tough in any way to see White elevate his game as he has … after leaving San Antonio.

“It’s not difficult at all,” Popovich said, leaving behind his dry humor. “I’m thrilled. I mean, I love the kid. I keep in touch with him, and, you know, he’s one of the great examples of working through it — playing in the G-League a couple years, didn’t even think he belonged in the league. Started out at a small school in Colorado Springs and ended up his final year at Colorado.”

Gregg Popovich Not Surprised

The Spurs chose the 6-foot-4 guard near the end of the first round in the 2017 draft, No. 29 overall, and White steadily made his way up their organizational ladder. He was playing well in the 2021-22 season, but there was some concern the Celtics had paid too much for him in trade, sending Josh Richardson, former first round pick Romeo Langford and a future first rounder to San Antonio.

Popovich isn’t shocked that White has continued his career trajectory, averaging career highs in points (15.9), free throw percentage (.903) steals (1.1) and blocks (1.1) while combining with Jrue Holiday to form the best defensive backcourt in the league.

“He worked his fanny off and got all those minutes there and gained confidence with each year,” the coach said. “He’s never stopped. He’s gotten better every single year, whether it’s shooting or understanding pick and roll. He always could pass really well. He had a good affinity for passing. He had a good sense of space defensively and how you get some things done. But it was mostly a matter of confidence.

“It took time, but he got there. And when he got here playing with the guys that he’s playing with, he took another step. I couldn’t be more thrilled for him. Wonderful young man.”

Celtics Derrick White Getting All-Star Push

Popovich was happy to hear the Celtics are pushing White’s candidacy for the All-Star Game, though he understands the way of the world where those with White’s often more subtle contributions get overshadowed by those with flashy scoring numbers.

“It’s happened for eternity,” Popovich said. “There’s always somebody that gets pinched out. You know, you can only have so many guys from one team or there’s so many guys at that position already in the West or the East and somebody doesn’t get a fair deal. I don’t know if he’s going to be in that position or not, but if it happened it wouldn’t be very surprising, because it’s happened before to a lot of people.”

If White does somehow make it onto the East squad on All-Star weekend, he certainly won’t be afraid to play in that game.


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