How Derrick White can be an X-factor for 2022-23 Celtics

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Forsberg: Here's why analytics love Derrick White ahead of the 2022-23 season originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston

FiveThirtyEight unveiled its 2022-23 player projections on Tuesday and, beyond Jayson Tatum’s eye-popping MVP-caliber forecast, the most notable projection for the Boston Celtics might have been Derrick White.

With a 6.4 WAR (wins above replacement) projection, White is categorized as a "borderline All-Star," the same designation received by Marcus Smart and Jaylen Brown. FiveThirtyEight projects White's five-year market value at $110.1 million, or an average annual value well beyond the $16.4 million he’ll earn this season.

It should be noted that White has routinely been a FiveThirtyEight projection darling. His 8.8 WAR with Boston last season tied for 19th in the NBA, one spot behind new teammate Brown (8.9) and knotted with Smart (8.8). The next three players on that list for the 2022-23 season: Bam Adebayo, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James.

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White’s numbers were surely inflated a bit by Boston’s second-half surge in which the team steamrolled opponents and accelerated to the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference. Factoring in his Spurs minutes pulls him down to a still-solid 6.6 WAR (which still would have slotted in the top 40 overall).

White averaged 11 points, 3.5 assists, and 3.4 rebounds over 27.4 minutes in 28 regular-season appearances for Boston. His playoff production was a bit of a roller coaster. White scored 21 points and was a plus-25 in Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Warriors but was a minus-87 over the final five games of the series while struggling to find his shot.

The question is, how much more comfortable will White be after a full offseason with the Celtics and a chance to be alongside his teammates from the start of camp? Last season had to feel like a whirlwind, especially while welcoming his first child during the Eastern Conference Finals, though White routinely credited his teammates for making his integration so seamless.

White has been a bit of a forgotten man this offseason with much of the backcourt spotlight falling on the addition of Malcolm Brogdon. White’s name danced in Kevin Durant trade rumors as a piece of a package built around Brown.

Even with the addition of Brogdon, White could be a vital piece for the Celtics. He’ll likely pair often with Brogdon in second-unit lineups. The triumvirate of Smart, Brogdon, and White can not only share ball-handling duties throughout games but is a group that gushes defensive versatility and gives coach Ime Udoka a lot of flexibility in creating lineups.

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The Celtics paid a steep price to acquire White last season but nothing that has stung quite yet. The Spurs utilized the 2022 first-round pick acquired from Boston to select 19-year-old Blake Wesley with the No. 25 pick. Romeo Langford played only four games after being acquired by San Antonio. Josh Richardson had a solid 21-game stretch with the Spurs and shot 44.4 percent from beyond the arc. A 2028 first-round pick swap lingers in the deal.

Ironically, White’s No. 1 comparison in FiveThirtyEight’s projection heading into last year was Brogdon. The third-most likely comparison was Richardson. This year his closest comp is 2003 Derek Anderson (who had a solid 76-game season for the Blazers that year).

Boston’s bench sometimes struggled to take the baton from the starters last year, especially in the postseason. White absolutely needs to improve his offensive consistency, particularly after shooting a mere 30.6 percent beyond the 3-point arc and 40.9 percent from the floor during the regular season with the Celtics.

But the bench addition of players like Brogdon and Danilo Gallinari (upon his return from injury) should allow White to flourish a bit more. And if he’s anywhere near as good as FiveThirtyEight’s projections, then he could be a real X-factor for the Celtics this season.