Derrick White says the photo from his freshman year of high school circulates every season, so he expected it on draft night.
He was a 5-foot-6 guard at Legend High School, with skinny arms and a baby face, his jersey so large that the number on the back draped around the side. White would hang off a pull-up bar back then and hope it might stretch him out and add an inch of height.
The bar didn’t seem to help when he was a 6-0 senior with no Division I scholarship offers. His father, Richard, sent his highlight video to 25 junior colleges and Division II schools and prayed for a response. White’s only college offers were from a junior college in northern Wyoming and a housing stipend from a Division II school.
Last week, White was the No. 29 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft by the San Antonio Spurs.
That photo is a badge of honor now. A reminder of how far he has come. On draft night, it became a photo of a first-round pick.
“I used to tell people that I’d have to show ID to get into a PG-13 movie,” he said. “That photo is where I started from. And this is where I am now.”
Because White took so long to look the part of a top-tier basketball player, he overcompensated with work ethic and passion.
White is 6-foot-5 now, by virtue of a growth spurt before his freshman year of college. He took that housing stipend to the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs and became a Division II All-American before the made the leap to the University of Colorado for his senior year.
The PAC-12 First-Team for 2016-17 included Washington’s Markelle Fultz and UCLA’s Lonzo Ball, two freshmen who would be drafted at No. 1 and 2 overall, respectively. Next to them was White, who took a few more years than them to even get a look from a Division I school.
In one season of Division I basketball, White was named to the PAC-12’s 2017 All-Conference First Team, All-Defensive Team and All-Tournament Team.
“Derrick shows that what matters is what happens on the court, not what this scout said or this recruiter said,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle said. “Derrick believed in himself and it’s a great story up until this point. The best part is that the story is far from over.”
Recruiting awareness has exploded in the Internet age, with football and basketball players receiving scholarship offers as early as sixth grade. Websites already track the top players for the high school class of 2021. They can scour the world for the next five-star prospect, but good luck if you’re a zero-star prospect.
White was nowhere to be found on those sites when he was 6-0 and 150 pounds as a senior.
“I had a coach once tell me that he saw my tape and thought I was pretty good, but his head coach said I was a dime a dozen,” White said. “’Just another 6-foot guard.’ But I have to think about how blessed I am that someone did give me the opportunity.”
It took a persistent father blanketing the country with highlight videos to get White his first college scholarship, but Richard White said he did what any father would.
He saw his son spend so many nights shooting on the hoop in their Parker, Colorado cul-de-sac until the homeowner’s association said enough. Then it was every day at the local gym and working with longtime trainer Marcus Mason, where dad would rebound and tell his son to “dare to be great.”
When no Division I school called, Richard looked through the rosters of Division II and NAIA schools, found teams that lacked depth at guard and sent them a DVD of Derrick’s film.
“We were told that he didn’t have the skills, didn’t have the body type and didn’t check any of the boxes,” Richard White said. “Every time he was told he’d never make it, he never gave up hope.”
White visited Gillette College in Wyoming, one of the only schools to call Richard White back. One of the players there nicknamed Derrick “Baby Face” upon first glance.
Once White got on the court, his nickname was amended to “Baby-Faced Assassin.” The Gillette Pronghorns became the only school to offer White a full scholarship.
“All of the down times for Derrick were where he never got a chance,” Richard White said. “When a coach would take one look and move on, or wouldn’t take a look at all. Derrick never doubted himself, though. If there’s an opportunity to play, then he has a chance.”
White had the one scholarship offer, but Gillette, Wyoming was far from home. He had another interested coach, Jeff Culver, at an NAIA school called Johnson & Wales in Denver, who saw him play in a Thanksgiving tournament.
Johnson & Wales is known for its culinary program, which has produced First-Team All-Food Network selections such as Emeril Lagasse and Tyler Florence.
White had no interest in the culinary arts, but finally had a coach interested in him. After White spent his senior year hoping for a break, Culver became head coach at Division II Colorado-Colorado Springs.
Most of UCCS’ scholarship money was tied up in upperclassmen, but Culver was able to offer a $3,000 housing stipend to cover some of the school’s $10,000 tuition.
“Everybody’s a byproduct of their experiences,” Culver said. “His path has shaped him not only mentally, but physically with the way he’s driven. He still feels like he’s got something to prove, and he’ll wear that throughout.”
Culver said the first time he saw White play, the size might not have been there, but the competitiveness and tenacity made up for it.
White still hadn’t hit his growth spurt, but his parents took him to a doctor after his junior year of high school that said he could grow to 6-foot-5.
“They said that, but at the time, even we had to go, ‘well, I don’t know,’” Richard said.
When White arrived to practice five inches taller than he was a year ago, he still had the court vision and work ethic of a smaller player fighting on every possession.
“I remember detailing the merits of having Derrick redshirt when he got here,” Culver said. “A week later, he was our starter.”
Life in Division II may not be a glamorous one, with games in Chadron, Nebraska and Spearfish, South Dakota, but the 13-hour bus rides and crowds of 225 or 417 didn’t matter as long as he had a chance to play.
He’ll never be accused of taking the easy route.
White started every game he played at UCCS. He was the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference’s freshman of the year, averaging 16.9 points per game. UCCS won five games in White’s freshman year.
When White averaged 22.2 points, 6.3 rebounds, and 4.2 assists as a sophomore, UCCS won 21 games and had the nation’s biggest turnaround that season.
By his junior year, White was an All-American, averaging 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds and a few calls per day from Division I coaches. In his second-last game with UCCS, at the NCAA Division II Tournament, he scored 50 points with 14 rebounds and eight assists against the Colorado School of Mines.
“You naturally have a little bit of doubt when everybody tells you that you’re not good enough,” White said. “But you have to keep as much confidence as you can when you want something.”
White made the leap to Division I, choosing the University of Colorado.
He had to redshirt for a season according to NCAA transfer regulations, and in that practice time, Boyle recognized he found a gem. A year before White played in his first game for the Buffaloes, Boyle said he would be a pro someday.
“You’re not thinking about the NBA when you’re in D-2, but I thought by the end of my junior year that I was good enough for the Division I level,” White said. “Then I started practicing really well in my redshirt season, and that was probably the first time the NBA crossed my mind.”
White averaged 18.1 points, 4.1 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.4 blocks and 1.2 steals in his season at Colorado. Only three Division I players in the last 20 years have averaged 18 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists and a block. Fultz is another. The third was Dwyane Wade.
But Boyle said he still played like he had to prove anyone calling him “a dime a dozen” wrong.
“He’s been overlooked and discounted all the way, and that’s given him a level of maturity,” Boyle said. “Guys in the first round should be able to pass, dribble and shoot, and Derrick does all of those well. The things Derrick has that fit the Spurs organization are intangibles. He’s coachable. He’s unselfish. He has character. He cares about others.”
On draft night, Spurs Assistant General Manager Brian Wright listed off White’s strengths as dribbling, passing, shooting and decision-making.
Spurs General Manager R.C. Buford noted White’s shooting percentages. White shot .813 percent from the free throw line, .507 percent from the field, and .396 from 3-point range.
The kid who once checked none of the boxes now seemed to check all of them.
“A lot of guys might have lacked confidence in stepping up to these different levels,” Buford said. “He’s not only stepped up, but excelled as he’s moved up the food chain. He’s got another big jump coming.”
With his son in San Antonio, Richard White joked that it might have been easier if Derrick went undrafted, “because we’re used to that experience.”
Derrick said not to worry, because he still has a long way to go. That chip on his shoulder is staying there. It’s a reminder of all the times he was told he wasn’t good enough. It’s for all the seniors in high school waiting for a call from a coach that might never come.
“There are a lot of great examples of people who didn’t have that much attention, went to smaller schools, and now they’re All-Stars,” White said. “Damian Lillard, Steph Curry just to name a few. They were motivations for me. If I can be the same motivation for a kid in Division II or a kid who isn’t being recruited, that’s awesome.”