Jeremy Papasso / Staff Photographer
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Derrick White. Forever the shooting star of Colorado basketball.
White’s 2016-17 season will be remembered as one of the best individual performances in the 116-year history of the program, and rightfully so. It has been a well-documented storybook career, yet one that featured an all-too brief single-season act in Boulder.
Just as the brilliance of his all-around game could be fully appreciated he was gone, leaving behind as many highlights as “what ifs?” for CU fans to ponder even as they celebrate his selection by perennial championship contender San Antonio with the 29th pick of the first round in Thursday’s NBA draft.
Unlike the previous three NBA draft picks of coach Tad Boyle’s seven-year tenure — Alec Burks, Andre Roberson, and Spencer Dinwiddie — White was unable to push the Buffs to previously unseen heights, like the Pac-12 Conference tournament championship and three consecutive NCAA Tournament appearances. Roberson and Dinwiddie figured prominently in those feats, and even Burks’ final year in 2010-11 ended with an appearance in the NIT Final Four as part of a program clearly on the upswing.
Instead the Buffs struggled during White’s one season running the show, falling well short of preseason expectations with a 19-15 mark and a first-round ouster in the NIT. While the season was a big step forward in White’s unique story, it was a step backward for the program.
That hardly was White’s fault, of course. Yet unlike his draft predecessors under Boyle, his legacy will be one of individual highlights rather than getting immortalized alongside a group of Buffs triumphantly cutting down nets. In a quirk of fate and timing, it simply wasn’t in the cards for White’s meteoric rise to include anything resembling a championship in Buffs’ black-and-gold.
And that’s just unfortunate. Ah, but what if…
What if that growth spurt that occurred at Division II UCCS, morphing White from an overlooked 6-foot-1 prospect to a 6-foot-5 dynamo, had occurred in high school? In a perfect world White would have been a centerpiece of Boyle’s Colorado-centric 2012-13 freshman class, potentially making White the senior point guard on a 2016 NCAA Tournament team that featured a frontcourt of fellow Coloradoans Josh Scott and Wesley Gordon.
What if White had pulled the trigger on his move to Division I just one year earlier? What if White had joined a cast of Buffaloes with a different makeup, one in which his leadership skills might have been better utilized (like, for instance, the younger group of Buffs set to hit the floor in 2017-18)? Instead White joined a group of veterans already set in their ways, who were going to follow their own path regardless of White said or how dominantly he played.
In the wake of CU’s quick fizzle in the NIT, I was contacted by a scout from an NBA team (not the Spurs) wanting to know a little more about White off the floor. The moment that will forever spring to mind occurred after the Buffs’ wrenching loss at Arizona State on Jan. 5.
White had nearly carried the Buffs to victory, scoring a season-high 35 points to go with five rebounds, five assists, and three blocked shots. Once fellow senior Xavier Johnson was ejected following a hot start just before halftime, White pretty much was the entirety of the Buffs’ offense. However, with CU clinging to a one-point lead in the waning seconds and needing a defensive stop to earn what would have been a key road win, White missed a box out on Arizona State’s Tra Holder. Holder then hit two free throws with 1.6 seconds remaining to hand CU the second of what became seven consecutive losses to start the Pac-12 play.
Afterward, a teary-eyed White handled tough postgame questions like a pro. It became a familiar scene, with White gamely assuming the team’s spokesperson role after too many disappointing defeats. At ASU White shouldered the blame, repeatedly kicking himself for costing his team the game due to something so simple as a defensive box out.
Of course nothing was further from the truth. Without White the Buffs get run out of the gym that night. Yet to White, right or wrong, that late fundamental miscue erased every speck of his glittering stats.
More often than not, predicting success at the next level is purely a gamble. Yet did anyone disagree with Boyle when he said White with San Antonio is a perfect fit? A team-first player with a honed all-around game headed to the NBA’s greatest practitioner of team basketball over the past two decades. I like his chances.
It’s too bad a player who has a chance to go down as one of the state’s all-time best played just 17 games at the Coors Events Center. At least White will make frequent visits to the Pepsi Center.