BOSTON — Derrick White remembers Gregg Popovich appearing in the cafeteria, the locker room, hallways, always reminded him that he belonged. The future Hall-of-Fame coach felt prompted to do so.
Three years before he arrived in San Antonio, White played at Division-II University of Colorado — Colorado Springs, and while White made strides with extra practice sessions, summer league appearances and shooting instruction from the Spurs and his trainer Marcus Mason, intangible confidence seemed missing from White.
“Repetition is important,” Popovich said. “Making him believe that you really believe what you’re saying to him. Showing him a lot of love. His coaching staff did the same thing. Then, at that point, it’s up to him, and that’ll come with any success that you would have. So he’d have good games where he’d get 10 assists or he would score, and he’s also a good defender, he would do a good job defensively for us, he would take more charges than anybody on the team.”
It’s difficult to believe the Spurs traded White, who scored 19 points with eight rebounds, two assists, one steal and two blocks on 7-for-11 shooting against his old team, because Popovich invested in him personally to levels he only does with prospects that show him something. Boston sent Josh Richardson, Romeo Langford, a first-round pick and 2028 swap option, an aggressive swing at the time that became Brad Stevens’ signature move as president given White’s standout year. Better yet — White remains signed with Boston through 2025 on the four-year, $70 million contract San Antonio originally extended him to. The trade changed the Celtics.
It altered White’s life too. He admitted turbulence impacting his play last summer and teammates, along with his head coach Joe Mazzulla, continue to stress that he plays aggressively. Soon after the trade, Luke Kornet’s family began delivering food to White’s new home and Robert Williams III emphasized talking to White regularly to make him feel welcome, telling White to speak his mind. Don’t be afraid.
Their newborn children later shared a name, coincidentally, in Hendrix. White approached Williams III after the birth and apologized, and they laughed. Those off-court conversations came to define Popovich’s influence on White as much as the basketball lessons.
“Obviously I learned a lot on the court, the Spurs way,” White told CLNS Media on Sunday. “But I just think I learned so much more from him off the court and just being a good person, being a good father, being a good husband, stuff like that, that he always said was the important stuff, so I just learned about that and then culturally, what’s going on in the world, he was just always aware of that and letting us know about it.”
That Spurs way now exists in Boston through White’s approach. Popovich quipped he played no role in the system’s development pre-game, praising the talent Manu Ginóbili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker provided him to coach them. White’s learning curve tightened under coaching that also included Will Hardy and Ime Udoka, who he would later rejoin in Boston. But with both coaches gone, he’s the one left taking charges, tossing tons of passes while only turning the ball over once every night, taking the threes he needs to and playing through a ruptured ear drum in Milwaukee. All while asking for nothing in terms of minutes or a starting role.
White walked across the hall and found his old trainers Will Sevening, Brandon Bowman, Marilyn Adams and his strength coach Anthony Falsone, who he named alongside video coordinators and coaches as having lasting influence with him. Langford, the former No. 14 overall pick, sat in the locker room after playing only his 41st game with the Spurs on Sunday, scoring eight points on 3-for-6 shooting with two steals off the bench, his sixth appearance since Jan. 23 while dealing with an adductor injury.
Popovich didn’t think he’d play before he ultimately suited up, guarding Marcus Smart full court, frustrating Jaylen Brown with a swipe to the face mask and hitting a three for a San Antonio team that got overmatched by Boston’s talent they helped supplement. It’s rebuild time for the once mighty franchise.
“I was shocked,” Langford told CLNS reflecting on the trade. “Because we just had practice and I think the trade deadline was about to end in about 20-30 minutes and I got traded. It was really shocking, but fast turnaround, got to San Antonio and had to just forget about it and move on … it’s pretty easy to keep track of them. They’re always on TV, but I still talk to some of the guys who I was really close with and it’s nice to see them excel, especially just coming from playing with them and seeing the things that they’ve been through, the work they put in and it’s starting to pay off. It’s cool to see.”
While watching the Finals from home hurt, Langford felt comfortable playing alongside many players close in age. He turned 23 this year, and receiving surprising tips from Popovich after thinking he’d heard everything led to him shooting 47.8% so far and posting a 2:1 assist-to-turnover ratio.
Joe Mazzulla’s success doesn’t surprise him, the pair worked together since Langford’s first days in Boston, using a ping pong paddle to straighten his release. They always discussed life first.
“Being patient … and building trust with him, letting him know that you care about him as a person,” Mazzulla said. “Showing him you can help him navigate the league and the challenges it presents. I think he’s gotten better, especially on the the defensive end, he’s a really, really solid defender. In the first game against them, I thought he played really well.”
Like Aaron Nesmith, traded for Malcolm Brogdon last summer, their new destinations provided consistent opportunities not available in Boston, when Langford can avoid injury, a continued challenge. He almost didn’t return to the Spurs when training camp cuts arrived.
Langford drew on Mazzulla’s advice about staying in the league to show out late in camp and remain entering the final year on his rookie deal. He’ll become a restricted free agent this summer.
“He hasn’t had the best luck with his health this season, but the game comes super easy for him,” Tre Jones told CLNS Media. “He’s extremely talented. Scoring is something that comes super easy for him as well, but he’s a really good defender and he can take on big matchups and does really well. Obviously he’s really athletic and everything, but he’s got good instincts on the defensive end as well. I feel like everything just comes easy for him.”
Drafting built Boston’s current core, from Jayson Tatum to Williams III, but the individual talents Danny Ainge acquired needed connectors. Many left, Kyrie Irving and Al Horford included, and his attempts to replace them with prospects and Kemba Walker faltered.
A mass of picks between 2016-2020 largely remained until he either used them in mass or sold them at the last minute. Langford, Nesmith and even Grant Williams early on struggled to fill those holes between 2019-2021.
“It’s all a learning experience,” Langford said, looking back at his time in Boston. “It’s all part of life, that’s what makes you who you are. So no regrets. It didn’t go the way no one expected it. Me, the other people, that’s why I’m traded, but it’s all just a learning process. No regrets.”
Stevens’ ascent saw a shift away from drafting toward acquiring White, Brogdon and bringing Horford back, all moves directly responsible for the team’s standing. As the importance of White’s presence to start and finish games becomes clear to Mazzulla, so did his impact to analytical models. He ranks 13th in 538’s WAR rating.
The Celtics outscored San Antonio by 41 points during his minutes. Boston finished 71-29 in his first 100 games. Sunday marked his 101st.
“It doesn’t matter where you came from,” White remembered Popovich telling him. “It doesn’t matter if you’re a McDonald’s All-American or whatever it is. You can play in this league,’ … It’s pretty cool to hear that from probably the greatest coach of all time.”