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Paul Klee: As Derrick White's storybook NBA career unfolds, don't forget the chapter written at UCCS

By: Paul Klee
June 14, 2017 Updated: June 15, 2017 at 7:16 am
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photo - UCCS guard Derrick White (14) reacts to a play in the second half against the CSU-Pueblo Thunder wolves. The UCCS Mountain Lions defeated the CSU-Pueblo Thunder Wolves 84-75 at the annual Downtown Classic on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at the City Auditorium. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing
UCCS guard Derrick White (14) reacts to a play in the second half against the CSU-Pueblo Thunder wolves. The UCCS Mountain Lions defeated the CSU-Pueblo Thunder Wolves 84-75 at the annual Downtown Classic on Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014 at the City Auditorium. Photo by Isaiah J. Downing 

DENVER — Hopefully this part doesn’t get forgotten. Hopefully, as Derrick White builds a long, lucrative NBA career, the chapter he wrote at UCCS is told the right way, with accuracy.

Would his story — already one of the greatest basketball tales ever told in the state of Colorado — been so successful had it not included three seasons at the University of Colorado at Colorado Springs? Would he have met Magic Johnson and Larry Bird on a pre-NBA draft tour that’s carried him to workouts from New York to Utah? If UCCS had not taken a chance on a skinny, 6-foot-1 guard from Legend High in Parker, would White be a potential first-round pick?

“Hard to say,” White said Wednesday from his latest workout, in Atlanta with the Hawks. “But I think everything happens for a reason.”

The easy answer: Yes. Conventional wisdom says White is talented enough, driven enough, that it wouldn’t matter where he played in college. They say if you can play, they will find you.

But I’m not so sure. When some lucky team wises up and drafts White on June 22, the ESPN ticker should include “UCCS” right alongside “CU” as the college program that helped produce him. 

“He got his degree,” said his father, Richard White. “And they don’t put ‘Boulder’ or ‘Colorado Springs’ on the degree. It’s just ‘University of Colorado.’”

It won’t be that way, of course. Now a 6-5 guard with all-Pac-12 honors to his name, White will enter the NBA as a Buff. That’s cool, too: CU deserves applause for its role in advancing White's career after a touchy, in-state transfer situation. On the court, Buffs coach Tad Boyle realized early that White was a special talent (“He’ll be a pro,” Boyle told me before White had played a game at CU) and made him the focus of the operation. Off the court, the academic support staff deftly designed his course load to make certain he needed only three classes during his final semester to graduate, giving White the freedom to attend predraft workouts and the NBA combine. That’s the only way he would be allowed to skip the graduation ceremony, his parents said, is if he was conducting job interviews. He graduated with a 3.0 GPA, spanning both schools.

But the basketball world shouldn’t forget his time at UCCS. Accuracy still matters, and ESPN commentator Bill Walton referring to UCCS as “a culinary school” was lazy. Other media reports cheapened his career there with flippant references to Division II basketball, ignoring that UCCS is the only four-year program with the sharp eye to recognize White could be a player. 

“I don’t think everyone truly grasps how special and unusual this story is,” UCCS coach Jeff Culver said.

Is Derrick White a D-II player? Heck yeah. And everyone involved should be proud of it.

***

In 15 years covering college basketball and the NBA I’ve never seen a story like Derrick White’s. The state of Colorado is a few years older, and it hasn’t, either. The first time I saw him in college was down at the Auraria Events Center at Metro State. Derrick was a sophomore in the RMAC title game, a bouncy guard who had figured out he was better than everyone else at the D-2 level. He had 37 points that night, including a one-step-inside-the-half-court-line 3-pointer that White flicked with the ease of a mid-range jumper. 

“Like it was nothing," Culver said. “When he let it go, you knew it was going in.”

But this? This, nobody saw coming: As a high school senior White went on a “Please Take Derrick Tour,” as his father joked, trying to drum up scholarship interest when only two schools (UCCS and Gillette College, a two-year junior college) had inquired. When a doctor predicted he would grow to 6-5, the family considered putting “his growth plates are open” on the recruiting videos they sent to dozens of college programs. “Anything to get him noticed,” Richard White said. They chose UCCS, in part, because the family had already paid the $50 registration fee.

Then, the fact that White wasn’t a regular on the AAU circuit served as a detriment; college coaches hadn’t seen him play. Now, during the predraft process, it’s a bonus: while his age, 23, is a knock against him, scouts know he has less mileage on his body than others his age.

To prove his worth, White has worked out in Atlanta, Charlotte, Utah, Indiana, San Antonio, Brooklyn, Milwaukee, New York, Philadelphia and New Orleans. Chicago is Sunday. (His travel schedule has come a long way since the 13-hour bus ride from UCCS to Western New Mexico.) The front office with the Nuggets — his favorite team, one that employed his favorite player and fellow native, Chauncey Billups — is high on White and attempted to bring him in for a workout. But Denver's picks (13, 49, 51) don’t align with where he likely will be taken, in the 20-40 range.

“I feel really good about how it’s going,” White said. “I’m just trying to show what I can do, let them get to know me as a person, let them know I’ll do whatever it takes for the team.”

Considering everything, White’s lone season at CU was the finest individual season I’ve seen from a Buffs player. His scoring average in league games (18.8) was second in the Pac-12, and he ranked in the top 10 in scoring, assists, blocks, assist-to-turnover ratio, free throws made and attempted and, true to form, shined when told the opponent was better than him. It was that way in high school, when White worked out with future Gonzaga point guard Josh Perkins and CU recruit Xavier Talton; at UCCS, when somehow he wasn’t named RMAC Player of the Year after setting the league’s single-season scoring record; at CU, when he scored 17 second-half points to upset No. 10 Oregon and 31 points against No. 7 Arizona. 

White quietly burned when Washington guard Markelle Fultz, the probable No. 1 pick in the draft, missed the matchup in Boulder due to injury. His best games come against players who bring with them a reputation; White had 23 points and eight assists when Fultz played, 16 and 3 when he didn’t. 

“An absolute joy to coach,” Boyle said.

***

What kind of impact did White have at UCCS? The school is in discussions to retire or honor his No. 14 uniform, alongside that of his close friend and former teammate, Alex Welsh, a Pomona High graduate and the program’s all-time leader in scoring and rebounds.

“We recruited these Colorado kids and had the chance to develop them, see them grow,” Culver said. “Now, approaching the draft, any time Derrick has success we’re coming along with him. I know some people downplay his time at UCCS. But that’s when his growth happened. Here at UCCS is where there was smoke before the fire.”

Another question that should be considered: What kind of impact did UCCS have on White?

Count me in the minority that says this story might not have the same happy ending without his time at UCCS, in the RMAC, playing Division-II ball. He’s proof that choosing the right level is more valuable than choosing the highest level. As a freshman at UCCS, White was charged with making late-game plays. Sometimes he made the shot, but sometimes he didn’t, evidenced by UCCS’s 5-21 record during White’s freshman year. Regardless, the green light was emboldening, and he could afford to make mistakes without those mistakes airing on ESPN. Once he arrived at CU, White already had the swag of a two-time All-American who knew his NBA dream was a possibility.

“A lot of people don’t know about Division II, that there’s a lot of really good players there. You can come from anywhere and make it to where you want to be,” White said. “I learned a lot there, especially my freshman year. I learned how I have to play. Just having the trust that coach Culver put in me at an early age, being allowed to do things, it helped me grow. I wouldn’t be in this situation without coach Culver and the staff and my teammates at UCCS.”

One week from Thursday, after a journey ripped straight from a Hollywood script, White will become the 34th player from CU drafted into the NBA.

And he’ll be the first from UCCS. 

Twitter: @bypaulklee

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