Before the San Antonio Spurs' 2018-19 campaign even began, the injury bug sunk its teeth into a team already surrounded with question marks. In a preseason game, starting point guard Dejounte Murray suffered a season-ending injury when he tore his ACL.
Afterward, The Ringer's Haley O'Shaughnessy wrote: "Without Murray, the newest and youngest of San Antonio’s familiar faces, the one most expected to make a leap, the optimism for one of those classic Popovich playoff runs begins to drain. These are not your mama's Spurs."
And yet, here we stand after San Antonio's 118-108 Game 3 victory to take a 2-1 series lead over the Denver Nuggets, potentially on the precipice of another "one of those classic Popovich playoff runs."
It's largely thanks to Murray's replacement: second-year pro Derrick White.
After he logged a total of 139 minutes in 17 games during his 2017-18 rookie season, White suddenly found himself thrust into one of the most important roles in basketball: starting point guard. On Thursday, after nearly six months of on-the-job training, he gave us an exclamation point for the story he's written all season.
Against the second-seeded Nuggets, the 24-year-old scored a career-high 36 points on 15-of-21 shooting to go along with five rebounds, five assists, three steals and a block in the Spurs victory.
In the first half alone, White went off for 26 points while consistently getting to the rim at will.
"We couldn't stop him," Nuggets coach Mike Malone said, per Mile High Sports' T.J. McBride. "They had 62 points in our paint and we gave up 16 blow-bys which is just one-on-one containment."
Just take a look at his first-half shot chart, as seen on NBA.com:
White was so dominant in the first half that Denver was forced to switch the assignment from Jamal Murray to Gary Harris. At times, they even threw double teams at him. In response, White went ahead and dished out four of his five assists in the second half.
As San Antonio marches forward with stolen home-court advantage in the series, it does so with a rising star who's already commanding in-game adjustments and countering them brilliantly.
If we jump back to his full-game box score, the all-around contributions aren't unusual. During the season, he averaged 14.1 points, 5.6 assists, 5.2 rebounds, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per 75 possessions (think of that as a pace-adjusted version of per-36-minute stats).
The scoring is what's different. White was in single digits for 34 of his 67 regular-season appearances in 2018-19. On a team with LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, the relative newcomer to the league was understandably deferential.
But in this series against Denver, he's been far more aggressive. After he scored 16 points on 7-of-10 shooting from the field in San Antonio's Game 1 victory, the young guard earned praise from head coach Gregg Popovich.
"He's spectacular for somebody who got put into that position," Popovich said, per ESPN's Ohm Youngmisuk. "To learn that position with a bunch of new players is really remarkable when he's done what he's done. So hopefully he'll continue to play that way because it's gonna be a long series."
In fact, he just keeps getting better. Through three playoff games, White is now averaging 23 points on 69 percent shooting. San Antonio has outscored Denver by 23 points in his minutes and has been outscored by 17 in all others.
This offensive improvement didn't come from nowhere, though.
"White initiates more pick-and-rolls and burns through more drives than everyone other than DeMar DeRozan," Bleacher Report's Dan Favale wrote when he identified White as the Spurs' postseason X-factor. "His assist percentage on those downhill attacks is a team-high 12.5 percent, and he's boosted his volume on pull-up jumpers this side of the All-Star break."
The on-off numbers from this series track with what White did during the season, as well. According to Basketball Reference, San Antonio was plus-5.8 points per 100 possessions when White was on the floor and minus-0.6 when he was off—a swing of 6.4 points.
You know who else had that kind of all-around impact in his second season? Murray, who boosted San Antonio's net rating by 5.6 points per 100 possessions in 2017-18.
Both players have plus size for the point guard position, which should pique the interest of more than just Spurs fans. Together, Murray and White can help usher the Spurs into the era of positionless basketball while tormenting opposing backcourts with their defense.
This season, White was second among point guards in ESPN's defensive real plus-minus. Last year, Dejounte Murray was first. If you place those two wing-sized 1s next to DeRozan, the latter's defense may suddenly stop drawing quite as much ire. White and Murray will cover for a multitude of ills.
And with White's newfound emergence as a scorer, answering questions about Murray's offensive limitations may not be as critical. The trio has the potential for synergy on both ends of the floor, and the average age of its members is 25. This is a group on which the Spurs can potentially rely for a while.
In the now? With Murray out, the Spurs will continue to lean on White.
After the Game 3 win, Popovich called him "spectacular" again, per NBA on ESPN's Twitter account:
He'll likely need to be for the rest of this series if San Antonio is to complete the upset. But even if this run ends earlier than some of the Popovich classics to which O'Shaughnessy referred, White is illuminating the path into the future for an organization that dominated the past.
Richard Jefferson joins Howard Beck's Full 48 podcast to talk about the NBA playoffs, the Lakers ongoing palace intrigue and more.