Gregg Popovich hilariously said Derrick White’s role as Spurs rookie was to ‘get towels and water for the guys’

Mike Battaglino
5 Min Read
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Gregg Popovich may have had no idea where Derrick White’s NBA career was going to go when the legendary head coach commented on him as a rookie with the San Antonio Spurs.

Arriving as the No. 29 overall pick in the 2017 NBA Draft, White thought he was making a good impression until he heard what Popovich had to say about the outlook for his first season in the league.

“I’m always thankful for Pop,” White said. “Every time I see him I just tell him I love him and just that I’m thankful.

“But I mean, from when I was a rookie, after my first preseason game, I thought I played pretty good. And then I seen this report. They were like, ‘What’s Derrick role this year?’ And he said, ‘Get towels and water for the guys.’

“I’m like, ‘Oh, well.’ I thought I was gonna be this year. But he’s just all about the development. He’s not going to just throw you into the fire if you’re not ready. He’s all about just making the right basketball play each and every time, and you just got to learn that over time.

“So, I mean my instance, I was in Austin a lot my rookie year, but every time I came back up to San Antonio, he was there talkin’ to me about it and was knowledgable about what I was doin’ down there. So just havin’ him care about me even when I wasn’t with the team just showed me that he does care about my development, he does care about my future, and I just got to continue to work down there so when it is my time to get called up to San Antonio, I’m ready to go.

“And he pushes you. He demands a lot from you. And that’s what every young player wants.”

In that preseason debut against the Sacramento Kings, the University of Colorado product scored nine points on 4-for-8 shooting from the field. He would go on to play three more preseason games.

White wound up playing 17 regular season games for the Spurs in that first 2017-18 season, averaging 3.2 points, 1.5 rebounds and 0.5 assists per game. That increased to 67 games — with 55 starts – and 9.9 points, 3.7 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game the following campaign.

He eventually would sign a contract extension with San Antonio and wound up playing 237 games for the Spurs over five seasons before he was traded to the Celtics in February 2022.

The 29-year-old helped Boston reach the 2022 NBA Finals as well as the 2023 Eastern Conference Finals. This season, he is averaging 17.0 points and 3.9 rebounds per game, which both would be his career-highs, to go along with 5.3 assists per contest as a starter for the Celtics.

Boston is 26-7 and leading the Eastern Conference heading into its game against the Utah Jazz on Friday.

As for the Spurs, they are just 5-29 after a narrow loss to the Milwaukee Bucks on Thursday as they head toward a fifth straight season without making the playoffs. However, with No. 1 overall pick in the 2023 NBA Draft Victor Wembanyama looking very impressive at times, the future may be getting brighter for San Antonio.

White and Popovich seem to maintain a good relationship despite what may have looked like a rocky start. The Hall of Famer’s focus on the development of young players and care for their well-being could also pay off for Wembanyama as his career unfolds.

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Mike is a veteran journalist who has focused on New York sports. He has covered the NBA and NFL for almost three decades and is still waiting for the next championship for the Knicks and Jets.