Points & Pictures: Okaro White Is The Center of Attention
January 17th started out as any ordinary Tuesday. Birds chirped, dogs barked and Heat Twitter continued its civil war. The #TankSZN crew and the Herman Edwards disciples (“You play to win the game!”) battled with the ferocity of a thousand Haslem scowls.
That day, a move that slipped mostly through the cracks was the signing of lanky forward Okaro White. After a quick google search, we all learned that White was a solid, versatile player from Florida State University who had been playing well enough for Miami’s D-League affiliate—the Sioux Falls Skyforce—to earn a ten-day contract. Nobody quite envisioned that his signing would signal the most improbable run in NBA history.
The Miami HEAT have been chugging along smoothly since that date. Their 17-4 record is the NBA’s best during that stretch. They also rank in the top three in three-point percentage (39.9, third), net rating (7.7, third) and defensive rating (102.2, third), while ranking seventh in true shooting percentage (57.3) and eighth in offensive rating (109.9).
Of course, you can’t contribute all of that success to White, but he has added an almost invaluable boost to Miami’s second unit on both ends of the floor.
Like his other players, head coach Erik Spoelstra has been pushing the limits of White’s versatility, specifically on defense. While White has mostly played power forward (58 percent of his minutes have come at the 4, via Basketball-Reference), Spoelstra is trotting him out as the small-ball five as of late.
The sample is admittedly small, but it has worked. Via NBA.com, White has played 55 minutes at center this year, and the HEAT are a plus-21 in those minutes, with an offensive rating of 120, a defensive rating of 98.5 and a net rating of 22.5.
Miami is dominating those minutes from behind the arc on both ends of the court. Via NBAWowy, offensive lineups with White at center are generating 38 percent of their shots from three, hitting them at a 42.1 percent clip. Defensively, those same lineups have held opponents’ 3-point shooting to 22.7 percent, with less than a quarter of their shot attempts (24.4 percent) coming from downtown.
Miami’s most-used lineup with White at center features Tyler Johnson, Wayne Ellington, Josh Richardson and James Johnson. In 16 minutes together, the unit has an offensive rating of 126.2, a defensive rating of 94.2 and a net rating of 32.0.
Listed at 6-foot-8, 204 pounds, White doesn’t seem to possess ideal size or girth to be successful at center. His 6-foot-11.75 wingspan helps him, but even that isn’t great.
What helps White succeed is his leaping ability, superb lateral quickness, a never-ending motor and a sage-like understanding of angles and positioning. His basketball IQ is high. It also helps that Sioux Falls ran a nearly identical scheme to Miami, likely making his adjustment to the NBA easier.
On offense, White doesn’t mind mixing it up in the screen game. While being a physical screener is fun to watch, being a smart screener is more important. White isn’t a full-body screener. With his frame, should you expect him to be? Regardless, he does a solid job of freeing the ball-handler.
Here, White and Tyler run some two-man action. White waits until the last possible moment to step up and screen Sergio Rodriguez, forcing the switch while giving Johnson enough space to fire the triple:
White also knows how to read and run the floor as a roller.
On this play, Johnson and White ran a dribble-handoff. Johnson, in Wade-ian fashion, drove Rodriguez into White before reversing direction and driving right. At that point, Richaun Holmes stepped up to contain Johnson as Rodriguez worked to recover.
White, recognizing all of this, not only rolled, but rolled at a slight diagonal angle to create enough separation away from Holmes where he couldn’t recover. He also gave Johnson a window to throw the lob.
Subtle, but good stuff.
Defensively, White’s mobility and IQ allows him to make plays all over the floor. He’s come up with a fair share of weak side blocks, deflections and steals because he reads the floor so well. Below, you’ll see his defensive range displayed in three plays:
On the first play, Dario Saric blew past Wayne Ellington. White had to walk a tightrope; leave too early, and the slick-dishing Saric could’ve easily slipped a dump-off to Holmes. Help too late, and it would’ve been an easy layup or dunk for Saric. White timed his help perfectly and blocked the shot.
On the second play, the Sixers went with a Spain pick-and-roll look—a high pick-and-roll followed by another screener hitting the big. White was able to contain Rodriguez, fight over the Spain pick and still recover for the block.
On the last play, White was switched on Nik Stauskas. He did a solid job of forcing Stauskas right without giving up a step, then swatting the shot with his inside hand without fouling.
For a younger player, White’s fundamentals and general understanding of basketball is uncanny. There’s a bit of Shane Battier potential in there. Expect to see more of White at the 5 while Willie Reed continues to recover to full strength. Because at this rate, it might not be a bad thing at all.