Multisport star White chose basketball, to Pistons' delight
But in the basketball hotbed of the mid-South, White eventually chose to focus on basketball and merely dabble in other sports where he showed every bit the potential to graduate to the professional level as basketball eventually provided him.
“I started playing basketball and baseball when I was 3,” he said after Sunday’s practice in Las Vegas, where the Pistons prepared for their third game of Summer League, Monday against Sacramento. “Then I started playing football when I was 8 or 9. After that, I started playing all three year round.”
White has been hailed as perhaps the best athlete in the June NBA draft for his 40-inch vertical jump, his three-quarter-court sprint time and his ridiculously low 3.7 percent body fat. But the second-round pick, who is getting a long look at point guard in Las Vegas and showing the poise and ballhandling to make it a realistic fit, takes the “best athlete” label to another level when his multisport exploits are considered.
At Craigmont High School in Memphis, White didn’t play football as a freshman but did as a sophomore and wound up a three-year starter at quarterback, passing for more than 2,000 yards a season.
“When I was younger, I told my dad I wanted to be a running back,” said White, whose older brother Shun was a 1,000-yard rusher at the Naval Academy and will get a chance with the New England Patriots when his military commitment is served. “But I kept growing and he said I was too tall to be a running back. He told me to play quarterback. From then on, I just played quarterback my whole life. The type of offense we ran was like a shotgun, so I would scramble and throw it. I was throwing the ball all the time.”
When he wasn’t catching it, at least. With White’s speed – he says he was clocked in the 4.4 range consistently in the 40-yard dash – and springs, Craigmont’s coaches would put him at wide receiver when the offense got near the goal line, then merely throw fade routes to White.
College football coaches throughout the South kicked the tires on White’s desire to play football in college, but he decided in high school that basketball would ultimately be the sport he’d choose. But White is confident he would have played at college’s highest level, had he gone that route, and been considered an NFL prospect.
“I thought about (college football), but I had it in the back of my mind to play basketball and football season carried over into basketball season. So I would just go from football into basketball, but I could have been real good in football. I could have been a threat at wide receiver, too.”
In baseball, White was a pitcher with a 90 mph fastball and a full repertoire of pitches.
“I was pretty good,” he grins. “I had everything – fastball, curveball, knuckle changeup.”
He also dabbled in track and field when Craigmont’s track coach urged him to give the high jump a try in his senior year.
“I didn’t really have any interest in doing it, but the track coached asked me to do it and I did it,” he said. “I didn’t have track shoes on – I just had Jordans – but I jumped 6-7, then I slipped and stopped because I hurt my knee a little bit.”
He was also pretty good in basketball, a three-time All-State selection and the Class AAA (largest school) Player of the Year as a senior who averaged 27 points a game and was ranked as one of the nation’s top 100 players. And despite all that, then-Memphis coach John Calipari didn’t recruit White aggressively.
“Calipari didn’t try to recruit Memphis players – he tried to get big-time national recruits,” White said. “It is kind of crazy, but he didn’t really recruit Memphis players. Ole Miss started recruiting me my sophomore year in high school and stayed loyal to me. I felt it was the right choice.”
White has put his athleticism on display a handful of times in the Pistons’ first two Summer League wins – blocking a long jump shot from behind, exploding to finish over the defense in one memorable transition flash, stunning Golden State’s Ben Woodside by soaring to deflect a routine pass Woodside had lobbed – or so he thought – well over White’s head.
But unlike many basketball players blessed with supreme athleticism, White hasn’t tried to exploit his athleticism and wound up playing recklessly. To the contrary, the Pistons have been impressed with the subtleties of his game.
“He makes plays that are coaching plays,” Pat Sullivan said after Saturday’s win. “And he’s making easy plays.”
While White’s assist total stands at a modest four, if he’s less than a dynamic distributor he’s proven a wonderful caretaker, turning the ball over only once in 54 minutes.
“In high school, I played a lot of point guard, so I’m used to it. My freshman year in college, I played point guard, so it comes easy to me. So far, I’m playing pretty well. The first game I was nervous the first couple of quarters, but then I settled down.
“Coaches have been telling me to don’t try to do anything fast – just go out there and play my game. My game is a laid-back type of game. I like to be smooth. I don’t like to rush things. When you rush things, you get turnovers and make mistakes. I’m just calm with it.”
Based on how he’s fit so far and the poise he’s shown in Las Vegas, he’s giving the Pistons a sense of peace, too.