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Wednesday June 17, 2009 11:02 AM

The White Stuff

James White cleared and ready for take-off

Jason Friedman
Rockets.com Staff Writer

Houston - Over the next two weeks, Rockets.com will be taking a detailed look at the team’s end of season evaluation process and the plans in place to ensure its players continue to improve over the summer. Our guide along the way will be Rockets’ Director of Player Programs Shawn Respert, a former NBA player himself and someone well-versed in the art of player development and progression.

Today the spotlight shines on James White, a super-athletic wing whose physical gifts and skill-set have drawn comparisons to those possessed by the Lakers' Trevor Ariza.

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The first thing you need to know about a James White practice session is that there are no dunks. None whatsoever. There are three-pointers galore and driving lay-ups of all varieties, but if you’ve come here hoping to see a dunk contest preview, you’re destined to be disappointed.

That’s how it should be, of course. The high-flying swingman has already shown himself to be the shaman of slam – “I’ve got that mastered already,” he says, laughing – so all his efforts now are focused on the other aspects of his game which may be less flashy, but are ultimately far more important in his quest to become a significant contributor in the Rockets’ rotation.

“When you’re in the game you’re not going to be able to dunk every time,” says White. “You’ve got to be able to do different things. So I work on different lay-ups and finishing in different ways just like you would do in a game.

“I basically want to be a guy who can come in and provide excitement and energy, play defense, make open shots, get out on the break and get easy buckets in transition. We didn’t get a lot of transition buckets (last year) and I think I can provide that and create for other people.”

White’s projection should sound very familiar to NBA fans who just finished feasting upon the Finals. After all, Trevor Ariza essentially filled that exact role for the Lakers in their just-completed run to the championship. Like White, Ariza is a long, lean and incredibly athletic wing player – the kind very much en vogue in today’s NBA. Through countless hours of hard work, Ariza transformed himself into a defensive stopper of the highest order while simultaneously adding a lethal shot from beyond the arc to ensure he’s just as much of a threat on the offensive end. In effect, he has blazed the path that White now hopes to follow.

“That’s a great analysis,” confirms Houston’s Director of Player Programs Shawn Respert. “Trevor Ariza got better as the playoffs went along and he got confidence in himself. You could tell he wasn’t afraid to stand up and take on a challenge against Hedo Turkoglu – and Hedo’s a great offensive player – but he took pride in wanting to shut him down. I don’t see anything different with James; once he’s out there on a regular basis and once our staff gets accustomed to what his game is catered to. At the end of the day, this team is building the foundation around the defensive end of the court and looking at opportunities to score early in transition, and he’s exactly the guy who fits in a mold like that.

“But defensively he is much more stellar than what I thought. He’s just great in his ability to read the lanes, he’s long, athletic – I think he has a willingness to want to shut guys down.”

In that regard, White couldn’t have found himself in a much better situation. Not only can his particular gifts and skill-set fill a need on this Rockets’ roster, but he also has a unique opportunity to continue building upon those strengths by learning from one of the best in the business. Shane Battier possesses few peers in the area of defensive preparation, and White is wise enough to know a treasure trove of tips, techniques and inside information sits just a few lockers over from his own.

“Just looking at how he prepares for the game everyday on the defensive end has been a big help to me,” says White. “Basically he’s given me the blueprint on how to become a good defender. Him and Ron Artest both put a lot of effort into it and that’s basically what defense is: effort. So I’m doing extra stuff on my off time like scouting plays and things like that to be the best defender I can.”

At the same time, White is working hard to refine his offensive game, too. He heaves up threes in bunches and tirelessly attacks the basket during his summer practice sessions. If he is to be a Trevor Ariza-esque player, he must master Ariza-esque skills. Progress is being made, which is why the Rockets aren’t shy about throwing as much at him as he can possibly handle.

“We give him a lot of shots on the move and a lot of shots spotting up,” Respert says. “We also need him to focus on attacking the basket. I see James as someone who possesses the ability to give us another guy who can make the defense draw in, while also having the skill set to find the open man, and I think that’s the kind of thing that’s going to help us offensively.

“I also see his basketball IQ as something that you can’t teach either. He understands the game, he’s able to pick up the concepts of Coach Adelman’s offense and I really look forward to him being another threat on the floor at attacking the basket in half-court and transition.”

Yes, James White can still slam. We are, after all, talking about a guy who touched the top of the backboard while taking part in a jumping test on his initial day with the team. And during a scrimmage earlier this week, he apparently threw down a dunk so sick it left jaws on the floor and everyone standing around in stunned silence.

Joey Dorsey emphatically says White is the best dunker he’s ever seen. Another witness insists the Washington D.C. product is a lock to win next year’s dunk contest – LeBron or no LeBron - as long as he receives an invite, saying White has been stockpiling jams for years which eclipse even the gravity-defying dunks which made him a Youtube sensation.

Of course, the key word there is “invite” and that’s something White won’t likely receive unless the rest of his game develops enough to earn him significant playing time. And so he works, day after day, to elevate not his vertical, but his overall knowledge and skill-set instead.

“Nobody else motivates you – you have to motivate yourself,” he says. “That’s how I do things. I continue to motivate myself because I pretty much know what I can do at my best and when I’m at my worst, so I try to get myself to where I’m improving everyday.

“I’m not coming in here just to be satisfied by making the team. I’m coming in to try and get playing time, so I’m just going out there playing my best so I can show the coaches I can play and hopefully that will get me in the game.”

If it does, the dunks will surely follow. But until then, White's singular focus will remain on raising his game, rather than his rim-rattling ability, to far greater heights.

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