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Film Session: Royce White

Breaking down the unique skill set of Rockets rookie Royce White

Ask any hoops scout, coach or executive about Rockets rookie Royce White and there’s a 99.9 percent chance you’ll hear the word ‘unique’ used to describe him within the first fifteen seconds of your conversation. It’s an adjective that applies to the Minnesota native both on court and off; after all, how else to label a 21-year-old baller who speaks with the confidence and maturity of a man twice his age, teaches himself how to play piano. grows a beard in tribute to John Lennon, writes books and screenplays, is passionate about photography and lists Friedrich Nietzsche among his favorite philosophers?

Yes, ‘unique’ is about as good of a place as any to start when it comes to White, though Renaissance Man might be more apt. And it seems only fitting that the 16th overall pick in this year’s NBA Draft would juggle so many off court interests because on it he is a veritable jack-of-all-trades as well. White was the only player in Division I basketball this past season to lead his team in all five major statistical categories (points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals per game), utilizing his uncommon size-skill package to great effect, frequently and seamlessly shifting gears from point guard to power forward -– often during the same trip down the floor.

So how will White’s versatility translate to the NBA? Rockets.com took a trip inside the film room to find out.

 

Watch the above video and it quickly becomes apparent that White is blessed with extraordinary vision for his position. Simply put, he is one of the best passing power forwards to emerge from the college ranks this past decade. His head is always up when he has the ball in his hands, scanning the floor around him, searching and probing for holes in the opposition’s defense.

The last two plays in this sequence are obviously the most spectacular; the type of powerful, one-handed, ‘Holy &!#@, did he just do that?!?’ passes that make highlight films and get fans out of their seats in unbridled excitement. But while those sorts of sequences are fun, the plays made in the first two clips are far more functional and the type around which offenses can more successfully be built.

First, take a look at play two. Remember LeBron James’ unguardable post presence from this past postseason (as if anyone who watched could actually forget it)? Thanks to his size (6-8, 260), strength, quickness and vision, White can do similar things. Here, he easily sniffs out the approaching double team, and by utilizing his height, length and skill he’s able to make the quick pass underneath to his teammate for an easy layup. This is all made possible because White is such a monster operating out of the low-post or from the elbow (White’s Synergy stats when operating out of the low post when including passes: .944 points per possession, good enough to rank him in the nation’s 70th percentile). He can back you down or face up (we’ll get to that later), and his off-the-charts basketball IQ allows him to rapidly recognize what the defense is doing so he can make the right read and find open teammates with a well-timed assist, too. To be sure, it’s basketball blasphemy to suggest White is in the same class as the game’s best player. No one is saying any such thing. But don’t be surprised if the Rockets take a long hard look at what James did for Miami during the playoffs in order to find ways to similarly deploy White as well.   

Initially, however, the easiest way for Houston to begin integrating White into the attack might best be seen in clip one. Here, he snatches the rebound, takes off up the court, bursts into the heart of the defense before picking out a teammate for a wide-open three-pointer. With his rebounding and ball-handling ability, White is a perpetual threat as a one-man fast break; forget about the need for an outlet pass from your slow-footed big man to the point guard when White is on the floor. In the blink of an eye he is capable of snatching a rebound from among the tall trees and then flying up the floor to either create for his teammates or finish with authority himself as we’ll see in the very next clip.

 

One thing to note while watching this play (and the first clip from the previous sequence as well): both take place against Kentucky, the NCAA champions of 2012 and a squad absolutely stacked with NBA talent. Here, White steals the ball away from National Player of the Year Anthony Davis, brings the ball up the court calmly and in control, before finishing with a flourish right in the faces of the Wildcats’ defenders. The Rockets have made no secret of their desire to push the pace and play up-tempo basketball. With White on the floor, they’ll be a threat to do so every time he hits the glass or makes a play on defense.

 

Speaking of hitting the glass, White enters the NBA after establishing himself as one of the best rebounders in his draft class.  With his massive hands and strong base, he’s able to establish solid position and snatch up loose balls at a very high rate (he averaged 11.6 boards per 40 minutes last season at Iowa State). Those same characteristics, along with his soft touch and excellent body control, also allow him to finish well with contact when attacking the rim.

 

Yet another example of White’s scary size-skill combo. Should he be able to maximize his potential at the pro level, he promises to give opposing coaches fits from a matchup perspective. He has the ability to simply overwhelm and overpower most small forwards thanks to his size, and many bigs may well be befuddled as well due to his quickness and point guard caliber handle. Look around the league today and you’ll see an increasing amount of positional ambiguity among many of the league’s elite players and teams. White brings precisely that element of versatility coaches crave, and Houston Head Coach Kevin McHale will no doubt love the way he’ll be able to mix and match with White, using him to help his club go big or play small-ball when the opportunity arises.

 

Yet another example of White showcasing the immense spectrum of his offensive repertoire, once more against elite competition (this clip shows him going head-to-head against Player of the Year candidate Thomas Robinson). White faces up from 18-feet, busts out his killer right-to-left crossover to get into the lane, then patiently and adroitly puts his deft footwork to good use allowing him to negotiate his way past two defenders for a simple lay-in. Will moves like this be harder to pull off against longer, stronger and more sophisticated NBA defenses? Of course. But what we’re seeing is that White is very much a weapon; and, at just 21-years-of-age, the extent to which he’ll be able to do damage is only going to increase as well.

 

While video breakdowns such as these can only show so much, hopefully the enormity of White’s basketball IQ is beginning to come into better focus. This clip finds him once again operating out of the low post, where once more he draws a double-team. White not only recognizes it immediately, he also responds by quickly attacking its weak spot, spinning baseline for a dunk. Note that he wisely eschewed passing to his cutting teammate, knowing that any such pass would be easily picked off by the sagging defense. Plays like this look simple in real time -- and again, NBA defenses will certainly make him work harder for his points -- but the reality is they’re anything but; White’s instinctive decision-making is the byproduct of a basketball brain that has a deep understanding of how the game works and what plays can be made based on the situation at hand.

Moving Forward

So where does White go from here? First and foremost, you can bet that the Rockets’ player development staff will place a heavy emphasis on improving the rookie’s shooting stroke. His outside jumper is inconsistent and it’s obvious that fine-tuning that aspect of his game would only serve to further accentuate his elite playmaking skills. Simply put, if White can become a knockdown shooter, he’ll have a very real shot at becoming a star in this league as a pick-your-poison type offensive player. The Rockets will also work hard with White to become a significantly better free throw shooter; White hit just 50 percent of his free throws last season and with as much as he operates out of the low post, that number needs to be raised to at least an acceptable level.

On the defensive end, White will have much work to do as well, as is the case with virtually every rookie who enters the league, especially those who ply their trade primarily along the interior. Just as White will be a matchup nightmare at the offensive end, he could face similar issues defensively should he find himself matched up against players at the three who are quicker and faster than he is, or power forwards who have a height/length advantage. Like every NBA newbie, White will undoubtedly take his lumps early on, but he most definitely possesses the smarts and strength to eventually transform himself into an asset on the defensive end.

Now the work begins. The basketball world already knows Royce White is a unique player. Should he fully realize his immense potential, however, he has the chance to be a great one as well.