The NBA’s Great Positionless Shift

Royce White speaks with the media at a press conference on June 29, 2012, in Houston. (AP Photo/Pat Sullivan)

By now, it is evident that the NBA is undergoing a significant evolution when it comes to lineup formations. Gone are the days of hulking centers and long two-point field goals. The game has become more refined, more dependent on perimeter offense and spacing, and more prone to players who are multi-skilled and versatile.

This is an NBA tailor-made for Royce White’s skillset. As Sam Riches details in his latest piece for Longreads, White drew comparisons ranging from Charles Barkley to LeBron James during his lone collegiate season at Iowa State; his passing acumen, when coupled with his basketball IQ and inherent touch, transformed White into a nearly indefensible player:

White, who stands 6’8” and weighs 270 pounds, moves with a lumbering fluidity, a grace that belies his size. He dribbles the ball like a guard, with hands that measure nearly a foot in width. He clears space with his frame, sometimes backing down his opponents from beyond the three point line, and then flicks passes to teammates at impossible angles. He rips rebounds from the sky and then floats the ball back into the basket with a feathery touch.

However, White isn’t perfect: The forward also suffers from generalized anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, and the NBA—like many professional sports leagues—has long been ill-equipped to meet the demands that come with mental illness. Larry Sanders, fresh off signing a four-year, $44 million contract with the Milwaukee Bucks in 2013, walked away from the league as a consequence of repeated bouts with anxiety and depression, and sports psychology is transforming into a burgeoning field for high-level athletes.

Though the NBA’s new collective bargaining agreement now has a mental health clause, there wasn’t a safety net in place when White was drafted by the Houston Rockets in 2012, which is why the forward is currently the MVP of the National Basketball League of Canada rather than an All-Star in the NBA.

In late July, he announces that he’s returning to [the] London [Lightning]. “Why wouldn’t I just play in London?” he says, when asked about this decision. “We won the championship for christ’s sake. We made history. Why would I leave defending my title? Why would I leave where I’m a champion at? To go where? Not only do I not know if I’m going to get a fair shot, I don’t know what the team I’m going to is going to do, what their priorities are, if winning is important.

This past season, Nikola Jokic, a 6-foot-10 Serbian forward for the Denver Nuggets, enjoyed a breakout season thanks to a skillset that mirrors White’s, wowing both crowds and fellow teammates with his passing touch and vision. Jokic, like White, anticipates the action several plays ahead, and has a deft touch to thread slight openings in the defense while also finding openings at the exact moment (and he can score in bunches).

The success of players like Jokic and Draymond Green (selected the same draft as White) have changed how general managers and NBA executives construct the lineups—the word “tweener” is no longer an NBA draft death knell—and it is within this environment that White should have shined. Lineups are no longer viewed within the rigid confines of positions, and players—like White, Green, Jokic, and many others—who can fill multiple spots on the floor are highly coveted.

White’s success north of the border is commendable, but his talent is too good for a mere cup of Gatorade in the NBA:

Asked about White’s ability on the basketball court, [Matt] Abdelmassih draws in a deep breath. “He’s so talented,” he exhales. “So talented. I wish that the experience he had in the NBA turned out to be better because I think he belongs in the NBA, he’s talented enough to be in the NBA, but at the end of the day I don’t know if he’ll have that opportunity again because I think that bridge has been burnt one too many times.”

Near the end of our conversation Abdelmassih asks if I’ve had a chance to talk to anyone in the NBA about White. I tell him that I’ve been trying, but every call and email has gone unreturned.

“Yeah,” he sighs. “Yeah. That’s what I figured.”

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