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Okaro White is Finding his Niche in Miami

Miami’s Okaro White talks to David Yapkowitz about his expanding role.

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Sometimes life comes at you fast, especially in the NBA. In the blink of an eye, players can find themselves thrust into brand new situations with hardly any time to get properly adjusted. An injury here or a bad slump there and guys can go from hanging out on the bench in a suit to playing major minutes.

When James Johnson missed the Miami HEAT’s victory over the Chicago Bulls on Nov. 11 with tendinitis in his right knee, head coach Erik Spoelstra inserted seldom-used forward Okaro White into the starting lineup. Prior to that, White had only played in one of the HEAT’s first five games. And the one game he did see action in was in garbage time of a blowout loss to the San Antonio Spurs.

Johnson was cleared to play following the win over the Bulls, but Spoelstra liked what he saw from the lineup with White enough that he’s maintained that starting group ever since and brought Johnson off the bench. For White, in his second year in the league, it’s been a dream come true to be able to make an impact in the NBA as a starter.

“It means the world to me. Even last year when I came in, it wasn’t something I could even dream of. And again, just something that I couldn’t have even dreamt of,” White told Basketball Insiders. “I’m playing for a great organization, one of the best in the NBA in the HEAT and I’m just doing what I could do to help the team and right now it’s starting.”

Although his stats do not jump off the page (4.0 points, 1.8 rebounds, 0.2 assists), White’s impact on the HEAT has certainly been noticed. He’s a long, athletic forward who is in the perfect mold for today’s league. He helps space the floor for Goran Dragic to drive to the rim or for Hassan Whiteside to operate in the paint. Last season he shot 35.3 percent from the three-point line. This season he’s up to 44.4 percent.

“You can absolutely bank on what ‘Ro will bring every single night. You can check that box and know what you’re gonna get. You’re gonna get toughness, you’re gonna get attention to detail, you’re gonna get a guy that’s excepting of his role,” Spoelstra said after the HEAT’s win over the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday. “And in short minutes, particularly with the right lineups, his defensive energy and his commitment to do all of the little things, that matters and that helps certain lineups. I really like the minutes that he’s been giving us.”

In that game against the Clippers, White’s biggest contribution came on the defensive end of the court. Using his length and quickness, he gave the HEAT a couple of great defensive possessions early in the game on Blake Griffin as Miami built up a double-digit lead.

He knows his role on the team is ever changing, and on any given night he may be asked to contribute differently than how he did in previous games.

“I think I bring energy, toughness as far as my defensive capabilities, and spacing on the floor,” White told Basketball Insiders. “And a lot of guys still throughout the NBA, guys need to know that I can shoot it so I’m gonna keep on trying to prove it.”

It wasn’t always an easy path to the NBA for White. After going undrafted in the 2014 draft following four years at Florida State, White suited up for the Memphis Grizzlies’ summer league team. Although he had a decent showing, he was unable to land an NBA contract and he ended up in Italy.

The following summer, he once again rejoined the Grizzlies’ summer league team in the Orlando Summer League, and then joined the Dallas Mavericks in Las Vegas. At the end of the summer, he once again found himself heading overseas, this time to Greece. During that time, he was named the 2015-16 Greek League Most Spectacular Player.

They say that the third time is the charm, and so it was for White. In the summer of 2016, he joined the HEAT’s summer league team in Las Vegas. They brought him to training camp but cut him right before the start of the season. Instead of going back to Europe, White ended up with the Sioux Falls Skyforce, the HEAT’s G-League affiliate.

When a rash of injuries hit the HEAT last year, they were granted a hardship exception to sign an extra player above the roster limit of 15. They had monitored White since he was playing for their affiliate, and used the exception on him. Despite the shuffling around between countries and teams, that experience prepared White for the NBA.

“I think it really helped me. Starting off with overseas, being able to stay confident over there and keep my mind focused on the goal,” White told Basketball Insiders. “Playing in the G-League, the HEAT do so well with their G-League team. So I just stay to it and I’m glad to be in the position where I’m at.”

Last season, after losing Dwyane Wade, Joe Johnson, and Luol Deng to free agency, the HEAT surprised many and remained competitive. They fell just short of a playoff berth. They’ve gotten off to a relatively slow start so far at 4-6. It is still early, though, and there is a lot of basketball left to be played.

“The sky is the limit for us. We got pretty much everyone back,” White told Basketball Insiders. “The season just started, we’re not all the way there yet. When we get there, it’s gonna be scary.”

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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