Basketball

He may be warming the bench for the Denver Nuggets in the NBA finals series, but Australian Jack White is happy to soak up the experience as he patiently awaits his next big break. By Peter Mitchell.

Jack White’s journey from country Victoria to the NBA

Basketball players running on court.
Denver Nuggets forward Jack White controls the ball against Sacramento in April.
Credit: Isaiah J. Downing / USA Today

It’s easy to find Jack White in the Denver Nuggets locker room. After each game when team officials open the room to the media, follow the pack that converges on star centre Nikola Jokić. Then look for the blond-haired White, who sits next to Jokić and often must scramble out of the way of multiple TV cameras and microphones.

Being assigned the locker next to Jokić’s for the 2022-23 NBA season is just one of many dreams that have come true for the 25-year-old from Traralgon, in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.

“It’s unreal to think about,” White tells The Saturday Paper. “I’m just a kid from country Victoria.”

White has been soaking up every drop of basketball knowledge on offer from Jokić, the 211-centimetre, 129-kilogram, two-time NBA Most Valuable Player. But the influence of the giant Serbian isn’t limited to ball skills.

“Thanks to Nikola I now know a few Serbian swear words and he gets a kick out of it when I say them,” White says, laughing. “He also calls me ‘Kangaroo’ and things like that. We have so many fun things going around in our locker room. It’s one of the secrets to our success.”

Jokić, White and their Denver teammates are trying to erase 47 years of heartbreak for their fans by winning the franchise’s first NBA championship. They swept LeBron James’s Los Angeles Lakers out of the playoffs with a surprise 4-0 Western Conference finals thrashing and are now favourites to beat the Miami Heat in the just-begun best-of-seven championship series. Denver won game one on Friday, 104-93.

How White ended up at the Nuggets after being unwanted at the 2020 NBA draft shouldn’t surprise anyone who has followed his ascent. Through a mixture of luck and strategically smart choices, White has had a storybook career that began at the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra.

After leaving the AIS, the athletic, 200-centimetre small forward’s play for the Cairns Taipans in the NBL caught the attention of numerous American colleges, including Boise State, Hawaii and Temple. Then, suddenly, master coach Mike Krzyzewski approached White with a scholarship offer to Duke University. White spent four years under “Coach K”, a winner of five National Collegiate Athletic Association tournament titles and three Olympic gold medals. White’s Duke teammates included future NBA elite Zion Williamson, Jayson Tatum, Cam Reddish and R. J. Barrett.

Patience has also been key to White’s career. He had little court time in his first two years at Duke, averaging just six minutes a game. Some young players would be upset by this and quit the team, but as he is doing with Jokić at the Nuggets, the Australian soaked up every second with Krzyzewski and co. The coach was so impressed with White, he named him captain in his final two years with the Blue Devils and increased his court time.

After being ignored at the 2020 NBA draft, White returned to Australia, signed with Melbourne United, won the NBL title and in 2022 flew back to the US to join the Nuggets’ NBA Summer League squad. The Nuggets valued his energy and 7.8 points and seven rebounds a game, and signed the Australian to a two-way contract worth about $US500,000 for the season.

NBA players do not always welcome two-way contracts. The salary is substantially lower than regular contracts and it restricts the number of games a player can suit up for during the season. It also leads to stints in the G League, the NBA’s second-tier league. White, again, looked at the big picture, remained patient and made the most of his opportunities. He was on the Nuggets’ roster for 50 regular season games and averaged 21 points and almost 10 rebounds for Denver’s G League squad, the Grand Rapids Gold.

Another negative aspect of two-way contracts is that players are not eligible to take part in the NBA playoffs. However, just like Coach K, Nuggets head coach Michael Malone is a big fan of what White brings to his squad, both on and off the court. During the playoffs and championship series, Malone ensured White could travel and train with the team even though he was ineligible to play.

“It’s kind of been the story of my career to a certain extent,” White says.

“Each time I have taken a step up, whether it was at Duke or with the Nuggets, I have had to start at the bottom of the food chain. I’m okay with that. I’m grateful for every opportunity I get.”

Proof of Malone’s support for White came in the Nuggets’ final regular season game in April. Malone subbed in the Australian late in the third quarter against the Sacramento Kings and White quickly became the star, grabbing eight rebounds, including three on the offensive end. In his post-game interview with reporters, Malone gave White the nickname “The Aussie Worm”, because his energy reminded him of one of the NBA’s all-time great rebounders, Dennis “The Worm” Rodman.

“Toughness, physicality, IQ – it’s in his DNA,” Malone said.

“Jack White, no matter where he is playing, is going to play hard, physical and tough.”

White points to Jokić’s leadership as one of the keys to Denver’s dominant season – the team finished on top of the Western Conference standings with a 53-win, 29-loss record. In the playoffs they knocked out the Minnesota Timberwolves in the first round with a 4-1 series win, then dispatched the fancied Kevin Durant-led Phoenix Suns 4-2 before the 4-0 demolition of the Lakers.

“Denver is a great city, with great fans, and our team has a phenomenal culture,” White says. “Our locker room is as good as you’ll find in our league. An outsider might think NBA teams are filled with players with egos, but our team is so down-to-earth and all get along.

“It starts with our best player, Nikola, who has no ego. He does not give a damn about himself. All he cares about is the team winning and that is contagious for the rest of us.”

Australia’s Boomers will also benefit from White’s NBA experience at the FIBA World Cup in August and next year’s Olympics in Paris. The Boomers are looking to improve on their historic bronze medal at the Tokyo Olympics.

The Australian squad will be a mix of veterans, headed by Patty Mills, Joe Ingles and Matthew Dellavedova, and young guns White, Josh Giddey, Dyson Daniels and Josh Green.

“I want to be part of winning medals for Australia at the World Cup and Olympics,” says White, with his sights set on the top step of the podium.

“Our goal is to get gold at the World Cup and then have great momentum heading into the Olympics next year.”

While White is beloved by Malone and the Nuggets’ players, his NBA future is unclear. He will become a restricted free agent at the end of this championship series, meaning he will be able to consider offers from rival NBA teams, but Denver could keep him by matching the other teams’ offers.

White is unconcerned. This kid from country Victoria always seems to land on his feet, and that is what he is expecting for the next chapter of his career.

“I love Denver and hope to come back to the Nuggets, but we’ll see what happens,” he says.

“I’m confident that with the year that I’ve had, the work that I have put in and the way I have conducted myself, it will all work out well.”

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on June 3, 2023 as "White noise".

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