White has extra motivation to make NBA dreams become reality

Five years ago, Aaron White was at a crossroads, staring a major life decision in the face and unsure how to proceed. The decision: where he would spend the next four years of his life, earning a college degree and playing basketball.

A long list of suitors had been whittled to two final choices. White’s father Rick suggested writing them on a piece of paper and listing the pros and cons of each.

One was Duquesne. The other was Iowa.

White had been heavily recruited out of Strongsville, Ohio, which is near Cleveland and in the heart of Big Ten country. He would have given anything to play at Ohio State, but then, as now, Buckeye coach Thad Matta liked big men who are actually big, like the 6-foot-9, 280-pound Jared Sullinger, who was then a freshman. Fully clothed and wringing wet, the 6-foot-8 White might have pushed the scale to 200 pounds.

At his size, most of White’s offers came from Mid-American or Atlantic 10 schools. But when Iowa coach Fran McCaffery, acting on some astute advice from White’s AAU coach, extended a scholarship offer, White had a chance to realize his dream of playing in the Big Ten.

Still, White was conflicted. Thus he found himself pouring over that sheet of paper, looking at what he’d written under the names of his final two schools and trying to make up his mind.

“My dad had me write down everything, including the entire roster and the coaches of both teams,” White said. “It would have been pretty easy for me to pick Duquesne. There was nobody in front of me [at his position]; I would have played right away. Duquesne was only two hours from my hometown, versus nine hours for Iowa.”

In the end, the lure of the Big Ten won out, and White chose Iowa. It didn’t hurt that one of his high school teammates, Ray Hamilton, was going there to play football. The fact McCaffery really wanted him, and that he would fit perfectly into the coach’s system, played an important part as well.

Little could White know at the time how much that decision would alter his life, beginning with his first few days on campus during the summer of 2011. That’s when, at the behest of Hamilton, he met Grace Burns, an Iowa volleyball player. White and Burns have been together ever since, and in early March they announced they were expecting their first child. That unborn baby, in turn, has given the hard-working White an even greater sense of purpose as he prepares himself for the NBA Draft.

White is showing up in most mock drafts as a second-round pick. He’s determined to boost his stock, which means he’s working on jump shot mechanics, improving his lateral quickness and getting stronger. By the time the 2015-16 NBA season rolls around, he’ll have a family to support.

“I’ve always viewed myself as a hard worker,” White said. “But now, when I think about what’s on the line … If you’re tired, and you don’t want to go to workouts, you think about [his child] and it gives you extra motivation. I’ve always dreamed of playing in the NBA anyway. This is extra motivation.”

At least one other person besides White thought he had what it takes to play at the game’s highest level. White ended up at Iowa because of his former AAU coach, Michael Duncan. When McCaffery began recruiting White, he asked Duncan for his take on the scrawny, but skilled and cerebral youngster. McCaffery was taken aback by Duncan’s response.

“Mike Duncan is one of the good guys,” McCaffery said, laughing at the recollection of that conversation. “He’s also one of the straightest shooters you’ll ever meet. And he told me, ‘I think Aaron’s a pro.’ And I thought, Mike’s had a few pros over the years. If he thinks this kid is good enough to play in the NBA, that’s good enough for me.”

Duncan’s faith in White begged the question. What did he see in his player that every Big Ten coach save McCaffery, actually every other power conference coach, missed?

“It was his work ethic,” Duncan said. “I’ve had Ruben Patterson, Earl Boykins, Eric Snow. I’ve coached almost 25 pros. Aaron’s work ethic sets him apart. He reminds me of James Posey. When Posey came up, he got no respect. Nothing. So he was always out to prove something.

“Aaron’s just like that. This kid just stayed in the gym. So yeah, I told coach McCaffery that Aaron’s gonna be a pro. Because of his work ethic. Because of his determination.”

White instinctively knew that hard work would take him where he wanted to go.

“I don’t fit the mold,” White said. “I don’t look as athletic as I probably play. I don’t play like other guys. Mike Duncan had confidence in me, and gave me every opportunity to succeed. I’ve been lucky and blessed to have people like him in my life.”

The same could be said for McCaffery, who quickly realized White was every bit the hard worker Duncan said he was.

“We knew after 10 days,” McCaffery said. “Our new practice facility opened the summer he first got here. He was here 10 days and he’d already gotten 15,000 shots up.”

McCaffery turned White loose from his first season and watched a first-team All-Big Ten player emerge. By the time White was finished, he was the only player in Iowa history to piled up more than 1,800 points and 900 rebounds. This season, White was the only player in Division I to average at least 16 points and seven rebounds while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and 80 percent from the free-throw line.

But more important to White than personal numbers was the evolution of his team. The Hawkenes were 11-20 the season before White arrived, but improved to 18-17 the next year and advanced to the second round of the NIT. They were 25-13 and NIT runner-ups White’s second year. And the last two seasons, they broke through to the NCAA Tournament. Thanks to White’s strong play down the stretch in March, Iowa finished 12-6 and tied for third in the Big Ten, more than good enough to claim an at-large bid. Iowa advanced to the third round.

“Aaron was the perfect fit for our style,” McCaffery said. “And our style was the perfect fit for him.”

Not that McCaffery featured White. It was more a matter of letting White, with his athleticism and instinct for always being around the ball, go about his business.

“His numbers are astronomical,” McCaffery said. “We didn’t run many plays for him. He just scores. He steals the ball and gets a run-out breakaway. He’s a great motion player on back cuts and curl cuts. He can rip and one-dribble dunk from the 3-point line. We did post him up periodically, but a lot of what he accomplished, he did with his skill set.”

Accompanying that skill set was a rare understanding of the game honed through years of watching game tape, from college and the NBA. White even watches post-game press conferences and absorbs the players’ responses. Who does that?

“Some of the game’s superstars, they have a different way of understanding the game,” White said. “It’s interesting to hear what guys like LeBron and Kobe think. You can learn a lot, just by listening to the best players in the world.”

The final ingredient that made White a great college player and has taken him to the brink of the NBA is all but invisible to the naked eye, certainly not as spectacular as a rip and one-dribble dunk from the 3-point line.

“When you look at athletes, not only basketball, but in any given sport, they have physical attributes that even a layman can pick up on,” said Iowa assistant coach Sherman Dillard. “But I don’t think anyone can really accurately measure someone’s heart, and what’s between someone’s ears.

“Watching Aaron as many times as we evaluated him, things just stood out—feel for the game was one, and he’s always had somewhat of a chip on his shoulder. I don’t know if it’s the reverse of a Napoleon complex or similar, where people doubt you all the time and you spend your whole life trying to prove people wrong.”

White has done that at every level, and he intends to keep on doing it in the NBA. Hard work has been his calling card, but he also believes in fate, that certain events in his life seemed preordained.

“No doubt in my mind things happen for a reason,” White said, “that people are placed in your life for a reason. There’s a reason I’m having a baby at this time, and not five months earlier or later. God works in mysterious ways, and puts challenges in front of your to teach you things. There was a reason Iowa was the only Big Ten school that offered me.

“There was something about Iowa, something in my heart and in my gut, that was telling me I should come here. There was a reason, and a bigger picture. For me, my decision couldn’t have worked out any better.”

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