A degree equals free agency in college basketball, but Paul White declined his option.
White is not guaranteed to be in the starting lineup as a senior for Oregon and could see his minutes decrease with the addition of two five-star freshmen in the frontcourt.
It was a similar scenario last year for Casey Benson, who left Oregon following a Final Four run to play his final season for Grand Canyon University near his hometown of Tempe, Ariz.
White, a Chicago native, might have drawn interest from Illinois, which needs to replace three starters. Loyola, last year’s Final Four surprise, likely would have gone after a 6-foot-9 forward who averaged 9.4 points and 3.5 rebounds per game in the Pac-12.
“This is the place for me and I didn’t want to get up and try to learn a whole new system and play for a new coach,” said White, who graduated from UO with a Bachelor of Science in Sociology. “I’m just fine where I’m at.”
While outsiders have pegged Oregon with a youthful front line featuring 7-2 freshman Bol Bol flanked by freshman Louis King and sophomore Kenny Wooten, Dana Altman wants a veteran to balance out that group.
“Paul wants to have a good year and I sure hope he does because we need him to,” Altman said. “We need his experience. I think he’s versatile enough that he could play a lot of different roles for us.”
White started 24 of 33 games last year while playing at the ‘4’ and ‘5’ spots alongside Wooten and MiKyle McIntosh. With Bol, Wooten, and freshman Francis Okoro capable of filling most of the minutes at those positions, White spent the summer expanding his range.
“I got a chance to work on my perimeter skills which I think is going to come in handy since I don’t have to play center anymore,” he said. “Things have been starting to come pretty fluid for me. I am getting back into that versatile perimeter skill set I had coming into Oregon.”
White was a top-50 recruit coming out of high school when he signed with Georgetown. He was a regular in the rotation as a freshman before his sophomore season ended after seven games due to abdominal injury.
After transferring to Oregon, White sat out a season before averaging 23.4 minutes per game as a junior. White shot 47.2 percent from the floor, including 35.2 on three-pointers, while ranking fourth on the team with 1.5 assists per game.
“I think Paul has always been a perimeter guy, last year he was playing out of position,” UO point guard Payton Pritchard said. “He is a high IQ player who can play a lot of positions with his size.”
With King expected to miss at least the first month of the season as he recovers from a torn meniscus suffered in high school, White figures to start at the ‘3’ when Oregon opens the season on Nov. 6 against Portland State.
“I think coach will be able to use me in a lot of different positions,” White said. “I’m sure I’ll play the wing some, maybe bring the ball up at times, who knows. I am looking forward to taking on that burden and being the Swiss Army knife for the team.”
White, who is in the Masters program for Planning, Public Policy, and Management, joked about being the “wise, old sage” for the Ducks as he tutors four freshmen and two sophomores in his position group.
“I love playing that role,” he said. “Getting those guys adjusted to college and not just basketball, but stepping into an adult life now knowing you don’t have your parents here anymore. As far as basketball, I’m helping them with defensive schemes and understanding how vital the small details are.”
White acknowledged leadership was lacking last year when the Ducks finished 23-13 with a senior class that included one-year grad transfers Elijah Brown and McIntosh, seldom-used forward Roman Sorkin, and walk-on Evan Gross.
“We couldn’t designate who the leaders should be,” White said. “Payton was the most experienced player, but he was a sophomore among fifth-year guys. Sometimes it got rough when people needed to look for leadership.”
Oregon returns to a natural order of leadership with its two most experienced players having earned those roles on and off the court.
“Payton and Paul are our two starters back, so especially early, those guys have really got to carry us,” Altman said.
Wooten labeled White as Oregon’s most improved player entering the season.
“Offensively, he had to step up and we really needed that leader for our team,” he added.
White helped Georgetown reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament as a freshman before losing to Utah in Portland. He sat out a redshirt season when Oregon reached the Final Four two years ago and then returned to the court when the Ducks snapped a five-year run of NCAA appearances.
“I’ve only physically been to the NCAA Tournament once and that was my freshman year, so this has been a long time coming,” White said. “I am ready to get this started. I think I’ve improved, but I’m willing to let the results speak for themselves.”