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July 02, 2012
In a draft with only one sure thing, a top prospect's mental disorder raises the question, How much risk are teams willing to accept?
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July 02, 2012

The Mystery Pick Is Royce White

In a draft with only one sure thing, a top prospect's mental disorder raises the question, How much risk are teams willing to accept?

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Given that the lower stratosphere serves as the modern NBA's freeway, White's anxiety ranks as the most pressing matter teams make calls about. Hoiberg points out that White flew on all but three of Iowa State's road trips (including to a preseason tour in Italy); his grandfather drove him for the others. In those cases, White says, his goal was to give the team "the best version of me" in must-win games.

In sit-downs with White, however, NBA officials have warned that the pros will be less accommodating. The Heat told him that he wouldn't be allowed to drive even the four hours to Orlando. "It's understandable," White says. "But in my head, I'm going, You want me to drive. You're paying me millions of dollars to perform.... We're not all alike."

Beyond anxiety, in fact, White also deals with obsessive compulsive tendencies—undiagnosed, yes, but, after a guided tour of his apartment, exceedingly obvious. "OCD is like my gift," he says, smiling. White alphabetizes his DVD rack; symmetrically arranges his throw pillows; incessantly straightens his black-and-white framed posters of the Beatles and Muhammad Ali; and only sets his phone and wallet down at right angles. And then there's the five-shelf shoe rack in his bedroom. "If I'm walking and bump a shoe," White says, gesturing in front of the immaculate footwear, "it might take me three minutes to redo all this."

It was his OCD, White notes, that compelled him to right every crooked note and learn how to compose music in the first place. After withdrawing from Minnesota in February 2010—and spending two months working and sleeping in music studios around South Minneapolis—White and a friend put together drafts of more than 200 songs. "I'm kind of impulsive," White says, "and OCD is the thing God built in for me so I'll always finish things." He's written everything from movie scripts (one is about a city built around windmills) to business plans, outlining the structure of his enterprises (including a record label named IAMU). Where does he find the time? "I play sports all day," White says. "The last thing I want to do is watch them."

The most famous movie White has made is a YouTube video that he uploaded after 3 a.m. on Dec. 17, 2009. In it a hometown hero announces that he is retiring from basketball, a decision driven by two plot twists: an arrest for trying to shoplift $100 worth of clothes from the Macy's at the Mall of America (White pleaded guilty to theft and disorderly conduct); and a university probe into a stolen laptop that indefinitely extended his shoplifting suspension without producing anything besides a trespassing charge to which he pleaded guilty. "I'm a totally different human being now," says White, who had also been booted out of his first high school, DeLaSalle, for academic misconduct before his senior year. "I was partying a lot. I was too into myself. I wasn't being cautious."

In April 2009, for instance, he threw himself an 18th birthday party at a nightclub in Minneapolis, posting a flyer that said, BUY A DRINK, GET A DRINK ON ME. Conversely: This April, for his 21st, White leveraged his celebrity in Ames to hold a nonalcoholic party that raised nearly $3,000 for Orchard Place, a local nonprofit center devoted to kids with emotional and behavioral issues. "Ames," White says, "gave me a chance to find out who I am."

And when it comes to his sins, he takes ownership. "I don't blame anything on my mental illness," he says. "You rob a bank, you don't blame it on cancer. It's still your choice."

After unbanishing himself from hoops in the spring of 2010—"I wanted to prove to myself that I could be one of the best players in the country," he says—White chose Iowa State over Kentucky, primarily because he wanted to remain close to Angelic Aguilar, who would give birth to Royce Alexander White II the following February. Away from home for the first time, becoming a father while sitting out the season in Ames as a transfer, White embarked on a period of unsparing self-examination. Without basketball his interests in writing, music, business and philanthropy bloomed. "I needed something drastic to change how I was thinking," White says. "Being just another athlete wasn't my calling." His onetime superiors have taken note. His coach at Hopkins, Ken Novak, says, "I'd trust Royce with my bank account." Minnesota coach Tubby Smith gushes, "I'd take him in a heartbeat."

When White returned to the court, Hoiberg discovered that the forward had the skill, vision and selflessness to play the point—and relied on him for everything. "No, I don't think he'll ever be a knockdown shooter," Hoiberg concedes, but no matter: In February, White took all of one shot amid a flood of Oklahoma double teams, finishing with seven assists in a 77--70 win. In a 77--64 first-round NCAA tournament defeat of UConn, he grabbed the first rebound of the game, crossed over likely top 10 pick Drummond and went coast to coast for a slam. The next game, an 87--71 loss to Kentucky in which White had 23 points, nine rebounds and four assists, sent him to the NBA for good. Davis would allow that "Royce was beating us by himself"—outrunning the likely No. 1 selection down the floor, abusing lottery lock Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with spin moves, besieging the rim.

In the end, zero projected top 15 picks agreed to work out against White for NBA teams. Doing so would be best described as high risk, low reward.

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