IOWA CITY — Aaron White plays with a level of insecurity that befits a role player, not a star.
White, a freshman forward, developed a chip-on-the-shoulder mentality in high school when he was under-recruited in Strongsville, Ohio, a Cleveland suburb. Mid-major basketball programs like George Mason loved him, but White wanted the Big Ten. Until Iowa offered him a scholarship before his senior season, White was left wondering what else he needed to do to garner attention.
It’s a feeling he remembers every time he suits up for the Hawkeyes.
“I didn’t really realize why a lot of people didn’t offer me, especially from like the Big Ten,” White said. “But I think I’ve taken advantage of that, my opportunity I’ve gotten here.
“I think about that every time I take the floor. People just overlooked me all throughout high school. They even did at the beginning of this year. That’s in the back of my mind.”
Nobody overlooks White any longer. He’s everywhere. He’s earned three Big Ten Freshman of the Week honors so far this year. He leads the Hawkeyes in rebounding (5.3 a game) and is third in scoring at 10.3 points a game.
White also is versatile. Against Penn State on Feb. 4, he scored 17 points, grabbed nine rebounds, had four blocks, three blocks and two steals. White followed that performance with a 17-point, 12-rebound effort in a loss at Northwestern.
“I love that kid,” Penn State Coach Patrick Chambers said. “He’s an energizer bunny. He’s got a high motor. We all love that terminology, and he plays great defense. He rebounds the ball. I don’t know if kids today understand the value of rebounding, but obviously coaches do. So does Aaron White.”
His versatility reflects his statistics. Against Penn State he knocked down two 3-pointers and had two dunks. He scored seven field goals against Northwestern, two of which were 3-pointers. He can score inside or outside and at 6-foot-8, he’s a handful to defend.
“He does everything pretty well, I would say,” Northwestern Coach Bill Carmody said. “He’s a pretty good passer. He can make a long-range shot. He really attacks the offensive board, which we’ve seen pretty much all year long. He’s pretty comfortable any place on the court when he has the basketball, I’d say. Inside, outside, passing, shooting and putting it on the ground a little bit, too. He can take a few dribbles and get to the hole, too. So he’s a very good all-around player and I think will only get better.”
So how did a deceptively quick and versatile forward escape a major Midwestern metro area without receiving a scholarship offer in that region? To Iowa Coach Fran McCaffery, it doesn’t matter. Iowa assistant Sherman Dillard “really loved” White in AAU ball and suggested McCaffery take a look. McCaffery soon grew interested in White.
McCaffery said it became a progression for both he and White to find a comfort level with one another during the recruiting process. McCaffery wanted to make sure White, a native Ohioan, was interested in Iowa.
“Then it just looked more and more like we had a pretty good shot,” McCaffery said. “And then when he called to say he was coming, I thought, ‘This is a big step for us.’”
White’s Iowa career started auspiciously. He became the first Iowa freshman since Dick Ives in 1943 to score 19 points in a season opener. White also was the first freshman to record a double-double in his debut since Dean Oliver in 1997.
Then he hit a few road blocks. His conditioning wavered at times, and he never exceeded 21 minutes in the team’s first 12 games. So White stepped up his intensity in workouts, and his playing time increased. Against Penn State he played 32 minutes and jumped to 35 against Northwestern.
“He’s a guy that’s a gym rat, but at the same time he’s talented,” Iowa senior Matt Gatens said. “That’s two great combinations.”
White bonded with Gatens during the summer Prime Time League, and the two rode together to games. Gatens calls White “a basketball junkie” and said the ‘sky’s the limit’ for the ginger-haired freshman.
“I mean, he can play in the NBA,” McCaffery said. “So he certainly can play in the Big Ten.”
That’s something White knew in high school, that he could compete in the nation’s top conference. Even now, as opposing coaches are praising him, White recalls the days when few schools scouted him and he was looking for attention.
“It’s still in the back of my mind so it hasn’t worn off for me,” White said. “I’m sure it does for some, but I’m always going to play with a chip on my shoulder, a little bit of an underdog. I embrace that role.”