As the elevator doors opened into the lobby of the Delta London Armouries, Royce White's hand was already extending in a friendly greeting. Dressed for practice at the adjacent YMCA rather than the typical New Year's Eve attire, White's laugh draws attention as his performance in the previous night's game is mentioned.
"Everything needs a narrative arc. So the narrative on me is that I must be rusty," White says. "But you look at 14 (points), nine (rebounds), and six (assists), is that rust? And if that's rust, then what am I like without it? Am I bronze with rust, or am I a diamond with scuffs? We should discuss that."
White's confidence is sky high following his second game with the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada, because White's confidence is always sky high. Through his long journey in and out of professional basketball, the two constants have been his advocacy for better mental health policies in the NBA and his belief that he could—and should—be playing there under one.
READ MORE: Chris Bosh Changed the NBA, and Belongs in the Basketball Hall of Fame
"Am I capable of playing at that level? Of course, it's not even arguable. Am I capable of playing at a high level at that level? Of course, it's not even arguable," White says. "One thing that don't lie is footage. Basketball is highly circumstantial. A lot of people don't understand that, that are watching the game from a fan's perspective. You drop me and Draymond (Green) in a gym right now, we've probably developed quite similarly. The same players that we were in college, we're probably much more efficient and know the game better, but we're not much different, you know what I'm saying?
"I'm just giving context as to why it's not even an argument whether I could play in that league and whether I'm good enough. The question really should be 'Why am I not?'"
Why he's not is a story that's gone somewhat forgotten over the last couple of years. A No. 16 overall pick of the Houston Rockets in the 2012 NBA Draft, White's battle with generalized anxiety disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder was initially well-publicized. But after being traded, waived, and then signed and let go again over the course of two NBA seasons, White's been somewhat out-of-sight, out-of-mind for the basketball world.
The NBL season marks his return to professional basketball, and expecting some rust to his game was completely reasonable. It's been more than two-and-a-half years since White last played in an NBA or D-League game, and it's been over a year since he suited up at the NBA's Summer League. He's no stranger to long layoffs—it was 631 days after the draft when he made his NBA debut, and he missed two college seasons before landing at Iowa State in his draft year—but that's a lot of downtime.
On top of the layoff he joined the Lightning just two weeks before the season began (following some time off for a badly sprained ankle suffered in a Pro-Am game) and he's still getting up to speed. A team video session VICE sits in on includes head coach Kyle Julius pointing out several things to his highest-level pupil, and White is both an eager listener and a boisterous participant in drills as the Lightning later run through the sets of their next opponent, the Windsor Express.
"It's been tough for Royce," Julius explains. "He hasn't played for so long, he gets here a week into camp, everybody already knows each other, we've already put stuff in, these guys have been here a long time training, so I can see the adjustment period. But, man, the steps he has taken in the three weeks (are) pretty incredible for a guy who hasn't played in so long. We're impressed."
Julius has quickly leaned on White as a leader, both in terms of the locker room and on the court. There probably isn't a player in the NBL with White's pedigree, and so White's claim that he could be a diamond when the rust, if it exited, wore off, seems prophetic.
The Lightning are off to a 7-3 start, and White's been at the forefront. He recorded two triple-doubles in his first 10 contests, doing so in back-to-back games. He's averaging a robust 17.3 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 7.3 assists, numbers he's putting up with just a 23.9-percent usage rate. He owns a 58.2 true-shooting percentage, and the Lightning are outscoring opponents by 14.1 points per-100 possessions when he's on the floor. Things aren't perfect—he's been a bit foul prone and is turning the ball over more than three times per game—but he's been one of the five best players in the NBL so far, if not the best.
Even with the early success, he knows the qualifiers that will be used if people see his eye-popping stat lines.
"There will be all kinds of talk about, 'Oh well if he plays well in Canada, it's the NBL in Canada, so what does that really mean?'" White predicts. "Just like when I was playing well in the D-League, 'Well you're supposed to do that in the D-League.'
"The truth is that talent exists independently of words, and I'm one of the best basketball players on the planet. No amount of words can change that, no opinions can change that, no circumstance can change that."
White, 25, knew that would be the case going in, but it didn't deter him in his decision to choose the NBL. The obvious expectation is that his return to pro ball indicates a desire to return to the NBA, and while that's on White's mind from a competitive perspective, the Lightning seemed like a fit beyond the idea that they're some sort of launching pad.
Team owner Vito Frijia, a highly successful businessman and local basketball royalty, was instrumental in bringing White in, and the two hit it off on a non-basketball front. London's small-town-big-city vibe spoke to White, too. (That the NBL schedule will only require flight twice all season is a minor positive, too, though White's aversion to flying is something he feels has always been an overstated and oversimplified aspect of his story.)
"It was community-based," White says of his decision. "I came and met with coach, I came and met with the owner, and some of the people in the community. Had some great conversations, not only about basketball and the Lightning, but about Canada. It felt right, and it is right for right now. It's very right for me, it's another spark to the journey that's already been happening."
More importantly than anything else, though, White just wanted to get back on the floor.
"Me getting back to the NBA and playing is more just about my love for the game and playing," White says. "As much as I love the work that I do as an advocate, and as much as I love the work that I do on the entrepreneur side, there's still something you can't simulate with that type of fierce competition and camaraderie as a sports team."
That desire to play is what drew Julius to White in the first place, and in asking around the NBA and college ranks for a better sense of White's character, the coach came away impressed. As the Lightning take aim at their third NBL championship, White figures to be a major factor.
"I'm a guy who really loves the game," Julius says. "You can kind of see it in other people, and it's really easy to not see it in other people. I see it with him. He's been one of our hardest workers. He comes early, he stays late. That's a big deal."
White's focus is on the court and on the Lightning, but it's hard not to look at his performance through the lens of its potential to lead him back to the NBA. White is steadfast that he won't be less of an advocate just to get back in the door, and his frustration with the league he feels he should be playing in remains palpable years later.
Even in helping the Lightning fight for a championship, White is continuing his fight to at least revisit how his NBA career played out.
"Just because the NBA hasn't allowed me to this point to prove that I can play on the same court as LeBron and be productive, or Draymond Green or Kevin Durant or whoever, has no bearing on whether or not it's true or I can," he says. "So I'm excited about that, because the more I go out there and play and be productive now, the more it's gonna put a spotlight on that conversation.
"And we'll have to have that conversation truthfully."