The three-inch scar on the left side of D.J. White’s neck, nestled just below his swollen jaw, might someday fade away. For now, the mark left by the doctor’s incision serves as a daily reminder of the Thunder forward’s lost rookie season. White, the 29th overall pick in last year’s NBA Draft, has been sidelined all season after undergoing surgery to remove a benign growth in his jaw. And with 21 games remaining, it’s beginning to look like White will miss the entire year, turning what should have been a dream come true into an unimaginable nightmare. White has a doctor’s appointment scheduled for March 16. Only then will he know if he’ll be cleared to resume full-contact practice and possibly be able to join his Thunder teammates for the home stretch. White is hoping for the best. But he’s prepared for the worst. “When (the injury) first came up, it was a four-to-six month recovery time, so it’s no sense of getting my hopes up,” White said. “But I still workout and prepare as if that chance will come, so I’ll be ready. So I’m prepared, but I won’t be down.” White, an admittedly light-hearted guy, refuses to allow himself to wallow in sorrow. He admits that at times this season he’s given in to thoughts of, ‘Why me?” But he’s made the best of a bad situation through a positive attitude that focuses on the future. “I look at it as something that I couldn’t control,” White said. “It’s no reason to be down and sad and moping around. I’m really myself all the time, just happy. I’m just ready to get out there.” Doctors performed two surgeries on White, the first on Oct. 13 to remove the growth from his jaw and the second on Jan. 4 to take a bone graft from the right side of his hip and mend the bone in his jaw. The left side of White’s jaw has been swollen throughout much of the season. He hasn’t practiced with his teammates since voluntary workouts before the start of training camp. His last game was a first-round loss to Arkansas in the NCAA Tournament on March 21. On top of making the normal adjustments to the NBA, White has had to wear rubber bands in his mouth to keep him from opening his jaws too wide and has been limited in his food intake. While his teammates partake in playful ribbing before games, White generally has been seen sitting solitary at his locker with an ice pack pressed against his face. “Those are all things that can wear on you mentally,” said Thunder coach Scott Brooks. “I really don’t know how he’s doing it. I don’t know if I could have done it. I don’t know if 90 percent of the league could do what he’s done. It’s a testament to his character. “I love that kid. I love his spirit. I love the way he thinks about the game and cares about the game. It’s unfortunate that he had this setback. But if anybody can handle it, he can. That kid is top notch off the court.” White labeled his injury a “humbling” experience. “Every day people take stuff for granted, just going out there and playing,” White said. “And then you realize how much you miss it when you’re sitting out. That’s one thing I’ve learned, just how much I miss basketball.” White can only run, shoot and lift weights while adhering to doctor’s orders to avoid drills that could lead to a blow to the face. But players and coaches that saw the 6-foot-9, 250-pound White at full strength in the Orlando Summer League in July and during voluntary workouts in September describe him as a versatile forward who can rebound, block shots and consistently knock down jump shots out to 20 feet. White was named Big Ten Player of the Year during his senior season at Indiana after averaging 17.4 points, 10.3 rebounds and 1.6 blocked shots while shooting 60.5 percent from the field. “He’s very athletic, and he’s very active, especially on the boards,” said rookie guard Russell Westbrook, who teamed with White during summer league play. “He can score and bring people out to the elbow. He’s going to be a good asset for us, especially rebounding and blocking shots.” Nick Collison compared White to Dallas’ Brandon Bass and Detroit’s Jason Maxiell, but White said he feels he has a superior perimeter game and better ball-handling ability than those fourth-year forwards. “We think very highly of him here, and we could use him here,” said Kevin Durant. “I think sometimes he might feel like he’s letting the team down because he doesn’t play. But we know that this is a serious injury for him and that it’s going to take time for him to get back.” In the meantime, White said he’s soaking up as much as he can about the NBA, analyzing players’ tendencies and observing his teammates to see what it takes to mentally and physically prepare for an 82-game season. “I know it’s still going to be a learning process (when he returns), but I think from watching it and seeing everything that will help me out. “This first year in the league has been a lifelong dream. But to come out of the tunnel and finally be able to get on the court, that’ll be big.”
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