On March 10, Coby White turned back time.
“From North Carolina...” boomed throughout the United Center during starting lineup introductions. The rookie’s first NBA start raised memories of happier times, when those words preceded Michael Jordan’s introduction and thunderous applause followed.
White’s 20 points, five rebounds and five assists brought plenty of applause during the Bulls’ home victory over the Cavaliers. His nine turnovers underscored the development the 20-year-old still needs. But, oh, the potential and promise.
The next night, the NBA shut down.
Thanks to the uncertainty of the COVID-19 pandemic, nobody knows when the league, and society, will try to achieve normalcy again. Whenever that begins, the Bulls’ roster will remain filled with players long on potential and promise, and short on impacting winning basketball.
That’s why we polled media members and fans for which Bull owns the highest upside on a roster that hasn’t exited the crawling stages of a full rebuild. Earning 57 percent of the vote in each, White proved the big winner, which seemed fitting since his record as a starter is 1-0.
At 26 percent, Zach LaVine finished second among the nearly 3,000 votes from fans. Lauri Markkanen registered at 10 percent and Wendell Carter Jr. at 7 percent.
Flip Markkanen for LaVine in regard to media voting. Amazingly, White and Carter drew the same percentage from a poll of nearly 30 reporters. But local and national reporters cited Markkanen for second place at 25 percent and LaVine for third place at 11 percent.
Here’s what Warriors Insider Monte Poole from NBC Sports Bay Area said when choosing White: “Two attributes. One, hunger. Two, fearlessness. He’s cut from ambitious cloth.”
And indeed, White’s ability to produce huge scoring flurries — some, even on off nights until then — stood out as his biggest strength until his consistent late-season tear. Consider: White produced eight 20-point games, including three over 30 points, in his final nine games after registering seven in his first 56.
In that nine-game stretch, White averaged 26.1 points, 4.4 assists and 4.2 rebounds while shooting 48.3 percent, including 43.2 percent from 3-point range (nine attempts per game).
“His age, potential as a scorer in this league and versatility — he’s 6-foot-4 and plays both guard positions and some small ball — give him a chance to be a really good player,” wrote NBC Sports Boston's Celtics Insider A. Sherrod Blakely.
Steve Popper, who covers the Knicks and the NBA for Newsday, covered the game in Chicago when White became the first rookie (and Bulls player) in league history to sink seven 3-pointers in a quarter. That White did so in the fourth quarter of a victory made it all the more memorable.
“It was just 11 games into his NBA career when he torched the Knicks for 27 points, hitting seven 3-point field goals. Did I mention that all seven 3-pointers were in the fourth quarter, spurring a 22-0 Bulls run?” Popper wrote. “After that game and when he scored 22 against them later in the season, players and coaches talked about how hard he was to stop — and that he's 19 years old.”
White turned 20 in February. But his future seems bright.
Despite an injury-riddled and underwhelming third season, Markkanen finished second in media voting.
“I’m still a believer,” wrote Fred Katz, who covers the Wizards for The Athletic. “Yes, he was ice cold to start the year and bounced in and out of his comfort zone throughout. But he was still a highly efficient scorer from December on. A 22-year-old with that size who can score in a multitude of ways is going to top my list.”
That’s the thing: Markkanen remains a 7-foot matchup nightmare at his best. Unfortunately, between injuries and usage, Markkanen didn’t reach his best as often in his third season as he did in his second.
Getting Markkanen back on track is essential to the Bulls’ rebuild getting off the ground. When the league shut down, Markkanen owned career-low scoring (14.7 points) and rebounding (6.3) averages, and was shooting a career-low 42.5 percent.
“Maybe I'm a sucker for ‘potential,’ which has burdened a lot of young players, and cost plenty of coaches and general managers their jobs. But through his first two seasons, Markkanen seemed to be on his way to a 20-10 player perfect for the modern NBA, based on his skills and being tougher than he looks,” wrote NBA.com’s Steve Aschburner, a longtime league observer. “Often, a player’s third season in the league is when he takes a big step up — or not — to tell us what he is. But in Markkanen’s case, his and the Bulls’ dysfunction conspired against him. I’m cutting him slack on 2019-20 and anticipating his breakthrough in 2020-21 (or whenever next season gets played).”
LaVine fared better among fan voting than media voting, but those who did vote for the Bulls’ leading scorer did so forcefully.
“There’s no player in the NBA I’d rather see on a winning team,” wrote NBC Sports Bay Area’s Kerith Burke. “Environment is everything.”
This point actually strikes to the crux of the LaVine debate. Is he miscast as a No. option? Is he an improving player who deserves better and would fit in on any winning team? Or is he an empty-stats stuffer whose advanced metrics don’t impact winning?
“He was an All-Star in my mind this year,” wrote Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher, another longtime league observer. “He's an electric inside-outside scorer and he's improving as a defender. He wants the ball with the game on the line. Considering he has played for five coaches in his six seasons, and still has grown as a player and developed into a quiet leader is remarkable.”
Bucher cited Carter as his runner-up. But ESPN.com’s Nick Friedell placed the young big man first.
“He can become a force defensively and he still has the ability to grow into a nice offensive player,” Friedell wrote. “He just has to be confident enough to shoot consistently again. The coaching staff — whomever that may be to start next season — has to help instill that confidence inside of him."
The wide range of responses points to perhaps the biggest issue regarding the rebuild, as Los Angeles Times NBA writer Dan Woike elucidated.
“This is a fascinating question because, to me, it underscores the Bulls’ biggest problem. Of the young players they've amassed, there isn't a clear favorite to break out,” he wrote. “I think what we saw from Coby White in his last nine games puts him to the top of the list for me. He's dynamic, aggressive, and so far, durable. His speed is a difference-making quality, and while I still think Lauri has a chance to be really good, I'm just not sure what he does that makes him different.”
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