Coby White just turned 20 in February. But already, he’s one of the more electrifying young players in the NBA.
With a head of steam, he’s a blur. With an inch of space — off the dribble or catch — he’s a bucket. At 6-foot-4, he’s of great size at the point guard spot, and flashed rapidly improving ability as a ball-handler, playmaker and finisher through contact at the basket throughout his rookie season.
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All of the above was tangibly and spectacularly on display in a torrid 10-game stretch he ripped after the All-Star break. In that span, White averaged 24.7 points (second among rookies to only Zion Williamson) and 4.3 assists per game on 46.8-40.7-89.5 shooting splits in 33.7 minutes per night, and on 28.1% usage rate (first among rooks). He became the first rookie reserve in league history to record back-to-back 33-point outings. The Bulls’ net rating plunged by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with White off the floor, post-All-Star, with the offense, specifically, transforming from the equivalent of this year’s Clippers to the 2012 Bobcats when White sat. He made his first NBA start in the Bulls’ final game before the NBA went dark.
But before you hang his No. 0 from the United Center rafters, it’s of course important to consider the full picture. The first four months of White’s professional career were tumultuous. Entering the break, his minutes (24.3) and points (11.1) per game averages were pedestrian, and he ranked 261st in the NBA in true shooting (47.7%) and 257th in effective field goal percentage (45.2%) among players with more than 200 field goal attempts for the season. After logging four 20-point outings — one of which saw him smash the franchise record for 3s in a quarter — in the Bulls’ first 17 games, he notched just one between Nov. 23 and the All-Star break. Even in his deepest doldrums, he was a steady off-ball threat (36.2% on 3.4 catch-and-shoot 3s per game pre-All-Star break) and microwave scoring candidate on a night-to-night basis, but questions surrounding his consistency, defense and facilitating loomed.
Him shattering any rookie wall he may have encountered with expanded opportunity thus resonated all the more, and serves as a testament to White’s discipline and maturity. Throughout the season, head coach Jim Boylen personally sat with White for regular film sessions to pore over tape, sessions that Boylen often lauded White for and eventually credited in part for his breakout. Talk to anyone in the Bulls’ locker room about White and one thing becomes clear: He works.
Unfortunately, the league’s coronavirus-induced hiatus cut short his tenure as a starter after one game, which would have inarguably been the most compelling stretch-run storyline for the Bulls. Now, awaits an offseason to ponder: What is White’s ceiling? His true nature as a player likely lies somewhere between his pre- and post-All-Star self, but which is closer? A Bulls team in dire need of shot creation outside of Zach LaVine will pray the latter.
Here’s what NBC Sports NBA Insider Tom Haberstroh said on when asked what White’s ceiling is on the latest episode of the Bulls Talk Podcast:
“He really came on strong, as a teenager in the NBA, I didn’t think he had that last burst in him. I think he struggled early on just to get his feet wet, I don’t think the player alignments or lineup alignments helped him very much, but man, he was awesome. And I think he looked a lot like De’Aaron Fox, a guy who’s just explosive, a guy who’s fast, up-tempo, plays in a system where you just want to get him the ball and let him run.
“I’m not so sure if he’s Russell Westbrook-level yet, but I think potential All-Star is what I would say for Coby White. When you have that kind of scoring tact in the league where you just have that instinct, you have the size — and he’s gonna fill out — the speed. He just reminds me a lot of De’Aaron Fox, and he’s not an All-Star yet, but he’s still very young in the league. And when you’re talking about a 19-year-old who’s able to do the things Coby White did, he’s got a very bright future.”
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In Fox and Westbrook lie intriguing comparisons. White projects to be a much more reliable outside shooter than both, and by a fair margin. But even thinking ahead, Fox owns a marked edge on the defensive end, and Westbrook as both an all-around playmaker and explosively athletic marvel capable of being the center of a successful offense. Though White’s finishing improved drastically over the course of the season (his restricted area field goal percentage improved every month from November to February), both Fox and Westbrook are prolific around the basket — like, two of the best five guard finishers in the league prolific.
What all three possess is game-breaking burst, and White’s ability to snatch rebounds and spark the break is especially tantalizing, given his superlative size and quick-twitch shot release. He competes hard defensively, lending credence to the theory he can continue making up ground on that end in time. And as his playmaking progresses, the natural gravity he commands because of all of the above skills could unlock new levels to his individual game and the Bulls’ offense, in general.
Are all of those tools packaged with White’s cool-headed mentality enough to warrant All-Star consideration one day? Maybe it’s too early to say so declaratively. But given what we’ve seen, it’s never too soon to dream.
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