The Bulls entered Thursday night’s NBA Draft with a clear need at point guard. The position has been a revolving door for three seasons, with players like Jerian Grant, Michael-Carter Williams, Kris Dunn and Antonio Blakeney making starts in the post-Derrick Rose era. In fact, nine different players have started a game at point guard for the Bulls since the start of the 2016-17 season, and all have failed in one way or another to stake their claim as the point guard of the future.
So when the Bulls stayed put at No. 7 and selected North Carolina’s Coby White, it marked a change in philosophy in how the franchise is going about the position. Forget passing numbers, assist totals and floor general clichés: The NBA is a scoring league and versatility has never been as important as it is right now. White isn’t a natural point guard, and the Bulls don’t want him to be one.
John Paxson spoke with reporters for 21 minutes and not once did he mention White as needing to be a pure point guard. In fact, his first mention of White in his opening statements referred to the 6-foot-5 freshman as a “point guard-shooting guard” and someone who “can score, and you have to score in this day and age.”
White was adamant at last month’s NBA Draft Combine about referring to himself as a point guard. It was almost certainly a bit of posturing on his and his agent’s end, as point guards continue to gain importance in today’s NBA. But the reality of White’s style and game is that he’s far from a traditional point guard, and that’s just fine for what the Bulls want to do.
It’s an admittedly small sample size, but in White’s lone season at North Carolina he had a pedestrian 24.2% assist rate – 4.1 assists per game in North Carolina’s up-tempo offense that was the fastest among Power 5 schools – and his pick-and-roll numbers were middle of the pack among all college players. White tallied eight assists on three different occasions, but more frequent were his eight 20-point games; in those contests he topped out at six assists, averaging his season average of 4.1 helpers.
Where White left something to be desired as a traditional point guard, he flourished a scorer. He shot 35.3% from beyond the arc, including an eight-game stretch in late February and March in which he shot 38% on 8.0 attempts per game and averaged 18.9 points.
He was one of the country’s best catch-and-shoot shooters, ranking in the 93rd percentile in terms of points per possession. He also averaged 1.286 points per finishing opportunities in the half court, which placed him in the 79th percentile nationally. He has a strong, 6-foot-5 frame that should allow him to finish at the rim, whether it comes with the ball in his hands or as a slasher on the wing.
Speed kills, and White used it to his advantage with the Tar Heels. His raw numbers weren’t all that impressive as he finished in the 41st percentile nationally in points per transition possessions, and his 19.1% turnover rate on those actions was glaringly high.
But White also mentioned on Thursday in speaking with local reporters that he’s focused on improving the way he changes his speeds throughout the course of a game. Again, we’re talking about a 19-year-old who was asked to engineer a high-octane offense that pushed pace whenever it could. At times he was too fast for his own good, and slowing down when necessary will be part of his maturation process.
“The way we want to play is, you have to play faster in today’s game. You have to get the ball up the floor. This young man can play an up-tempo game,” Paxson said. “Jim has spoken often about how we want to have multiple ball handlers, guys who can take the ball off the board and push it up. Coby can run. He can shoot.
“Lead guards tend to score and do a lot of things on the floor,” Paxson added. “We think he has the ability to score, handle. He’s quick, fast, has positional size…that we really liked and brings a lot of intangibles.”
White has been asked to score his entire basketball life. He set the North Carolina high school scoring record by tallying 3,573 points, and he was more a scorer than a facilitator with the Tar Heels.
And those intangibles Paxson mentioned can’t be understated. White, a true freshman, shared the court with a Tar Heels lineup that included three seniors and a sophomore. White won the starting point guard role – something he’ll have to do this fall – and never looked back, starting all 35 games. White shouldn’t have any issues entering a lineup that includes veteran Otto Porter and bright young pieces in Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine and Wendell Carter Jr.
There’s also optimism that he’ll grow under Jim Boylen. White mentioned during his phone conversation with local reporters that he had an excellent meeting with Jim Boylen as part of his interview with the Bulls on Saturday. Paxson reiterated the importance of that interaction.
“What he did was he took film of Coby – some good, some not-so-good – and sat with him and went through the film and talked to him about it,” Paxson said. “It was from what both of them described, Jim especially, it was just good basketball conversation.
“We had an opportunity to talk to Coby just a little while ago and Jim brought that up, and (White is) anxious for more. The great players want to learn, they want to be coached, they want to feel that you’re invested in them.”
White may never be a traditional point guard, or even someone who averages anywhere near six or seven assists per game. But the Bulls will live with that knowing they have a player who can score at the position, push pace and provide versatility. That last trait may be the most important. The Bulls’ carousel of point guards the last three years has been void of off-ball threats.
Of the starting point guards the last three seasons, they’ve combined to shoot 30.5% from beyond the arc on 3.02 attempts per game. Those are ghastly figures in a league that necessitates shooters at four, sometimes five, positions. White finally gives the Bulls, at the very least, a perimeter threat who should create more space for players like Markkanen and LaVine to attack.
“One of the things we like about Coby a lot is that he can play off the ball, and we talked a lot about the multiple ball handlers, that type of thing, and he’s a guy that can run, is fast, can spot up and shoot it,” Paxson said.
“We’re trying to build a team to play effectively in today’s modern game. That means versatility in a lot of different areas. So the fact that Coby can play both positions, in today’s game where you talked a lot about pure points, I don’t know how many pure points we really have anymore. Most really good point guards have an effective scoring component to them.”
Paxson said he envisions scenarios in which White is playing alongside Dunn – or whoever the Bulls bring in as a free agent this summer. The thought of Dunn, or any of the other eight point guards, playing off the ball would have been laughable. White brings something fresh to a Bulls offense that has ranked among the league’s worst each of the last two seasons.
The Bulls weren’t sure White – or Garland, for that matter – would fall to them at No. 7. But now that he’s on board, acting as a true combo guard who will get the opportunity to improve in natural point-guard tendencies, the Bulls have the next component of their rebuild.
“Coby being available for us, it obviously addresses something for us that I talked about at the end of the season, where it’s a position that we want to get stronger at,” Paxson said.