The clock read 9:41. The scoreboard read 92-90 Lakers.
And the ball was in Coby White’s hands, streaking up the floor in transition with an open lane to the rim in front of him. But as LeBron James lurked behind – likely timing up one of his patented chasedown blocks – White knew he needed a dunk (and a quick one at that) to ensure the Chicago Bulls two points in game where every bucket mattered.
With the clock reading 9:36, he delivered – and took out a season’s worth of angst on the rim in the process.
“It was a frustration dunk,” White told NBC Sports Chicago after a recent practice. “I wasn’t really playing well, especially on the offensive end, at that time.”
There’s truth in that. White scored five points on 2-for-7 shooting in the Bulls’ first game back from an eight-day, COVID-19-induced pause – a 115-110 win over the Lakers in which he again looked like the wayward man in the team’s revamped offense. Even after a season-high 24-point, five-3-pointer outburst against the Rockets, the third-year guard is averaging NBA-career-lows in points (7.6) and assists (1.5), while shooting career-worst percentages from the field (36.5) and 3-point range (27.3).
Not only that, White’s season has been derailed by separate stints on the sideline – for the first 13 games of the year as he completed shoulder rehab, then another five with COVID-19 – and muddled by adjusting to a new off-the-ball role for a team that, with Patrick Williams injured, employs just one teammate of White’s from the beginning of the 2020-21 season: Zach LaVine.
“It's been difficult. I ain't gonna lie and say it's been easy. It hasn't been easy,” White said. “But it's a challenge. And it's only gonna make me better.”
Of all the depressed statistics from the first 11 appearances of White’s 2021-22 season, the decline in his touches is among the most sharp. As a rookie, White averaged 46.9 touches per game, third on the Bulls behind LaVine and Tomáš Satoranský. In his second season, he averaged 66.3 upon transitioning to starting point guard – again third, this time trailing Nikola Vučević and LaVine. This season, while playing a career-low 19.5 minutes per game off the bench, White is averaging 29.9 touches – sixth behind Lonzo Ball, Vučević, LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Alex Caruso.
But with LaVine in health and safety protocols, Caruso exiting the game after six minutes with a foot sprain, and Donovan playing the reserves big minutes in a blowout, White received 69 touches against Houston, often bringing the ball up the floor and initiating sets at the offensive end.
“I think for Coby this has been really hard – and this is just my perspective, I’m not saying Coby has said that,” head coach Billy Donovan said after the Rockets game. “How I view it is, here’s a guy that came in and the ball was in his hands a lot, and then he’s gotta deal with his shoulder issue, the team totally changes, then he’s in COVID protocols. And, you know, he’s just trying to find his way. You take a guy like Coby and he’s playing off the ball a little bit more, there’s a learning curve there.
“I think for him it’s probably been a little bit hard just because of what he’s done his first two years in the league has drastically changed to where he is now. And it’s something he’s gotta learn how to work through and how to take advantage of his opportunities when they come.”
Here is the rest of White’s conversation with NBC Sports Chicago, which touches on the tumultuous start to his third NBA season, how he’s handling his role adjustment on offense, improvements to his game on defense, and more:
NBC Sports Chicago: So, that was a "frustration dunk" at the end of the Lakers game, but then you came back out with a season-high (24 points, 5-for-9 from 3-point range) against Houston. What was working for you, besides shots falling?
White: “I just felt like I was more aggressive. Even against LA, I don't know how many shots I took (seven, compared to 15 against the Rockets), but I really wasn't aggressive on the offensive end of the floor. Some of that is due to DeMar going absolutely nuts (laughs) – especially in the second half and the fourth quarter. He's done that a lot this season. He put us on his shoulders and willed us to a win. But I think against the Rockets, I knew we was coming off a back-to-back, those are challenging, and we haven't been particularly really, really good off of back-to-backs this year. So we all just was focused and wanted to come out aggressive and come out and just throw the first punch.”
It seemed like you had the ball in your hands more in the Rockets game. I’m sure some of that is Zach being out and Caruso leaving game early. But do you find it’s easier for you to find rhythm and timing when you have the ball more?
“I mean, of course. I've had the ball in my hands since I was 12 years old. People just want me to come in and score 20 (points) every night and just take all these shots. And it's just like that's not really who I am as a player. I'm unselfish. I just want to make the right play.
“Like, some nights I'm gonna have 20 and some nights I might have five. For me, it's just coming off the bench and trying to find a way I can impact the game, whether it's defensively, playing hard, talking, or being a vocal point on the bench. Anything that can help my team. Of course I want the ball in my hands, I want to play with the ball, because, like I said, I've been doing it since I was 12 years old. (This season is) kind of the first time I've been off the ball. So it takes an adjustment, especially with everything that's happened this year. But I always love the challenges of the game. I love challenges in life. It makes you a better person and it also makes you a better player. So I know that this is gonna help me in the long run.”
How difficult has that adjustment been? Playing more off-the-ball than in your first two NBA seasons.
“It's been difficult. I ain't gonna lie and say it's been easy. It hasn't been easy. But, like I said, it's a challenge and it's only gonna make me better.
“I feel like this year my defense has taken a leap, a major leap from my first two years. I know on this team, especially, for me to get on the floor, I'm gonna have to up my defense. So that's an area I take pride in now, and I just want to go out there and compete for my teammates. In that area, and that regard, this year has helped me a lot. So I look at it that way. I'm thankful for all those things that's coming into play. Every year I just want to get better at something, and I think this year my defense has gotten a lot better.
“Everything else, offensively, will fall into place because our team is so unselfish and we just all want to win. I just gotta find a rhythm. I gotta play games to actually find a rhythm. So the more I play I feel like the easier it'll get.”
What specifically were you focused on improving defensively — and where do you think you've gotten better?
“For me, especially my ball-screen defense, getting over screens — off-the-ball and on-the-ball — was something that I struggled with my first two years. And, you know, I'm still trying to get better at it. But I feel like this year I have made an improvement, especially on-the-ball, keeping my man in front, guarding the ball, and, you know, just being there for my teammates. I just wanted to get better at – obviously get stronger, because that comes with strength – busting through those screens and heading up the ball. I feel like I had to get better at ball-screen defense on- and off-the-ball, and I feel like I've taken steps in that direction.”
What has the coaching staff’s message been to you as it relates to your role?
“Coach (Donovan) really always said he wanted me to just be who I am. He always pushes me — even against Houston towards the end of the game I passed up a couple driving opportunities, and he brought me over and told me to be aggressive, don't stop being aggressive. So he's been pushing me to be aggressive and just make the reads after that.
“You know, he (Donovan) never tried to change who I am as a player and say ‘You gotta come off and be a catch-and-shoot guy’ or anything like that. He always said, you know, ‘Get downhill, make plays, shoot your shots, and do what you do.’ He hasn't tried to limit me or put me in a box or anything like that. I'm grateful for that and I'm thankful for that.”
Obviously there have been some personal ups and downs this season. But you and Zach are the two that have been here since the start of your rookie year – when things were much darker from a team perspective. What has it been like being a part of this group, given the start you all have gotten off to?
“It's been amazing, man. It's been super fun. I think a part of the reason why we play so well together is because of who we are off the court. Just our personalities kind of all fit each other. Like, we're just friends (laughs).
“When you get to the NBA you learn that stuff changes. It's not like college where you got your teammates, y'all go hang out. (But) it's like, on this team, it's just guys. We do the things just like we're normal human beings, not in the NBA, and we all just love being around each other. That’s the big part. We all have fun when we're around each other, and we don't really care — none of us care at all who gets all the points or who gets all the touches. We just all want to win. I feel like we all got that common goal and this year's been fun, man. I finally get to win in the NBA (laughs). First two years, it didn't go that well. But it's been fun, just getting to know everybody. And I genuinely feel like on this team we're gonna build relationships that last past basketball.”