Bulls

Why Coby White is the most important Bull to watch down the stretch

Why Coby White is the most important Bull to watch down the stretch

The All-Star break has come and gone, and the Bulls’ rebuild remains in relative disarray. A combination of injuries, individual regression and daunting opponents on the horizon leaves little hope for a playoff push in the short-term, and uncertainty regarding crucial pieces in the long-term.

For those reasons, all eyes will be on Coby White down the final 27-game stretch of the season. Or at least, they should be.

The Bulls, after all, are just eight months removed from investing the No. 7 overall pick in the 2019 draft on White — the same number selection they used on Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen in each of the two years prior. At the time, White profiled as a perfect last addition to a burgeoning core four of Zach LaVine, Markkanen and Carter — a lightning-rod scorer who the team could bring slowly off the bench with veteran Tomas Satoransky in tow. All while straddling dual objectives of winning and developing.

But, to borrow an old quarterback adage: Sometimes, if you have two objectives, you really have none. The Bulls haven’t won. And White’s rookie season has been turbulent. In flashes, he’s inspired attention, respect and even awe — his first month in the NBA featured a record-smashing seven 3-pointers (all in the fourth quarter) against the Knicks, a six 3-point outing his next time on the floor and four 20-point games, overall. Seventeen games in, averages of 13.9 points, 3.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists with 35.6 percent long-range shooting (on good volume) seemed like an exciting base to work from.

Since the early going, however, those fruitful outbursts have become fewer and farther between. White has just one 20-point game since Nov. 23 (averaging 9.9 points per game) and his numbers across the board have largely either stagnated or dipped. A perusal of his basic month-to-month offensive splits reveals noticeable choppiness, both in production and opportunity:

Month Games Minutes per game Points per game Assists per game FG% 3P%
Oct. 5 23.3 12.6 2.8 40 30.8
Nov. 15 26.1 13.1 1.9 35.7 33
Dec. 14 22.6 9.4 2.4 37.7 40
Jan. 17 23.3 10.3 1.9 39 33.3
Feb. 4 29.1 11.5 6 30.8 27.6

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Some of it is out of White’s hands. When Kris Dunn was forced into the starting lineup by injuries to Otto Porter Jr. and Chandler Hutchison in November, White was asked to be a lead-guard and facilitator with the second unit to varying success (his most efficient offense comes in spot-up scenarios). Coming off the bench all season, his running mates have been in constant flux, which has undoubtedly hurt his severely unflattering on/off splits. Still, White has handled every challenge hurled at him with unflinching professionalism, humility and determination.

“The rookie experience is definitely humbling. It humbles you. It's up and down,” White said. “Patience – a lot of people just tell me patience. My time is coming.”

White pointed to his on-ball work as the area he most wants to improve for the rest of the season. Evolving into a true point guard is a strident aspiration of his. The Bulls, for their part, would gladly sign on for that outcome.

“I think today's natural point guard — scoring, playmaking, being a leader and just holding everybody accountable,” White said when asked to describe his vision for himself as a lead guard.

“At the beginning, it was kind of difficult,” White said of finding the balance between scoring and playmaking at the NBA level. “But now I'm starting to get better at it and making the right reads, and just making the simple plays. I think, ultimately, it's just making the simple plays and reading the defense.”

Here lies an area he has recently improved. Small sample size alert, but in the five games since Dunn sprained his MCL (including the game in which the injury occurred), White is averaging five assists per game — leagues above his season-long average of 2.4 — and his body control, patience in the half-court and finishing through contact have all steadily improved over the course of the season. The game is beginning to slow down for him.

 

“I think just playing consistently has been big for me. Being on the floor as a rookie and whatnot,” said White, who is averaging 28.2 minutes since Jan. 31. “I've made a lot of progress from when I was at Summer League until now. I think controlling the game a lot better, putting my teammates in position to succeed. So I feel like I've been doing that a lot better. I still have a long way to go but I'm continuing to work at it.

That “long way to go” is mainly in shooting efficiency, a point White acknowledged. Of 272 players who have taken 200 field goal attempts this season, White is 261st in true shooting (47.7 percent) and 257th in effective field goal percentage (45.2 percent). In his last 11 games, he has reached 50 percent shooting from the field only once, when he shot only six times in 19 minutes against the Pacers on Jan. 29. Generally speaking, the Bulls are 8.4 points per 100 possessions worse with him on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. That’s by far the lowest on the team of those who have logged over 1,000 minutes this season.

So is the song and dance of analyzing White. His virtues are tantalizing. The areas to improve inescapable. But if the Bulls make one thing their priority over the last 27 games of the season, it should be clearing up as much murk as possible around evaluating him. White and Markkanen are the two players on the team who are simultaneously the most important to the Bulls’ future and shrouded in the most uncertainty. The organization can’t afford to go into year four of this rebuild without clarity on both.

In terms of White, specifically, the Bulls owe it to themselves to have as much information as possible at their disposal with another top-10 draft pick likely in the cards and a top-heavy, guard-heavy 2020 class looming.

The opportunity to collect that information is nigh. As of Thursday, Dunn is set to miss at least four to six more weeks with an MCL sprain before being reevaluated; Hutchison will miss the team’s first game post All-Star with a flare-up in his shoulder; Carter and Porter are inching closer to returns but neither have concrete timetables; and Markkanen and Denzel Valentine remain out, ambiguously.

White, meanwhile, is one of just three Bulls — along with LaVine and Satoransky — to appear in all 55 games this season, though he has yet to make a start. (Stay tuned.)

For now, Boylen said his plan for White hasn’t changed in light of the brutal spate of injuries. But one way or another, he’ll get his shot.

“He cares. He wants it,” Boylen said. “Like all young players he's trying to establish himself in the league and I just keep telling him he's doing that, and just keep it simple and keep playing… He's a high character dude, so the future's bright.”

Whenever that future comes to fruition, it will be worth watching.

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Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Bill Wennington remembers Michael Jordan's double-nickel game on 25-year anniversary

Over 25 years, Bill Wennington has used some variation of the same line. But given the magnitude of the occasion, it still hasn’t grown old.

Do you remember the time Michael Jordan and I combined for 57 points?

Still, with Saturday marking the actual 25-year anniversary of Jordan’s famous 55-point outburst against the Knicks at Madison Square Garden in his fifth game back from a 17-month retirement, it was nice of Wennington to offer up something new.

“My line at the time was, ‘What was Patrick Ewing doing leaving me at the basket? It’s not like Michael had 55. Oh, that’s right. He did,’” Wennington joked in a phone conversation.

Yes, 25 years have passed since Jordan’s double-nickel game, the grandest of grand statements that Jordan was back from his minor-league baseball experiment.

“There are some players who are simply unique and transcend every aspect of the game,” Knicks coach Pat Riley said that March 28, 1995 day. “And he’s the only one in the history of the game who has had the impact he has had all the way around.”

Indeed, Wennington recalled Jordan making that impact immediately, even in practices at the old Berto Center in Deerfield, Ill.

“I had heard what it was like through the first three championships were and how practices were. As soon as he came back, all the stories were true. He just raised the intensity level up,” Wennington said. “And the intensity level was already higher than some other teams I had been on because Scottie was carrying on the tradition and keeping things competitive. But when Michael came back, it went up twofold.”

Jordan had scored 19, 21, 27 and 32 points in his first four games back, but shot just 39.3 percent as he tried to find his legs and rhythm after such a long layoff. Plus, his body had been conditioned for baseball.

That’s what made his 55-point explosion on 21-for-37 shooting all the more shocking.

“Seeing him play that well that quickly was pretty amazing. He did whatever he wanted on the floor,” Wennington said. “But he had talked about that game. He wanted to play in the Garden. He liked playing in the Garden. He thought it was a great place to play, especially with the rivalry that had grown between the Bulls and Knicks.”

Wennington laughingly pointed out that he only played because both starter Will Perdue and reserve Luc Longley fouled out trying to stop Patrick Ewing, who scored 36. But the crucial reserve for the second three-peat pointed out he had been in that position before.

“That’s where Phil (Jackson) was so good. He made sure guys understood their roles and how they fit in. So it wasn’t hard to stay ready,” Wennington said. “Not that I thought I’d have to do much with the game that Michael was having. I just knew I had to play my role and get out of the way with proper spacing.”

Which is exactly what Wennington did on the game-winning basket. John Starks fouled out Perdue with 14 seconds left and sank both free throws to tie the game at 111-111. In the ensuing timeout, Jackson reminded Jordan, wearing No. 45, that Ewing had left his man to double-team on the three previous possessions.

“I’d be lying if I said I was coming out to pass the ball,” Jordan said that day. “I was coming out to score.”

Jordan drove on Starks and rose for a shot as Ewing came to contest.

“The play was for Michael obviously to make it happen and win the game. It was just one of those things where we run the play and I'm going out to the weakside down low, and Patrick just leaves me. So I go down by the basket to put myself in a position to either get a rebound or be available for a pass,” Wennington said. “And Michael passed.”

Wennington slammed home Jordan’s second assist of the day, with little fanfare afterward.

“He slapped me on the head, said, ‘Good shot.’ It was a do-your-job type thing,” Wennington said. “That was what Michael was all about. If you talk about guys who played with him and the reputation that he was tough on players. It was really only that he expected you to do your job. If you didn’t do your job or hold your own, you’d hear it. Because he was always focused on winning.

“I don’t think he ever got mad at me for having someone score on me. But if I did something goofy like take my eye off the ball and lose the ball or not be in the right spot at the right time, he’d let you know about it. That to me is an extension of him wanting to win.”

The Magic eliminated the Bulls in the second round of the 1995 playoffs. But Wennington points to the double-nickel game as a harbinger for what was to come. The Bulls set an NBA record by going 72-10 in 1995-96, Jordan’s first full season back, and winning the first title of a second three-peat in the 1990s.

“That game helped us realize that our team could be really good if we got on the same page,” Wennington said. “And the following season, we got on the same page.”

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

Bulls observations: Rodman, Wennington and role guys key Game 4 win over Knicks

We got Dennis Rodman inhaling rebounds, 'Winnington' time and an electric Garden atmosphere in Game 4 of Bulls-Knicks. But most importantly, the Bulls seized a 3-1 series lead. Observations:

A night for the unsung heroes

Michael Jordan got in foul trouble early, picking up two personals in the opening minutes and a third before the first half was over. He was the only Bulls starter not to play every minute of the first quarter. To give you an idea of how rare Jordan battling foul trouble is… 

 

So, yeah, he didn’t foul out of this one. Even in a game that wasn’t his strongest, he led the Bulls with 27 points (though on a paltry 7-for-23 shooting), and tacked on eight rebounds and eight assists in 40 minutes.

But the role players were the story for the Bulls. Ron Harper had a postseason-high 18 points. Randy Brown chipped in a timely eight, Jud Buechler provided a first-half spark with six in the opening two quarters, and the bench, as a whole, shot 64.7 percent from the field — well above the team-wide mark of 40.7 percent. 

Then, it was ‘Winnington’ time in the fourth. Bill scored four points in the final minute-and-a-half — both field goals on setups from Dennis Rodman. The second, a stoic 10-footer from the right baseline, put the Bulls in front for good. 

On a night for unsung heroes, it was awesome to watch Wennington, Rodman and John Salley (let’s not forget Spider’s defense on Ewing on the Knicks’ second-to-last possession) stymie the Knicks’ momentum and pull the Bulls in front. Jordan scored two points in the fourth quarter — on a pair of free throws with 11.2 seconds remaining — and it didn’t matter. The Bulls prevailed 94-91, their slimmest margin of victory in the '96 playoffs.

Dennis Rodman eats rebounds for breakfast, lunch and dinner

To anyone with eyes, the physicality of this series compared to the modern game (and even their first round series against the Heat) stands out prominently. On the glass, the Bulls thrived on that intensity.

Rodman led the way again in this one with 19 rebounds (10 offensive) in a team-high 41 minutes. As mentioned, he slung two late assists to help seal the game. And his 19th rebound, a contested snare off a Ewing floater, gave the Bulls the opportunity to clinch the game with free throws and a final defensive possession. 

On the series, The Worm averaged 15.6 boards per game. He’s awesome.

The Garden was electric

From the jump, the rare energy in Madison Square Garden was apparent, even through the television screen. That swelled as the Knicks got off to a fast start, leading 28-24 after the first quarter and outshooting the Bulls by a wide margin in the first half (at one point, they were 16-for-25 to the Bulls’ 18-for-40).

The organist really set the tone — Sir Duke on loop beats the Power Clap any day.

 

When the Bulls sputtered through offensive possessions midway through the fourth, the crowd’s crescendo was palpable (the Knicks defended their absolute butts off for a long stretch). A John Starks and-one fastbreak layup to cut their deficit to 86-83 elicited a bonafide roar. Consecutive tough buckets by Patrick Ewing to cap a six-minute, 13-0 run that put the Knicks up three late in the fourth quarter incited pure delirium.

It made the Bulls pulling out the tooth-and-nail victory all the more gratifying, especially when a Starks 3 that would have tied it was waved off for traveling with 1.3 seconds left. But, man, if the Knicks ever get good again, it would be so much fun, and that crowd is evidence. You could say the same for the Bulls. I digress.

Game 5 on Monday on NBC Sports Chicago.

Every other night through April 15, NBC Sports Chicago is airing the entirety of the Bulls' 1996 NBA championship run. Find the full schedule here.

Click here to download the new MyTeams App by NBC Sports! Receive comprehensive coverage of your teams and stream the Bulls easily on your device.