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%|
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.