Why Coby White believes he can be Bulls’ starting PG in ’21 originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago
It ended with a bit of hardware, but Coby White’s rookie year was a roller coaster.
One night, seven 3-pointers in a quarter. Later, a three-month stretch with just one 20-point game. Then, a post-All-Star break surge that put him in spectacular company on multiple occasions.
White never got too high or too low on himself amid those regular season tumults, even as his usage lagged behind other 2019 draft picks of similar station. That trend continued in his first public comments to reporters since the COVID-19 pandemic abruptly ended the Bulls’ season after 65 games.
“Felt like my season was up and down, it could have been better. But that's every season,” he said on a Zoom video conference one day after earning All-Rookie second-team honors.
“I feel like at times I was overlooked. But I feel at times I didn’t play up to my expectations,” he later said when asked if the All-Rookie selection provided validation after missing out on the 2020 Rising Stars roster. “I just wanted to get better. That game (Rising Stars) kind of helped me. It was a wake-up call for me. After that, I kind of took it how it was and just continued to get better and continue to do what I do. I really didn’t change anything out of my routine or anything. As the season went on, I felt like I got better as a player.”
The post-All-Star break numbers speak for themselves. Moving into next year, White’s self-professed improvement areas are consistent from the regular season.
“Working on my efficiency finishing around the rim and being more of a playmaker when I'm out there on the court, those are my next steps,” he said, adding that he’s been in at the Advocate Center five days a week since returning to Chicago, working out, lifting and shooting individually.
On the former front, White had been putting one foot in front of the other before the season ended. His month-by-month restricted area field goal percentage charts a relatively linear path as his halfcourt decision-making and ability to finish through contact improved throughout his rookie year.
Restricted Area FGA/g
Restricted Area FG%
Now, the sum of that progression still isn’t necessarily good — Cleaning the Glass pegs White’s 49% season-long rim finishing in non-garbage time possessions as a 14th percentile mark for his position. But the uptick jibes with his mantra of continued self-improvement.
So do his defensive strides, which former head coach Jim Boylen lauded White for on multiple occasions towards what would become the end of the season.
White has grander goals too. He achieved one in the Bulls’ finale by making his first NBA start. He hopes to carry that momentum into Year 2.
“Who doesn't want to be the starting point guard in training camp?” White said. “That's my goal, that's what I want to achieve. And I'm just going to keep working towards that to get that achievement for myself.”
Some have questioned White’s utility in a lead guard role. And based on his usage as a rookie, it’s a fair point. The modern game is a positionless one, but according to Basketball Reference’s positional estimate data, White spent a greater share of his minutes at both shooting guard and small forward than point guard in his rookie year. He cut his teeth as an off-ball, reserve scorer, often running alongside Tomáš Satoranský, Zach LaVine, or multiple guards in small-ball lineups featuring the likes of Kris Dunn and Ryan Arcidiacono.
Spark plug scorer is a valuable part to play in this day and age, especially if White’s torrid post-All-Star pull-up shooting ends up being for real. But his sights are set on a more central, versatile role.
“I think moving forward, my primary position is point guard. But I also can play off the ball because I can score and shoot it so well,” White said. “I think that this past year showcased that I can be a point guard but I can also play off the ball at times when I need to.”
That’s where the playmaking comes in. As White’s minutes and usage increased last (this?) season, his assist numbers did too. In the five games LaVine missed with a quad injury just before the hiatus, White’s touches catapulted, and he averaged six assists per game against three turnovers. In his first and only start, he had five helpers compared to nine turnovers.
But that’s why playmaking is an improvement area. Should he earn that starting point guard job entering camp, questions will persist about the defensive viability of a White-LaVine starting backcourt, and both’s ability to be the engines of a successful offense.
Such questions, though, are a few bridges away. The Bulls have an offseason workout program to complete, a coach to hire and a draft to maneuver — even setting aside the complications around setting a date and parameters for the 2021 season.
For the time being, White said his primary objective is to simply be better than he was last year. If he is, it could go a long way for the Bulls’ rebuild.