Even if the NBA regular season is canceled, we’ve seen enough to start assessing the first season of notable rookies. What did the Chicago Bulls see from Coby White?
The Bulls entered this season with an optimistic outlook, and a talented young offensive core that they thought could compete for a playoff spot. Coby White didn’t hold as much responsibility for those expectations as players like Lauri Markkanen or Zach LaVine, but he was drafted as an exciting piece with scoring and creation upside.
The team’s offensive potential never really materialized and White seemed to parallel that with an up-and-down season, frustrating with inconsistency at times and looking like a future star in desperate need of more minutes at others. The season ended at a particularly bad time for White — he’d been averaging 24.7 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds on impressive shooting splits in the 10 games since the All-Star Break.
How did the totality, hot streak and otherwise, of White’s rookie season compare to preseason expectations and what have we learned about the player he’s likely to become?
What did we expect?
In draft discussions, White was often overshadowed by Ja Morant and Darius Garland and did get selected after both players. However, predraft scouting reports took a positive view of White’s pull-up shooting, creation potential and defensive upside (given his size and relative activity level) as a point guard. In a November video breakdown, Trevor Magnotti looked at the shooting forms of both White and Garland and highlighted White’s potential as a shooter and how decision-making was going to be a key indicator for his ultimate success:
"He’s pretty solid at going to his pull-up on drives, rarely throwing up garbage in crowded spaces. But his biggest issue at this point is his tunnel vision. He plays at a million miles per hour, and when he commits to going to the rim, he struggles to recognize when it’s time to dump the ball off and reset the offense. This is an area where things can improve for him with more maturity and comfort, but also could lend to him struggling early on in his NBA career, in the mold of Dennis Smith and Collin Sexton the past two years."
The question of decision-making got at an underlying issue for White — exactly how he would function as a creator and his personal balance of scoring and facilitation. Magnotti returned to this point in his final Big Board before the draft, settling on a relatively rosy outlook:
"White didn’t play much point guard at the high school level and is commonly referred to as a combo guard because of this. But with the comfort level he showed as a passer playing as more of a pure one in the North Carolina offense, he probably has a much higher ceiling than he’s getting credit for in terms of his ability to manage an offense."
The key variables then for White this season would be how efficiently he was able to create offense for himself and others, the balance he struck and what that might mean for his optimal role on this Bulls team going forward.
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What did we get?
One of the complicating factors in assessing White is how much his role changed over the course of the season.
His monthly minutes per game average bottomed out in December but then slowly increased, breaking 30 for the first time in February and hitting a season-high 35.6 in five games in March. In a somewhat frustrating twist, his first start of the season came in Chicago’s last game before the season was suspended.
The Bulls also had a number of other point guards on the roster, as well as LaVine — a fairly ball-dominant wing who did a lot of his own offensive creation. This all meant White wasn’t consistently playing in the kinds of roles he might play in at his hypothetical ceiling. However, that last chunk of the season when he really took off was fairly instructive about what he can do.
He shot the ball slightly better during this stretch — 40.7 percent on 3-pointers as opposed to 33.8 percent in the first 55 games of the season but what he did off the dribble was probably even more encouraging.
White was much more effective as a creator in that last 10-game stretch of the season but it was also a case of him taking advantage of a more solidified role. Before the break, White played about half of his minutes with Zach LaVine and about 40 percent with both LaVine and another ball-handler like Tomas Satoransky, Kris Dunn or Ryan Arcidiacono. After the break, less than a third of his minutes overlapped with LaVine and he spent more time as the backcourt scoring threat paired with Satoransky. That gave him more of a mandate to attack with the ball. Pre-All-Star Break, only about 28 percent of his frontcourt touches resulted in a drive. After the break, it was about 36 percent.
And, as you can see above, the improvement in his overall field goal percentages was driven by better shooting off the dribble, regardless of the distance. Add his drive statistics to the shooting percentages in the second row of that table and you have the potential for an efficient, high-volume creator, the kind who can carry an offense. The issue, of course, is that we’re only talking about a sample of 10 games.
White still has plenty of knots to untie in his game — the defense is very much a work in progress and it’s still not clear if his scoring/facilitating balance is too tilted towards the former for him to work long-term next to LaVine. But if he can be the player he was during the final stretch of the season he’s a star. Even if that’s a bubble and he eventually regresses back a bit, he still looks like an extremely productive offensive player.