After an up-and-down start to his rookie season, Coby White ended his rookie season as one of the brightest of bright spots on this young Bulls team. Going into Year 2, Coby White told media on Wednesday his game has taken "a huge leap."
So is Billy Donovan the point guard whisperer? And if he is, does that mean Coby White is headed for greatness?
"He said yesterday he wants me to be a primary ballhandler, a primary point guard," White told reporters Wednesday on a Zoom video conference from Bulls training camp. "He's told me what I need to work on and what I need to take that next step in my game. I'm taking it in and I'm learning. I'm going to continue to learn from him. He had some great point guards in OKC that he can talk to me about in Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul. I'm always willing to learn. I just want to get better. Just have an open mind about anything."
And just get to the point, which has been a pointed question and concern for the Bulls' the new administration. The conventional wisdom has been second year phenom White projects more as a scorer/shooter, which he became with a thrilling post All-Star break last season before the virus shutdown March 11. So there was speculation the Bulls would draft a point guard (did not) or sign one in free agency (also did not other than G-league, two-way player Devon Dotson). So White seems like he'll be the opening night starting point guard even as he dismisses the assumption.
"I'm always going to be hungry," said the precocious 20-year-old. "I'm always going to play with that chip on my shoulder. I don't really see myself losing (the starting spot). But I'm going to compete like I don't got it. Me and Sato (Tomas Satoransky) always compete every time out there on the court. I don't look at it like I've already got the spot because anything can happen. I'm just looking at it as I'm going in to compete, and I'm going to play hard, and I'm going to be the best competitor out there."
It's certainly what new coach Donovan likes to hear, and few NBA coaches know point guards like Donovan, Rick Pitino's Providence College Final Four point guard in 1987.
Donovan wasn't adept or athletic enough to bring that to the NBA other than a cameo with Pitino and the Knicks in 1988.
But Donovan has known nothing but point guard excellence as an NBA coach.
Donovan's point guards with the Oklahoma City Thunder have been top seven in the Most Valuable Player voting in every one of his five seasons with Westbrook and last season Paul. Donovan also saw his playmaking wing player Paul George get an MVP third place.
Is Coby next?
We doubt that; of course, I also recall rejecting notions in 2009 that Derrick Rose could be an MVP candidate.
No one is making any such predictions for White quite yet. But last season once he unwound and stopped thinking about where everyone was and just played, White became one of the most feared scorer/point guards in the league for almost a month, averaging 26 points in a nine-game stretch.
And in case you haven't noticed, many of the best point guards in the NBA these days this side of Paul are scorers first, like Westbrook, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry and lately Trae Young.
Is White next in that group? And how does that work with high scoring Zach LaVine as his backcourt partner? Actually, it seems like a good problem to have for the fourth poorest team last season in scoring and offensive efficiency.
White says he's ready, willing and anxious to get started. He's a light hearted, fun loving kid, as we witnessed last year on draft night with his enthusiasm about the surprise lottery drafting of North Carolina teammate Cameron Johnson. White was mostly subdued last season as former coach Jim Boylen attempted to round peg/square hole him with demands to pass. No, pass!
White had burst into the season, 17 points in the opener back home in Charlotte and then 25 the next game in Memphis. Who said this is hard? He made five of 12 threes and seemed past the rookie wall already. But he stumbled into December and January, unsure of his role and priorities and uncertain of his game, a rare retreat from his insouciant confidence. When he wasn't selected for even the rookie game back in Chicago, it was like the blinders came off. It was time for Coby to be Coby, and three consecutive games of at least 30 points later he was off and to his first start, a win that became the Bulls last game of 2019-20.
He still finished the uneven season averaging 13.2 points with just that one start, but 20 points per game in February and 22 in March. Oh, what an Orlando it might have been for White.
White's floppy curls were gone as he welcomed media members Wednesday, bright, blithe and beguiling. He laughs easily, his eyes sparkling as he casts off the yoke of rookie indecision. He's now even a mentor to old buddy Dotson and fellow North Carolinian Patrick Williams.
"I first met Patrick early in my high school years," says White, the all-time leading high school scorer in North Carolina. "He was always super talented, always super good. He's (been) asking me about the league, eating habits, what to do, recovery and things of that sort. So when he got drafted here it was ironic. I was super excited just to have somebody like him here with me. We're both young and finally someone around my age that I'm really cool with. Everybody asks (about Williams). I probably know Devon more than I know Pat because me and Devon was in the same class and we used to- me, him and Jaylen Hoard- used to battle for No. 1 player in North Carolina.
"I think Hoard finished No. 1. Devon, I guess you could say we had a rivalry in high school." White said with a laugh. "But it was all love. He's (Dotson) from Chicago, but everybody knows he grew up in North Carolina. It's just crazy how we all grew up in the Hoop State, North Carolina, and now we're all on the Chicago Bulls. So just seeing that transition it's just crazy how life works."
And basketball life seems to be working out for White.
He played AAU ball for the team set up by North Carolinian Paul, whom White said he immediately contacted about Donovan.
"He just told me how great of a coach he was, how great of a guy he was and how he's going to do great things for us," said White. "And how he's a player's coach and he just wants to build relationships. It was all positive from what he said. Chris seemed excited for us and me."
The pairing of White and LaVine, while questioned by some—White said he's aware as a frequent social media participant—also presents engaging possibilities with their scoring and versatile play. After all, LaVine played point guard when he was drafted after a stint of it at UCLA. It's not their specialty, but they could be a special pairing.
"From what I can see it's just me being a primary ballhandler," said White. "But we have so much versatility anyone can handle it. I think within our offense it's just having multiple people that can facilitate, multiple people that can playmake, which works out for me because I can also play off the ball and play off of other people because I haven't been a one all my life. I'm excited for it. I love the new offense. I can't wait to put it out there on the floor.
"I feel like I've taken a huge leap in my game, especially in my decision making and playing off the pick-and-roll," White said. "Coming into last season, coming off the pick-and-roll was something that we really didn't do at North Carolina. For me it was new and then different coverages. So this whole nine months I've had time to work on these different coverages, what's open, what's not, and how to attack these different coverages. And for me to more consistently shoot off the dribble, finish at the rim; those are things I focused on. The game has really slowed down for me these last couple of months. Still learning, obviously. One goal for me this year is just be better than last year. That's all you really can do. But I feel like I've made a huge leap and I feel like I've gotten better. "I've been proving myself and proving people wrong, so it's nothing new to me," said White. "Just prove all the doubters wrong."
Perhaps not doubters for too much longer, no doubt.