NBA Rookie of the Month award validates Coby White’s growth

Though it's taken some time for rookie Coby White to adjust to the NBA lifestyle and level of competition, he's beginning to find his groove and is being awarded for it: the NBA announced Tuesday that White is the Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for February, the Bulls first rookie to receive that honor since Nikola Mirotic in 2015.

Coby White always had been ‘the Man." Like pretty much everyone in the NBA. In the parks and school yards and AAU tournaments, even in a basketball-crazy state like North Carolina, where he became the all-time prep scoring leader. And then at the storied U. of North Carolina where he surpassed Michael Jordan's freshman scoring total. Then the Bulls' No. 7 overall draft pick started his professional career back home in Charlotte last October scoring 17 points off the bench in his first game, and then 25 the next game in a Bulls win in Memphis.

Hey, this isn't going to be a problem.

"My first two games I played really well," White recalled. "Then I hit reality. You go back and you keep asking yourself, ‘What was I doing the first two games?' It's a different level of competition. Your whole life you've always been the man wherever you've been at; everybody on this team has been the man wherever they've been at. Then you come here in the league and everybody can hoop. You're not always going to play good every night and there are going to be a lot of ups and downs."

By late December, White was beginning to really get down, wondering where were the ups.

He'd gone more than a month without scoring 20 points in a game. He couldn't remember the last time that occurred, or if it ever had. He played 30 minutes against Toronto and was scoreless. Zero! He'd never even imagined that. In a 12-game stretch, he failed to score more than one basket six times.

Coby? Coby? Coby?

"That was my rookie wall," White said. "I was tired every day. I had no legs. The games felt like a blur, like every day was just passing by. My shooting coach, Chris Fleming, said I looked exhausted. I was struggling. I just kept fighting. The travel, the schedule, the amount of games you play, the ups and downs; there's a lot of adversity your rookie year. People warned me. De'AAron Fox told me from his rookie year. Me being me, I was like, ‘I'm going to be fine.' But until you really go through it, it's different from what you're used to."

The first gift for White was before Christmas in Detroit.

White has a strong family and business support group, and teammates were there. Shaquille Harrison kept encouraging White, who was three of 20 the previous three games just after his goose egg. "He kept saying, ‘I know it's going to be your game. You're going to hit five threes.'" White recalled. "I hit six threes (19 points in a victory). Him believing in me, then I played good in Orlando and the (four-day) Christmas break felt like I then could get going.

Coby shoots the rock against the Thunder in February.

"Then it was February," said White. "It was big for me, my confidence. Sometimes you have to prove other people wrong and sometimes you have to prove to yourself that you belong and February was that for me. Like I belong in this league and I feel I can be a force in the league for a long time."

White averaged 20.1 points, 4.1 assists and four rebounds in February on 41 percent three-point shooting. He had a record run of three consecutive games off the bench scoring at least 33 points with a season high 35. With White's team high 19 points off the bench Monday in the victory over Dallas, he's moved up to sixth among qualifying rookies in scoring and assists and is averaging 12.6 for the season.

Tuesday the NBA validated White's play and position in the NBA by naming him February Rookie of the Month. He is the first Bulls Rookie of the Month winner since Nikola Mirotic in March 2015.

"My rookie year has been humbling to me because you come in thinking I'm that dude," said White, who turned 20 last week. "Then you get a reality check. Some people don't, like Zion (Williamson). He's at a high level. Ja's (Morant) playing at a high level and has been doing that all year. So hat's off to them. They've been good. For me, I'm thankful for how my rookie year has gone. The reality check has been not to take anything for granted, continue to be humble and continue to be me."

Which is proving a positive for the Bulls with White seemingly headed toward a primary scoring role with the team. He's still coming off the bench and seems set in that role for this season, though he says it's fine with him.

Coby White scored a career-high 35 points against OKC in February.

"I feel like I'm getting better," White said. "It's taken some time to get used to and I feel like if I just keep doing what I'm doing things will work out for me, keep grinding and being willing to learn from anyone and everybody. I feel everything is starting come into place. The biggest thing is I had to learn about the ups and down and for me to stay focused on the next game. You can't dwell on the loss or bad performance.

"I don't pay that (starting) no mind," White said. "Right now I'm in a good spot. I'm getting a lot of minutes and that's all you can ask for as a rookie. So I'm thankful to that and to continue to get better. Starting is one of my least priorities right now. Sure, who wouldn't want to start in the NBA? One through 17 in this locker room wants to start. But I'm in a good spot, my head is in a good spot. I'm in a good space and I just want to continue to get better."

White has been improving, and some of the realization came with success. White came to understand the mirage can be in the result, sometimes, but never in the work.

"One game I hit seven threes and then I hit six threes and I was thinking I'm not going to shoot the ball that well every night," White admitted about a mid-November streak. "I realized I have to figure out other ways to impact the game, which was why February was big for me. I shot like 31 free throws (making 29 after attempting 13 in December). I wasn't getting to the line the first two months. And once I figured out how to draw fouls and get fouls, it really helps you a lot. It helps you find a rhythm and that was a big part of February, why I played so well.

"You get to the line, maybe shoot six free throws, knock them all down, you're six for six from the line," White calculated. "Make a couple of layups and hit a three, now you're at 14, 15 points, helping the team. I feel like all the good players in the league figure out how to get there."

It's a computation that the other North Carolina prep star, Jordan, figured out early in his career.

"The main thing early in the season I was shying away or trying to shoot a floater," said White. "I was thinking you can avoid (the contact), but then it's still a seven footer blocking your shot; guys are so long. I figured if I just go straight into the defender's chest, he's going to foul me or I'm going to get a layup. Worst case scenario, block it. But do it 10 times, maybe two times he'll block it. So you still are eight out of 10 and get a good result."

It's the subtly that keeps White on target to become a special player. No one really is scared in the NBA, though many use the word. Many, though, retreat from the contact. That White has sought it out to improve begins to put him in that rare air.

"Then you don't have to come out every night and make 10 shots," said White. "That's hard for anybody. Once I started to figure it out, it helped. But I still have a long way to go. Basketball wise, I'm more mature."

Coby White celebrates after hitting one of his six three-pointers against Washington in February.

Though it's been, as often mentioned, a process. And when you're in the NBA, as great as that life is, there's also the scrutiny no one else faces.

"It bothers you at night when you go home because you know what you're capable of and it's not showing in the results," said White. "It doesn't help in this job where everyone knows how you played. In other job fields, you go home and nobody knows what happened. Maybe your family knows. Now it's like everyone in the world knows. I don't let social media bother me, but it takes a toll on you, eventually."

White has dealt with everything remarkably well, becoming one of the true bright spots in a difficult Bulls season and seemingly still on the rise.

So there became time to let his hair down a bit.

Actually, literally.

White, most certainly noticed, arrived in Chicago with an unusually vertical grouping of hair. It's not so much like that anymore, though there wasn't one of those Samson moments for change.

"No," White smiles. "I just felt like I needed something different with my hair. I usually twist it once a year. I just didn't think the ‘fro was cool anymore. I got tired of waking up every morning and just looking at all this head of hair. It got on my nerves. So I decided to twist it and I liked it and I've been getting it ever since. It's definitely less maintenance."

Though Coby White has been all about the work.