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The emergence of Coby White

It’s the classic story of the aspiring rural kid with big dreams; doubters, however, are everywhere. You just don’t get way up there from a place like this way down here. But you also don’t extinguish dreams with that talent. So the kid insisted and endured and landed in the big city. And the world did begin to notice.

Including Saturday against the New Orleans Pelicans with thousands of United Center Bulls fans shouting, “Coby! Coby! Coby!” late in an eventual Bulls 124-118 win over the Pelicans behind Coby White’s 31 points, nine rebounds, six assists and eight three-pointers.

A Star is Born?

“Amazing,” said Bulls forward DeMar DeRozan who returned from an ankle sprain to support White with 24 points and ten assists. “He’s ultra aggressive, ultra confident, decisive. He was big. Coby was Coby tonight. We fed off his energy. We don’t get this win without it. He was special tonight.

“He definitely wanted to be the player he showed he is tonight,” DeRozan said. “His drive, his work ethic is amazing. He always wants to figure out how he can be better, how he can help. You see it.”

And now a lot of the NBA is seeing it also with White now carrying the longest active NBA streak of at least a trio of made three pointers in consecutive games at eight. He’s shooting more than 40 percent on threes for the season, vital for the long, long shot challenged Bulls. White has scored at least 20 points in five of the last seven games and 54 in this first two-game winning streak of the season. He’s averaging just under 22 points per game the last seven.

While perhaps finally becoming the player he seemed destined to be not only when the Bulls made the dynamic 6-4 guard the No. 7 pick in the 2019 draft, but when he seemed destined for NBA shooting stardom.

“When I came into the league my main objective was to just get better every day and take it one day at a time,” offered the modest White. “I knew I had a lot to learn and a lot of room to grow. I’ve never been like a guy, ‘One day I’m going to be this, I’m going to be that.’ I just took it like I’m just trying to get better and take advantage of every day and be consistent on and off the court.

“The main thing coming into this season, I just wanted this group to win and play as good as we are capable because I love this team and group of guys and have everyone experience winning,” White added. That was my main objective.”

Although that sounds like an athlete practicing his cliches, it is the earnest White who sincerely wishes perhaps more for others. It was evident even back on 2019 draft night when in what is that lifetime dream night, White basically spent his entire media interview enthusing about North Carolina teammate Cam Johnson being selected 11th in the first round. 

But Coby, you were seventh.

“Y’all don’t understand how happy I am for Cam,” White explained to media. “Because he proved it night in, night out that he deserved to be in the conversation for a lottery pick. He shot the ball (unlike) anyone I’ve ever seen in my life or played with.

“Wow, bro,” White continued, “I’m getting chills up here.”

Yeah, but Coby, you were the shooter and scorer who led the team in scoring and surpasses Michael Jordan’s freshman scoring record.

And also the best ever scorer from a state that has counted some pretty decent scorers, like, you know, Michael Jordan, Steph Curry, David Thompson, Chris Paul. Lou Hudson, Walt Bellamy, Sam Perkins, John Wall, James Worthy.

But it’s Alec Jacoby “Coby” White from tiny, east central Goldsboro who is the all-time prep scoring leader from North Carolina, a 30-plus scorer in high school, the all-time freshman three-point UNC shooting leader, top scorer for the USA Basketball Under-18 team in winning a gold medal. 

Here was a star on the way.

Until he wasn’t while being enmeshed in the morass of a Bulls rebuilding project, multiple coaching changes and even more position changes and roles. We saw a glimpse of what he could be when White was overlooked for the Chicago All-Star Rookie/Sophomore game in his rookie season and averaged 26.1 points—with three consecutive games scoring at least 33 points—and shot 43 percent on threes in a post All-Star nine-game stretch before Covid ended the season.

Because the Bulls had finally abandoned the early season experiment to make him a point guard and let Coby be Coby. But then they needed a point guard, so he tried to learn to set up and run offense. Then they needed him off the bench, then to start, then to play off the ball, no back at point.

White never complains or blames anyone; it’s perhaps also besides his insouciant nature why he might be the most favored teammate in the group. The buoyant 23-year-old does what he is asked and roots for everyone else.

“That one year when Lonzo (Ball) went out we were all over the place with him, quite honestly,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan admitted. “The one thing with Coby it’s almost like he has the mentality (of), ‘I just want to be out there and if I’m out there, I’ll figure out where I have to play.’

“Last year he was off the bench and we tried to use him more for scoring,” noted Donovan. “What I love about him a lot of his mindset is what can I do to impact the group? I give him a lot of credit. Last year he’s coming into a contract year and playing off the bench and playing off the ball and he always wanted to do what was best for the team. Is he the purest of point guards? No. Is he the purest of two guards? No. But I think he’s a basketball player and a competitor and wants to win; and that’s really important to him. He’s always been good about what’s best for the team. It’s not like since he’s come here it’s this one stable position he’s played all the way through. He’s very driven and motivated and has great internal belief and confidence in himself; he’s about how can I impact winning.”

White is doing it with flair these last few weeks after finally being the aggressive shooter he’s always been.

Who perhaps was retrained a bit by his desire to please and the Bulls uncertainty about where to play him and how to use him, and his own nature of just being available to fill in and provide support.

Great shooters have an ego. It’s okay: that’s what helps win games.

Coby might finally be getting it with the backing of everyone else.

“I was getting in trouble a lot for not taking them,” White admitted past game with a grin. “There were a couple of film sessions Billy kind of stopped the film and said, ‘Shoot the ball’ when I wasn’t shooting it. Everybody from my teammates to the staff to the front office was telling me, ‘Stop passing up shots. Shoot it. I don’t care if you go zero for 10 or zero for 15. We need you to shoot the ball.’ Now probably some of the shots I took tonight weren’t the best shots, but they went in.”

Because great shooters keep shooting because they know the next one is going in.

White can be that type of shooter and scorer because he was most of his life until the last few years.

Though it was a rough first 13 games for White, too, this season.

He was hesitant trying to concentrate on running the offense back at emergency point guard. And Donovan had emphasized coming into the season about ball movement offense. So Coby passed. White is nothing if not a cooperative student. Those first 13 games he was averaging 11.4 points and under 30 percent on threes and under 40 percent overall.

It was Coby unleashed since, but with a little help from a new friend.

“It wasn’t really weighing on me,” White insisted about the slump. “The biggest thing was they all felt pretty good coming off my hand when I was shooting. They just weren’t going in. Working with (player development coach) Peter Patton helped me a lot. I finally started to learn my shot. Before this everybody just said I could really shoot so nobody ever taught me how to learn my shot. I kind of just shot the ball. He’s been a big help in helping me learn my shot, why I miss, when I miss why did it go this way, why is it go that way.

“The main thing was squaring my body up to the rim and then holding my release and holding my follow through in the basket,” White explained. “I had a tendency to either snatch my follow through or follow through to the right. And a lot of those times my ball would go right and those would be the times I’d miss. Those are the things I focused on. Everyday is a process and you have to be consistent.”

It proved vital Saturday with Zach LaVine still out with a foot injury and recent late game hero Alex Caruso missing the second half with a toe injury recurrence. White made three of four threes in the fourth quarter and 12 points, including three assists with the game exclamation point lob for a Patrick Williams slam dunk with 20.1 seconds left for a six-point Bulls lead. Nikola Vučević made a crucial save of a loose ball to pass to White on the play.

And it was just minutes earlier with the Pelicans rallying back within 107-104 that White drew the defense and passed to an open DeRozan for a three, made a long three and then a steal after which he passed to Torrey Craig for another three and a 116-104 Bulls lead with 3:27 left that was just too much for the Pelicans to overtake.

Not with the Bulls new scoring star.

“He’s not one of these guys if he feels he’s got it going he’s not going to take a lot of heat check shots,” said Donovan. “He tries to play the game the right way. He knows for us his penetration, passing and shooting helps our game. I’m happy for him because of the work he’s put in to get to this point.”

And finally making his point with all those points.

Talk about a story for Hollywood.

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