Coby White is Chicago Bulls’ Bright Spot in Another Lost Season

The best thing about the Chicago Bulls this season has been the jerseys. The colors, the styles, the throwbacks… There is something about the Bulls’ championship heritage mixed with the culture of a great city like Chicago. It just works.

But their basketball performance?

Meh.

Despite some faint postseason hopes among fans at the start of the season, the Bulls have consistently sat two or three spots outside the playoffs all year.

Zach LaVine has not performed to the All-Star standard people expected, though he’s been working with a short deck all year in terms of help. Wendell Carter Jr., Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr. haven’t been healthy, much less at the same time. The veteran talent of Tomas Satoransky and Thad Young has not helped a young core reach the playoffs, and questions around the longevity of both coach Jim Boylen and the front office only continue to rise.

Lots of articles have been written about the shortfalls of this once-promising young core, its combatively stubborn coach and its past-sell-by-date front office. Let’s not do that again, but instead shine a light on a consistent ray of hope among all the disappointment.

Rookie Coby White has shown through in fits and starts to the point it’s hard to tell sometimes whether he’s flickering or shimmering.

However, his inconsistency makes you appreciate the impressive resumé that fellow draft classman, Memphis Grizzlies point guard Ja Morant, has put together. Morant has scored fewer than 10 points just five times all season.

Meanwhile, White has dipped below that figure 24 times, which has left his Bulls on the losing end 75 percent of those cases. 

Most rookies can’t do what Morant has done this year. Most rookies aren’t handed the keys to the car in their first season with a fellow young core and coach who are all traveling the same road. So, yes, it might be unfair to compare them on the surface, but White’s inconsistency is not necessarily his fault. 

The comparison is apt in the context.

Oct 25, 2019; Memphis, TN, USA; Memphis Grizzlies guard Ja Morant (12) and Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) late in the fourth quarter of their game at FedExForum. Mandatory Credit: Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

White’s role, minutes, position and usage have fluctuated dramatically as the Bulls have dealt with injuries and changing game plans. He has also suffered from the presence of arguably too many ball handlers. 

You can see what the Bulls wanted to do, and it absolutely was a sound strategy: Find several young, talented players via draft or trade, give them all a shot, and see who rises.

But with Ryan Arcidiacono running some plays, Satoransky also taking the reins, and Kris Dunn still trying to earn a regular rotation spot on any team, it hasn’t helped White get regular reps at the point guard spot. LaVine also takes up a lot of real estate on the court and seemingly has the green light whenever and wherever he wants. 

It’s been tough to find a rhythm when the whole team’s rhythm has never really been established.

The Bulls’ offensive system is not overly complicated, however. It encourages movement until someone posts up, goes one on one, or sets a useful pick and roll. LaVine has never been shy in any of those areas. This year, he is 17th on the number of isolation possessions he takes per game, despite scoring 0.91 points per isolated possession, which ranks 88th.

Meanwhile, White has had just 0.8 isolation possessions per game.

Again, perhaps the comparison might be unfair. Nobody would expect a rookie to be given more opportunities than a proven high-volume scorer in his sixth year.

But White has exploded during the past 10 games, and there are connections to opportunity.

Feb 25, 2020; Chicago, Illinois, USA; Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) reacts after scoring in the second half against the Oklahoma City Thunder at United Center. Mandatory Credit: Quinn Harris-USA TODAY Sports

He started the year averaging around 24 minutes. This was a fair amount—he was 13th in rookie minutes before the All-Star break—but as a speedy, scoring point guard playing alongside four or five others of the same ilk, opportunities during those minutes were fairly tough to come by. 

White scored 17 points and then 25 in his first two games, with the latter being a win over the Morant-led Memphis Grizzlies. It’s difficult to see what White did wrong, but over the next six contests, he was limited to just 20 minutes per and averaged 6 points.

During one of those early-season games, while playing 23 minutes against the Indiana Pacers on November 6, White looked lost. He was not involved in many plays, and when he received the ball halfway through the shot clock with teammates out of position, those possessions came up empty, as his aimless dribbles led to turnovers and bad passes. The Bulls lost 108-95, and they were already 2-5.

Maybe head coach Jim Boylen was teaching his young players; it was early in the season. Maybe he wanted to give some of the other players a chance. That’s fine.

But some of Boylen’s subsequent decisions down the stretch of a quickly lost season are undoubtedly head-scratching. We could certainly get into the likes of calling a timeout when the Bulls have an open layup or calling a timeout down 10 with just a few seconds left in the game. While this isn’t about Boylen’s game management, little (and persistent) head-scratchers like that have been symptomatic of similar inconsistent choices with his rotation, roles, etc. 

So this all circles back to White’s opportunity and production.

Since playing the New Orleans Pelicans on February 6, White is either out of the doghouse, he has had greater rein or he has benefited from others missing time. Unlike the spluttering, disorganized player we saw against Indiana at the start of the season, he has been more relaxed in recent weeks.

He won Rookie of the Month for February, after all.

The first option is usually still LaVine, but when the play breaks down, White calmly collects the ball and has a range of options at his disposal. He is often the quickest player on the court, so if he gets a first step on the defender, you can already count the basket.

He is patient in the pick and roll and loves to snake back in front of the defender to attack the rim. But his real weapon is the ability to shoot from mid-range. It might be against the grain of analytics, but White is one of the best in the league on above-the-break long twos from the left side. He is equally a credible threat on floaters and short-range jump-stop shots off the drive after shaking his defender loose.

His minutes have increased to nearly 32 per game. This has helped him increase his scoring output from a season average of 12.8 points to 21.4 during that 10-game stretch, and he has increased his field goal percentage from 37 in the first 52 games to better than 42 percent.

It also helps that White is a decent defender—something that can’t be said about LaVine and some others that he is battling for minutes.

At 6’4″, White is a good height for a combo guard and his head stays on a swivel. If he’s the second guard, he will defend players off the ball and is great at rotating to help a beat teammate. He’ll stand straight up and occasionally jump when he shouldn’t, but he will rarely get called for a foul, averaging just 1.8 per game. He also has the speed to burst back out to his assignment on the perimeter if the ball is kicked out.

Feb 29, 2020; New York, New York, USA; New York Knicks guard Frank Ntilikina (11) shoots the ball as Chicago Bulls guard Coby White (0) defends during the second half at Madison Square Garden. Mandatory Credit: Vincent Carchietta-USA TODAY Sports

This hasn’t necessarily resulted in wins during the past month, but Chicago has lost plenty of games regardless of who plays: It’s the Bulls. There are bigger problems at play. 

However, when White scores more than 10 points, they have won 39 percent of their games. When White scores fewer than 10, it dips to 25 percent. His usage rate correlates: When it’s above 20 percent, the Bulls have won nearly 4 in 10 games. Tut when he is used less than 20 percent, it dips to 1 in 4. 

And there (finally) have been more shots and greater usage up for grabs in recent weeks, as Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr and others have missed big chunks of time due to injury. Now that they have returned, LaVine has been out with injury issues.

Who is playing when and where is still lacking, but White proving that the opportunity will be matched with plenty of production.

Individual experience is being gained this season, but collective chemistry is still nothing more than a theoretical notion for this team. The Bulls might not have many things going for them, but White is one, and they need to keep the runway clear for him the rest of the way to get a fair shot.

Even if they get nothing else out of this miserable season, solidifying Coby White as their future building block would be a major win.

Because the Bulls still have the best jerseys in the league. And the more we see White on the court wearing them, the better it will be for that franchise in the long run.

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