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New Bulls point guard Coby White is built for buckets

How the North Carolina guard unlocked his potential in the 2019 NBA Draft by learning to fly.

Rob Salter is used to people doing a double-take when they walk into his office and see the photo hanging on the wall. It’s hard to recognize a young Coby White, about to enter his freshman year at Greenfield School in Wilson, North Carolina in this picture, with a shaved head. It might be the last picture of White before he started to grow out his signature big, floppy hair.

Salter had already helped build a successful program as the head coach at Greenfield when White became a varsity starter as a freshman. It didn’t take Salter long to learn his new guard was special. Greenfield faced Wesleyan Christian Academy and Harry Giles early in the season, a player widely considered the best long-term prospect in the country at the time. White ended the game with 25 points.

“Coby can score in his sleep, man,” Salter told SB Nation.

That’s what the Bulls expect, too, after they made White the No. 7 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft. White has been getting buckets his entire basketball career, so why stop now? With Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Lauri Markkanen as running mates, White should put up points in bunches.

White earned most of his buckets in those early days by simply out-running everyone else on the court. When he showed up for his sophomore season in high school after a four-inch growth spurt over the summer, his athleticism kicked into another gear. His teammates quickly learned they’d have to keep up with a point guard who had a tireless dedication to pushing the ball in the open floor and an incredible knack for putting it in the basket.

White didn’t stop scoring at Greenfield until he broke the North Carolina state record for total points in a career. It happened at a tournament in Virginia, when the hosting school stopped the game unbeknownst to anyone at Greenfield to recognize White’s achievement. He left the school with 3,511 points in his career, a fringe five-star rating as a recruit, and a rare opening to be a freshman starter at North Carolina for Roy Williams.

[Do you like NBA Draft grades? We have 2019 NBA Draft grades for you]

North Carolina has always been a program built on speed going to back to the heyday of Dean Smith. With Coby White as their engine, UNC played at its fastest pace since KenPom started tracking those numbers in the 2001-02 season. To watch the Tar Heels was to see White burning opposing defenses down the court on the secondary break, curly afro blowing in the wind and pink shoes looking like a blur out of Sonic the Hedgehog.

After a breakout season where he broke Michael Jordan’s freshman scoring record and powered the Tar Heels to a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament, White’s college career ended sooner than he or his school ever anticipated. White entered the NBA draft, and he’s now a top-7 pick.

“It still hasn’t hit me yet,” White said at the NBA draft combine. “You dream it before you realize you’re capable of it. ”

Everything in White’s life is moving fast right now. Fortunately for Chicago fans, that’s always when he’s been at his best.

White is a nominal point guard, but he hardly plays like a floor general in a traditional sense. At nearly 6’5, White combines the scoring mentality of an off-guard with an unbreakable resolve to put pressure on the defense with the ball in his hands. In that sense, White’s offensive skill set is a natural fit for how the position has evolved in today’s game.

White has an advanced scoring package for a lead guard. His favorite move is the step-back, an increasingly essential weapon to combat defenses built to smother ball handlers at the three-point line. When White creates space, he has a fluid shooting stroke and quick release he can get off at any time.

North Carolina rarely ran sets, but when they did, White proved he was comfortable navigating ball screens. He’s particularly adept at splitting defenders to get into the paint. He loves the behind-the-back dribble either in the half-court or transition, often going for ambitious dribble moves even when they started leading to turnovers. Williams is notorious for giving freshmen a short leash, but he rarely tried to rein his point guard in. It speaks volumes about how essential White’s scoring and tempo were to the Tar Heels.

White remains more of a scorer than a facilitator, but he’s far from selfish. He showed promise as a decision-maker in the half-cout, whether that meant finishing plays himself or hitting a teammate for an assist. He finished in the 81st percentile for points plus assists per possession against a set defense, per Synergy Sports, which is impressive efficiency for a player who has mostly staked his reputation in the open floor.

Part of the reason White proved to be so effective in the half court is because he’s a truly lethal shooter off the catch. He finished in the 92nd percentile on spot-up opportunities, showing a strong feel for moving without the ball to go along with great balance and a quick, repeatable shooting motion. He’s going to have gravity off-the-ball as a shooter for the Bulls, which makes him an ideal fit when Zach LaVine or Otto Porter initiate the offense.

White holds his own when stacked up against guards with similar size who also got drafted in the lottery in recent years. It serves to create a baseline comparison for what the Bulls hope to get out of him early in his career.

Coby contemporaries

Player True shooting percentage Assist rate Steal rate Turnover rate Free throw percentage
Player True shooting percentage Assist rate Steal rate Turnover rate Free throw percentage
Coby White 55.5 24.4 2 18.8 80
Jamal Murray 59 12.1 1.6 15.3 78.3
C.J. McCollum 55.6 25.4 4.6 12.4 81.1
D'Angelo Russell 57.3 30.1 2.8 17.3 75.6
Collin Sexton 56.7 27.8 1.6 16.2 77.8

While his turnover rate is higher than anyone else on the list, keep in mind that White led what was by far the fastest offense of the group. The Tar Heels finished No. 6 in KenPom’s tempo rankings this year, with only low-major programs in front of them. Only McCollum led an offense that finished in the top-60 in the tempo rankings, and that was in the low-major Patriot League, which potentially contributed to his steal rate as well. No one else on this list played for a team that finished in the top-130 of pace.

“The league is full of great point guards every night,” White said at the combine. “I’m looking forward to the challenge of testing myself.”

White was on his way to the airport to fly out to Nike Elite Camp in Los Angeles during his rising senior year when he got a phone call that would change his life. His father had passed from liver cancer. Donald White — affectionately called ‘Doc’ — rarely missed one of Coby’s games and became a fixture around Greenfield. The pink shoes White wore at North Carolina were a symbolic nod to those affected by cancer.

“Basketball was his escape route,” Salter said.

Salter remembers when White heard about a fifth grader at Greenfield, a K-12 school, who had just lost his mother to cancer. White sought out the child on his own and shared his experience with him. “That’s the type of young man Coby is,” Salter said.

White acknowledged the last two years have felt like a blur. Few expected him to be a one-and-done, let alone a lottery pick after his freshman year. He is far from a finished product, though his inefficiencies feel more like room for growth than a handicap.

White only finished in the 27th percentile on pull-up shooting attempts at UNC, but his shooting mechanics and balance are reason to believe it should become a strength of his game. He was also better as a playmaker than most anticipated after burnishing his reputation as a scorer in high school, though he clearly needs to get better at making reads to be a full-time lead initiator for the Bulls.

If White continues to improve his facilitating and starts to see his pull-ups drop more frequently, he projects as a guard who can play on- or off-the-ball that provides incredible straight-line speed, shifty ball handling, and knockdown shooting. Look at the lineups the Houston Rockets were playing in the Western Conference semifinals against the Golden State Warriors, often closing with James Harden, Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, Austin Rivers, and P.J. Tucker. No one in that lineup was bigger than 6’6. It feels like a brand of basketball White is particularly suited to play.

With incredible straight-line speed with the ball in his hands and the ability to hit shots from all over the floor, White is a natural fit for today’s game. His Chicago teammates just better be in good enough shape to run with him. Coby White isn’t slowing down any time soon.