Coby White doesn’t have to do much to stand out. His hair is a beacon. Curly and voluminous, it gives him an extra few inches of height atop his 6-foot-5 frame. As he dribbles, his hair bounces along with him. It’s like a Head & Shoulders ad come to life.
It’s easy to notice White on the court, and it’s also easy to be impressed by him. There’s a smoothness to his game that has turned heads at Las Vegas summer league. It also helps that there haven’t been many other 2019 lottery picks to draw away your attention. Zion Williamson packed the arena on opening night, but he was shut down for the rest of summer league after nine minutes because of a bruised knee. RJ Barrett has struggled for the Knicks. Tyler Herro, De’Andre Hunter, and Rui Hachimura are the only other lottery picks to play meaningful minutes. No. 2 pick Ja Morant, who had minor knee surgery in June, and no. 5 pick Darius Garland, who missed most of his freshman season with a torn meniscus, are being held out too.
“I can’t help that he’s not playing,” White said when asked about missing out on a chance to face off with Garland. “I was ready to match up with whoever it was.”
White said he doesn’t feed off the “whoo” or “ahh” noises the crowd makes for some of his best moves because he doesn’t like to listen to the response. In a setting where highlights are currency, White has made a mark by being consistent. He’s scored at least 15 points in all three of the Bulls’ games (including 25 in the third), and averaged four assists in his first two games. He’s averaging 19 points, 4.3 rebounds, and 3.7 assists per game, and though he’s shooting only 40 percent, he is also averaging more than five trips to the line.
White’s game sneaks up on you. He’ll charge right at a defender, absorb contact, and finish an off-balance layup like a more mature player. He’ll use his speed to put pressure on the defense—and, as was the case this week, to get back at a player who just scored on him. He’ll stop on a dime and take a midrange jumper or drain a stepback 3. Suddenly, you realize he has double-digit points—some of them hard-earned, some of them effortless, some of them highlight material:
Coby White putting the defense on skates at NBA Summer League! pic.twitter.com/hyXWf72oCx— Courtside Films (@CourtsideFilms) July 8, 2019
Thad Young took note of White’s best moments while sitting courtside for the Bulls’ third summer league game, against the Pelicans, and said he’s been keeping his eye on White for a while. Young, who signed a three-year, $41 million deal with the Bulls this offseason, considers himself a basketball junkie. He watched college games all season, especially North Carolina’s. “I know guys are coming in each and every year to try to take my job, so I have to pay attention,” he said with a laugh. Young liked White’s motor, his aggressiveness, his savvy in college; that’s what he’s seeing up close too. But even before he has put on a Bulls uniform, Young is already acting as a veteran presence.
“Sometimes he picks his dribble up a little bit,” Young said. “He’s young, still got a lot to learn, but I can already tell he’s one of those kids who is very bright, very smart, and he’s going to be able to learn really fast. … I’m looking forward to playing with him.”
Bulls summer league coach Nate Loenser pointed to turnovers as an area of improvement for White. The 19-year-old had seven in his second game in Vegas against the Cavaliers. Against the Pelicans, White coughed up a few turnovers early before tightening his handle and matching New Orleans’s Nickeil Alexander-Walker, the no. 17 overall pick, nearly shot for shot.
White said he thought he was playing at the right (quick) pace, and chalked up his turnovers to simple mistakes. “I always play fast, always play up-tempo, so the change in speed doesn’t affect me,” he said. “It was poor decisions, that’s all it was.”
Speed is an integral part of White’s game, and the up-and-down style played at summer league feeds into it. The Bulls weren’t particularly fast last season—they were only 20th in pace and averaged the 18th-most fast-break points. It’d be surprising if coach Jim Boylen, a Gregg Popovich disciple and a disciplinarian, ever revved up the engine and let White run. But the Bulls now have a deep bench of athletes—Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., Zach LaVine, Otto Porter Jr.—to get out in transition more often.
White has a clear opportunity to be the one leading the break. The Bulls technically have a starting point guard in Kris Dunn, but he’s struggled since arriving in the 2017 trade that sent Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. It’s why the team went out and signed Tomas Satoransky for three years and $30 million in free agency. The key for White, though, may be to play less like Dunn—a straight-ahead, drive-and-dish point guard—and more like a combo guard. With a lot of players who can handle the ball—including LaVine, who had a 30.5 usage percentage last season—White may be asked to hit a catch-and-shoot 3 as often as he is to initiate the offense.
White hit only 35 percent from deep at UNC, but he did so at a high volume (6.6 attempts per game). He also shot 80 percent at the free throw line, which is often a good indicator of NBA 3-point success. White’s 3-point stroke has been off in Vegas so far; he made none of his first 11 attempts. So when he drilled two 3s in the second quarter of a blowout loss to the Pelicans, a weight lifted off his shoulders.
“We want him to get as many game shots and game reads as possible. That’s what all of this is about,” Loenser said. “Some of these guys he’s going to play with, some of these guys he’s not, but it’s still within our system. So it’s important to get as many of these shots and these game reps as possible.”
Time and work and patience are necessary. White knows this. The Bulls seemingly do too.
“They’re accepting that I have a long way to go and that I’m learning, so it’s been great for me,” White said.
White and his hair have indeed stood out through the first week of summer league, but on a team of young veterans looking to finally move up from the Eastern Conference basement, the key to success for his rookie season will be how well he fits in.