Coby White is quietly on the rise for the Chicago Bulls

Coby White, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports
Coby White, Chicago Bulls Mandatory Credit: Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports /

Bright lights often cast the deepest of shadows, and the NBA spotlight has been shining on Chicago this season. In its wake, relegated to the background, Coby White is on the rise. 

In a recap of the 2019 NBA Draft, The Ringer’s Jonathan Tjarks wrote these two lines about the Bulls No. 7 overall pick Coby White:

  • White could be the final piece on an interesting young lineup in Chicago.
  • White makes them better next season while also giving them another chance to find a star.”

Most pre-draft scouting reports saw White as an athletic combo-guard with good size, decent shooting ability, a blazing first step and unselfish nature. The negative side of Coby’s profile suggested that while his speed was an asset, it also caused him to play outside himself, making sloppy or inaccurate passes in college in addition to a lack of an ability to finish at the rim. His overall frame and athleticism were seen as unremarkable and no one was calling him a plus-defender.

So much of the scouting report from (which mirrors those of other major scouting sites) contradicts Tjarks’ optimism regarding what Coby represented for the Bulls in that draft. His assessment of White as the final piece on an interesting young team or a future star was not the consensus, as far more people considered him a 6th man/microwave scorer type.

In the Dark: 4 straight non-playoff seasons for the Bulls, 102 wins in the 4 years before 2021-2022

White’s rookie season was relatively impressive, as he flashed enough early to earn himself a role off the bench right away. He overtook Kris Dunn the first time he hit a jump shot, but somehow was not able to surpass Tomas Satoransky for the starting job. White shot poorly from the field (39%) but reasonably well from three (35%), and surprisingly only turned the ball over 1.7 times per-game in nearly 26 minutes per night.

He was also the team’s third-leading scorer with 13.2 PPG behind Zach LaVine and Lauri Markkenan, and his efforts earned him All-Rookie Second Team honors — he arguably could’ve made First Team over Eric Paschall, too. There’s something about White, even as a rookie on a bad Bulls team, that you just can’t quantify with the numbers.

On March 19, 2020, LaVine went for 49 points and hit the game-winner against the Charlotte Hornets. White was on the court for the final possession. When LaVine stole ball under the basket and dribbled out to the arc to fire on the bench side, White was all the way across the court. When that bucket hit the bottom of the nylon, the first person to arrive, to celebrate, to hype up his guy, was White. Look at the dead sprint White breaks into to go pound LaVine in the chest:

Most people watching probably didn’t notice that small moment happening in the frame: the steal, the game-winner in front of the Hornets bench, the body of work from LaVine that night on the whole took centerstage, but that one moment showed us a glimpse of who the Bulls really drafted with the seventh overall pick.

From the jump it was clear that White wasn’t just out for his numbers, to prove the doubters wrong, or to make highlight-reel plays. White, at 19 years old, cared about two things: winning and being there for his teammates.

White’s second season in the league was tumultuous but productive as he raised his game averages to 15.1 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.8 assists per game. He took on a bigger role in the offense — including starting 54 games — prior to the Nikola Vucevic trade in February. The Bulls, set on making a playoff push, went in on Vucevic at the deadline, but lost LaVine to COVID protocols. The team absolutely fell apart during that stretch, capping a four-year run of missing the playoffs. Despite the improved numbers, much of the league media seemed to think of White as a nice player who’s game didn’t support winning basketball.

At the speed of light

This past offseason the Bulls brass continued their quest to acquire top-tier talent, adding DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso. White, on the other hand, had off-season shoulder surgery that would cause him to miss the first 13 games of the 2021-22 season.

In the interim, Chicago sold off Lauri Markkenan, the final remaining member of the young core Tjarks mentioned in his draft recap. The added guard depth and veteran talent caused media members and fans to speculate about White’s future with the team. Always solid but never quite spectacular, White became everyone’s favorite trade bait as the Bulls looked to round out a talented but seemingly disjointed roster overloaded with backcourt players.

Queue the 2021/22 season and turn on the lights!

The Bulls came out of the gates looking like dark-horse contenders with a shockingly top-tier defense and two absolute killers in DeRozan and LaVine. Vucevic struggled early but really hit his stride in the offense around Christmas and, until an untimely cheap-shot by Milwaukee Bucks’ Grayson Allen in January, Caruso was cruising as well.

Caruso was having an NBA All-Defense-level season alongside Ball. The Bulls have spent the entirety of the 21-22 season at or near the top of the East standings despite myriad injuries, new pieces melding together on the fly, a complete lack of front-court depth, and a stacked Conference. The spotlight has been shining on Chicago from the jump and in the shadow cast by DeRozan’s MVP bid, LaVine blossoming, among other things, White is quietly playing the best basketball of his career.

Rising from the shadows

White’s 13.6 points, 3.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists are hardly star numbers in the league and if you’re simply looking at the counting stats this season you’re going to miss the rest of the story.

Boasting significantly improved and frankly elite shooting percentages, White is filling exactly the role that Billy Donovan needs him to fill, a role that changes from week to week and, at times, even night to night. White has started roughly a quarter of his 44 games this season, coming off the bench the rest of the time.

White has played with different combinations of players every night and is averaging only one turnover with a 20% usage rate when he is on the floor. His steady hand at the point of attack in the second unit has been crucial for a Bulls squad that lacks perimeter scoring and shot creation in the half-court outside of DeRozan and LaVine.

White’s most impressive improvement has been his development on defense. He’s never going to be a lock-down guy like Ball and Caruso, but White is no longer a one-way player. He does his job on the defensive end, limiting opposing players to 33% shooting on shots outside of 15 feet and a meager 30% from outside the arc. As a benchmark, Marcus Smart allows 34% shooting beyond 15 feet and 32.7% shooting from 3-point range this season.

White may not be a star yet, but I believe he’s fulfilling the high-upside praise he received from Tjarks in that original draft recap. White is a grinder, a hustler and a team-first player, and has improved both his strengths and weaknesses. As far as I can tell from both the numbers and the eye test, White doesn’t belong in anyone’s shadow, and frankly, I’m not sure that we’ve seen him anywhere close to his ceiling yet.

Keep your spotlights on Chicago this postseason, you won’t want to miss what rises from the shadows.