What to watch for in Bulls rookie Coby White's first NBA start


It’s Coby White day, y’all. Tonight against the Cavaliers, the Bulls’ lightning-rod rookie will make his highly-anticipated first NBA start. The game tips at 7 p.m. CT on NBC Sports Chicago — until then, here's what to watch for:

White’s last eight games (33.6 mpg, 26.9 ppg, 4.4 ast; 48.8/44.6/92.3):

  • March 8 @ BKN  35 mins, 21 pts, 8-21 FG (3-9 3PT), 8 ast, 0 TOV

  • March 6 vs. IND  38 mins, 26 pts, 10-21 FG (3-10 3PT), 6 ast, 2 TOV

  • March 4 @ MIN  35 mins, 26 pts, 11-22 FG (2-7 3PT), 6 ast, 0 TOV

  • March 2 vs. DAL  32 mins, 19 pts, 8-20 FG (3-9 3PT), 5 ast, 4 TOV

  • Feb. 29 @ NYK  28 mins, 22 pts, 7-17 FG (4-8 3PT), 3 ast, 1 TOV

  • Feb. 25 vs. OKC  33 mins, 35 pts, 13-21 FG (6-9 3PT), 3 ast, 1 TOV

  • Feb. 23 vs. WAS  34 mins, 33 pts, 11-18 FG (5-9 3PT), 2 ast, 5 TOV

  • Feb. 22 vs. PHO  34 mins, 33 pts, 11-22 FG (7-13 3PT), 2 ast, 5 TOV

How will White fare continuing to shoulder the offensive load?

It was a question that loomed over the Bulls for the first four months of the season: Where in the world would this team be without Zach LaVine? Well, tonight against the Cavaliers, LaVine will miss his fifth game in a row. In the first four, the Bulls are 1-3 and have the 28th-rated offense in the NBA (105.7). To be fair, it’s not a far cry from their season-long, 27th-ranked rating of 105.8.

But don’t fault White for that. He has stepped up in LaVine’s absence, averaging 23 points, 21 field goal attempts (8.8 from 3-point range), 6.3 assists and 34.9 minutes per game in that span. His shooting splits (44/31.4/87.5) have marginally regressed from his torrid stretch at the end of February, but with advanced responsibility, that’s to be expected and quickly forgiven.

The Bulls’ on/off splits in those four games are telling of White’s impact. Look at the chasm between the team’s true shooting and effective field goal percentages with White off the floor. 

Via NBA Stats

That speaks to White’s own shots falling (his 56.9 eFG% and 60.5 TS% since the break are good-to-great), him being staggered with Otto Porter Jr. and the attention he demands even when he doesn’t shoot

Zooming out to a post All-Star break sample (nine games), the Bulls score at a rate of 112.7 points per 100 possessions with White on the floor and 94.8 with him off. Eventually, White and LaVine will be a dazzling backcourt tandem. But for now, seeing White embrace such a heavy offensive load in LaVine’s absence is encouraging. Remember, White is 20 years old and was comfortably one of the least efficient players in the league less than a month ago. Now, he’s propping up the Bulls offense for long stretches. 

RELATED: Birthday boy: A deep dive on LaVine as he turns 25

Are the defensive and playmaking flashes real?

This promotion could be an audition for the role of ‘point guard of the future.’ That means it is absolutely essential to watch how White impacts the game, whether he’s scoring or not.

White’s 2.58 assist-to-turnover ratio since the beginning of February is a surefire indication of how far he’s come, as are the growing number of moments like this:

“He's made a conscious decision to take some of those mid-clock, mid-range twos and turned them into assists or threes,” Boylen said. “His decisions, his ability to handle the ball, have been really good, and they've grown… He's developing. He's figuring it out.”

Especially with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr. stumbling in their returns from injury, pay close attention to how conscious White is of getting others involved. It’s easy to get caught up in the hot scoring spurts, but that dynamic is an important aspect of his development.

As are White’s improvements defensively, both on and off-ball. Jim Boylen has repeatedly said that he and White comb through seven to 20 defensive clips after every game, and those hours behind the scenes are beginning to pay off in White’s quick-twitch decision-making on rotations and recovery on-ball.

“What he’s given me most of all is a willingness to improve at it. His value of it, he takes it very seriously, his development at that end. I’ve mentioned it before. We watch his defensive clips together. I mentioned he’s improved his angle of containment. He’s improved his pick and roll stance, and position and his technique there. And his overall physicality and competitiveness has improved,” Boylen said. “That’s a huge growth plate for him, and he’s locked into it, which I think had to happen for him to get this opportunity. If he hadn’t grown at the defensive end like he has, I don’t think this opportunity would be coming for him. So he needs to get the credit for that.’’

In each of the three matchups with Cleveland this season, the Cavs have shot over 50 percent from the field and 40% from three, and Collin Sexton is averaging 20.7 points on 54.5% shooting. The Cavaliers are just 19-45 on the season, but are 6-5 in their last 11 and not an opponent to be taken lightly.

How simple will the adjustment be?

Success in White’s new role boils down to doing all the things he’s been doing since the All-Star break. That was the prevailing sentiment at practice on Monday afternoon when White’s promotion to the starting lineup was announced.

“The biggest responsibility, I think, is to keep doing the things he’s doing. You don’t become the starter and reinvent the way you play,” Boylen said. “He’s played starter’s minutes. He’s played against starters in the minutes he plays. So this is not a thing where we had this expectation for him to change who he is or what he’s doing.”

In the 16 games in which he’s played over 30 minutes this season, he’s averaging 21.9 points and 4.4 assists per contest on 46.4% shooting (40.8% from three). There will be jitters. And no matter how much White and Boylen downplay this adjustment, there are undoubtedly marked differences in approach, expectation and responsibility that come with starting as opposed to coming off the bench. Yes, the Cavaliers have the 29th-rated defense in the league, but stymying White will be at the heart of their game plan.

Just four and a half months into his NBA career, White has seen peaks, valleys and everything in between. He endured an 10-week stretch where he averaged 9.8 points on 36.4% shooting and logged just one 20-point game. A week and a half later, he became the first rookie reserve to drop 30-plus points in three consecutive games. He remained even-tempered through it all.

“I've been playing pretty well,” White said, ever tempered. “So just gotta continue to do that and continue to play hard.”

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