White making subtle improvements on both ends in 4th year


If you simply perused Basketball Reference, it would be easy to conclude that Coby White is having the worst season of his four-year NBA career.

The Chicago Bulls' sparkplug guard is averaging career-lows in minutes (21), points (8.3), assists (1.9) and rebounds (2.4) while shooting 34.7 percent from 3-point range, nearly two percentage points off his career mark of 36.4 and four lower than last season's career-best 38.5.

But what the counting stats overlook are subtle improvements White has made on both ends of the court that have added up to at times significant contributions in a role limited by the Bulls' crowded guard room.

On the offensive end, White's handle has appeared noticeably tighter, particularly in sequences like this highlight reel fasbtreak alley-oop to Zach LaVine in Monday's loss to the Houston Rockets:

"A lot of times this year in transition, especially the moves that I have done, I would've probably lost the ball or lost control of it or dribbled off my foot or something (in prior seasons)," White said after the Bulls' Wednesday morning shooatround ahead of a home matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks. "I see the improvement and it makes you feel good inside, seeing what you worked on translate over to the game."

Indeed, White said he spent his summer working out six days a week — and added that each one began with repetitious ball-handling drills.

"Every single session, starting off with ball-handling. No matter if it was 15 minutes of ball-handling, five minutes of ball-handling, or the majority of the workout may have been ball-handling," he said. "I've still got a long ways to go, I feel like, but as long as I'm trending in the right direction that's all I really care about."

The same could be said of his defense.

Even when that side of the ball was a more glaring weakness for White earlier in his career, his limitations were never based on a lack of effort. What he needed was to add strength and pore over film to identify and correct positioning mistakes — two more focuses this offseason, which were at least in part catalyzed by the Bulls being routed out of the first round of the 2022 playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks (a series in which White fell out of the rotation for a time before injuries led to his return).

"This summer I had our video guys clip up my pick-and-rolls from last year, defensive tendencies from last year, and I watched them over the summer," White said. "When we lost in the playoffs and I watched the rest of the playoffs, I focused on the defensive end when I was watching the games.

"My biggest thing was positioning, being in the right position, being the low man (in pick-and-roll coverage), being in the gaps. Just being in the right position to have my teammate's back. And another thing is just focusing on players' tendencies. Catching the first dribble with square hips, cut him off, and then I think a big thing that helped me was this summer I got in the weight room a lot, so I got a lot stronger and it's helped me on that end of the court."

In a limited role, White is rebounding (7.7 percent defensive rebound rate, 79th percentile for his position) and stealing (1.5 percent steal rate, 58th percentile) the ball at the best rates of his career, according to Cleaning the Glass.

But, again, it goes beyond the numbers.

While White will be the first to tell you he is not perfect, he is properly positioned as the low helper on the back end of pick-and-roll coverage more often than in years past. He is frequently embracing physicality as an individual defender. And he is more outwardly communicative on the floor, an area in which the Bulls' team defense has been inconsistent as a whole.

He credited classes at the school of Alex Caruso for much of his defensive improvements.

"Learning from guys like AC last year, and this year I talk to him a lot about it, about just learning the physicality of the game, especially on the defensive end and learning what you can get away with, what you can't get away with," White said. "Times to be physical and times not to be physical, when to bump when you're guarding — when to bump the offensive player — and then when to show hands. He's been a big help for me this season and going into the summer."

The flip side is, White's 3-point shooting — typically his bread and butter, albeit streaky — has yet to fully come around. He began the season frigid from long range, shooting 29.4 percent in his first seven games. But in 18 contests since returning from a quad injury in mid-November, he is shooting 36.9 percent, 41.3 percent in his last eight.

And although White chuckled at a question about his rim finishing, saying it has been worse than he wants it to be, he is also shooting a career-best 66 percent at the basket this season, 63rd percentile for his position, according to Cleaning the Glass.

The importance of White's fourth NBA season cannot be overstated. After trade rumors swirled around him in the offseason, the former seventh overall pick is set for restricted free agency in the offseason with his Bulls future very much in question. And his subtle improvements are just that, subtle. Not a massive jump in minutes, or scoring, or easy-to-see production.

But in a general climate where patience with young players can run thin, he is keeping a level head.

"It hasn't been hard," White said of having patience with himself. "I love to see my peers succeed, our (2019) draft class is really succeeding.

"Like you said, people are impatient. I'm only in my fourth year, I'm only 22 years old. I really should be in college (laughs), I'm just saying. But it's whatever, man. I just tell myself all the time, like, everybody has their own story, everybody's journey is different. And if mine is different that's just what it is.

"But I still have those same goals that I came in with. You have this picture in your head of how things are gonna go, and then when they don't go that way, you can get down on yourself a lot. But I just embrace the journey. You'll have moments — I'm human, I have moments where I'm like, 'Man,' you know? But it is what it is. Everybody's journey is different and I have belief in myself and confidence in myself."

Those goals? While White is not quibbling with his current role, he, like any professional player, has his sights eventually set on, in his words, being a "starting guard in the NBA, having that elite-caliber guard status, being an All-Star."

"Everybody comes in the NBA and they want to have high levels for themselves," he said. "You don't get here and say 'I want to be an average basketball player in the NBA.' I feel like if you don't have those dreams and aspirations, then what are you doing here, you know what I'm saying?"

But there is a different title that means more to him than those individual accolades.

"First, I want to be known as a winning player," White said. "I think this year I'm taking steps in those directions. I just want to be known around the league as 'this guy wants to win and he's gonna do everything he can in his control to win.' That's my first step, and I feel like I'm gonna start to prove that this year."

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