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The 21-41 Chicago Bulls haven’t had many reasons to celebrate this season. But head coach Jim Boylen likes to take solace in small victories, and No. 7 overall pick Coby White has gone scorched earth over the past few weeks.
After being named Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in February, White followed up with another monster performance in Wednesday night’s loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves. He finished with a team-high 26 points on 11-of-22 shooting and six assists in 35 minutes off the bench.
After a shaky start to his NBA career—he’s averaging 12.6 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists with 39.2/35.7/78.8 shooting splits on the season—White entered Wednesday coming off an explosive six-game stretch in which he averaged 28.4 points, 4.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists while shooting 50.8 percent from the field, 49.1 percent from deep and 95 percent at the charity stripe.
Although White likely won’t sustain this kind of production, he’s shown some clear signs of growth from earlier this season, when shot-selection issues may have prevented him from channeling his skills.
“He’s shifty, but must get stronger,” one scout said. “He’s proving he can get to spots and can score but takes crazy-bad shots. It’s not surprising due to his lack of experience and terrible perceived team chemistry.”
Considering the volume of erratic shot selection and green light of all green lights, it remains to be seen what White can become. Is this just a hot streak, or is he starting to figure things out?
To answer these questions, the Bulls first have to decide how they want to use White within their offense. Is he a ball-dominant microwave scorer, or can he share a backcourt with Zach LaVine? If so, can he operate as a playmaker for others or just himself?
White has done most of his damage on the ball, scoring off the dribble through a flurry of pull-up threes and counter moves.
White has shown he can score in bunches, but he needs to refine and polish it within the context of a cohesive offense.
“It can be easy initially to improve one’s scoring when you have the green light on a bad team,” the scout added.
One way to do that is for Chicago to put him into different offensive situations and continue to play him in lineups with LaVine. He has been used effectively as an off-guard, flying off screens to catch-and-shoot threes (37.3 percent), which can narrow the scope of what he has to do on a given possession and find him some easier shots within the flow of the offense.
Here, White shows his understanding of his off-ball reads. The first play is a hammer set, drawn up to get him an open corner three. The following two plays, he gets himself open using a curl and a fade.
Having another plus-shooter attracting attention on the weak side as a play develops could be a weapon for the Bulls’ anemic offense. Playing LaVine alongside White makes sense as a dual-scoring threat.
The problem lies in their underdeveloped floor-general game.
White has begun developing that passing game in pick-and-rolls, showing a greater willingness to pass and more patience as a playmaker. He likes to snake his way into the heart of the paint, usually resulting in pull-up mid-range shots, but he’s now starting to see and capitalize on the playmaking reads more quickly.
These situations often result in dreaded long two-point jumpers, but he’s starting to rewire his game to understand these reads and react to how the big man is defending him, which leads to easy baskets for his teammates.
Up until this recent hot streak, White was somewhat transparent as an offensive threat. He would often look for his step-back or a counter that would take him to the basket. Now, he’s developing a nice chemistry with his bigs, which should take some pressure off him and force defenses to play him more straight up.
If the Bulls want to put White on the ball more, especially in situations with LaVine, he still needs to prove he can be the lead decision-maker the Bulls need. These are the first steps towards accomplishing that.
White can shoot the ball both off the dribble and off the catch, but to round out his game, he needs to be less reliant on his jumper. Because of his slender, 195-pound frame, White has struggled to finish at the rim. That limits his effectiveness, contributes to his low free-throw attempt rate and forces him into tough mid-range shots.
However, he’s beginning to learn how to contort his body, absorb impact and improve his finishing at the rim, which could continue to open up his game moving forward.
Field-Goal Percentage At Rim
October: 65 percent (65th percentile)
November: 39 percent (10th percentile)
December: 40 percent (2nd percentile)
January: 48 percent (22nd percentile)
February and March: 58 percent (42nd percentile)
With the exception of only five games in October, White has improved his finishing at the rim each month. He still has plenty of work to do, especially with regard to getting to the free-throw line, but that improvement is opening up his game.
White’s strong past month goes a long way toward painting a picture of what he can become, even if each singular scoring outburst isn’t such a big deal in the grand scheme of things.
“The explosive performances matter little in my opinion,” the scout said. “Yes, it shows scoring prowess, but it’s the body-of-work improvement over the course of the season.”
White going nuclear has been one of the few reasons for excitement in an otherwise disappointing and injury-riddled season for the Bulls. Ultimately, the massive scoring outputs may contribute more to overhyping White than accurately depicting his growth. But his streak of strong performances suggests he’s figuring out how to manipulate a defense and improve his shot profile.
Follow Will on Twitter: @wontgottlieb.