‘There’s a defiance to him’: How Coby White redefined his game to get a 2nd chance as the Chicago Bulls starting point guard

Coby White knows second chances are a rarity in the NBA. When he takes the floor as the starting point guard for the Chicago Bulls in Wednesday’s opener against the Oklahoma City Thunder, White will carry with him a simple mantra: This opportunity won’t come again.

White already had his shot at the starting point guard job back in the 2020-21 season. It didn’t go according to plan — which was understandable.

White was 20 at the time. He believed the most important part of his game was scoring. He didn’t know how to steady an offense amid the fervent pace of play in the NBA.

And looking back, White feels he didn’t understand the weight of the position and the expectations it carried.

“I was younger then. You don’t realize how difficult it is to start,” White said. “You kind of take it for granted. When I got into the league — just like a lot of other guys — you think you’re entitled or you deserve something. I learned quickly you’re not entitled to anything.

“You don’t deserve anything when you get to the NBA, no matter where you were drafted, no matter where you came from, what school you went to — it doesn’t matter.”

Now White is eager to make a second impression. He remembers everything he did wrong three years ago and believes each of those mistakes adds to a roadmap for success this season.

That’s the thing about White. He describes himself as stubborn — incredibly so. His coaches say he’s tenacious. Whatever you want to call it, White wants to be the type of player who turns his weaknesses into strengths.

“There’s a defiance to him,” coach Billy Donovan said. “He’s not defiant to coaching, he’s not defiant to his teammates. He’s defiant to figuring something out. He’s just never going to give in, never going to quit. He’s defiant to giving up, to not trying.”

Three years ago, White knew he wasn’t doing enough.

His ballhandling wasn’t deft enough to bring the ball up consistently against NBA defenders. His strategy for getting by them was too simplistic: go hard, beat them with raw speed. That works in college when the competition is less rigorous. But in the pros, White’s first step was matched on every play.

“He had no rhythm at the beginning,” assistant coach Chris Fleming told the Tribune. “Everything was one speed and that speed was fast.”

Fleming was assigned as White’s personal coach when both arrived in Chicago for the 2019-20 season. Fleming spent the next four years guiding and encouraging White’s development.

From the start, Fleming felt White had real potential as a long-term starter and leader. But he was raw and untested, earning his No. 7 selection in the 2019 draft off his scoring prowess without ever being challenged to round out his other tools.

In White’s second season, Fleming watched him struggle to break away from his identity as a scorer. First quarters were a particular challenge. Every game, White fought to establish himself, often floundering through the opening minutes until he settled down enough to play his game.

“He was trying to figure out: ‘How do I be who I’ve always been as a player, but now I’m playing alongside Zach LaVine, the most talented guy I’ve ever been around?’ And that’s difficult to establish,” Fleming said. “Now he’s absolutely settled on who he is as a player.”

After falling out of the starting lineup in 2021-22, White knew something had to give. He didn’t want to give up on his self-definition as a scorer. But he also wanted to be a more impactful player — on the Bulls and in the NBA at large.

White spent the 2022 offseason fixated on becoming a true playmaker. He sought out training with dribbling coach Johnny Stephene — who also works with DeMar DeRozan — to establish stronger control as a point guard.

The growth was immediately apparent. White’s improved handles became obvious last season as he would tightrope the sideline on a fast break, flipping the ball behind his back to dodge a defender.

Now Donovan describes the ball as “moving on a string” when it’s in White’s hands. That quality gave Donovan confidence in returning White to the starting role.

It took nearly two years for White to build the skills necessary to reclaim the position. But behind the scenes, Fleming said White remained unwavering in his commitment to return to the starting lineup.

“He’s never shied away from the belief that he was going to be a starting point guard in the NBA,” Fleming said. “In his worst moments, he’s never gotten away from that.”

This season the Bulls need more than just ballhandling and distribution from White. They also need their point guard to be a vocal leader.

It’s not as if White was ever quiet — seriously, ever. It’s rare to make it through a week in the Bulls locker room without hearing White crack a loud joke — sometimes childish, occasionally obscene — followed by a light chorus of groans from anyone in earshot.

He possesses a particular gift for spooking teammates by sneaking up behind them and letting out a high-pitched scream, pinning LaVine as his preferred target.

But even in his goofiest moments, White commands respect in the locker room. The same buoyancy that leads White to tease his teammates is exactly why he has become a vital leader for the Bulls.

Fleming noted White’s purposeful habit of making physical contact with each of his teammates every time he walks into the weight room or locker room, a small gesture that helps keep him on the same page with each player as an individual.

This preseason, White reached a new comfortability with calling out mistakes and pulling teammates aside during practice. And that articulation spreads onto the court, where White calls out sets and directs his teammates on both sides of the ball.

“A lot of stuff that I’m doing now, it’s starting to come naturally,” White told the Tribune. “Honestly, I didn’t know that I always had it in me, but now it’s starting to just flow out. Like, I can’t help it.”

White equally earned the respect of his teammates in his quiet moments: long hours spent on dribbling and shooting drills, offseason training sessions with ballhandling specialists.

Throughout his first four years in Chicago, White’s teammates saw his willingness to redefine himself in order to fit the role in which the Bulls need him the most.

“Every position we’ve put him in, he’s fought to get better in,” LaVine said. “I don’t think everybody’s willing to do that. Coby is one of those guys (who) does put the team first.”

It’s clear White has won the starting point guard position. What comes next is less certain.

Even with his improved ballhandling, White still is learning what it means to be an NBA point guard. The Bulls offense struggled mightily last season to produce anything outside of isolation ball for LaVine and DeRozan.

White will have to be the catalyst in creating a more spread-out style of play. And the opening stretch of the season poses grueling defensive challenges in the Thunder’s Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the Indiana Pacers’ Tyrese Haliburton.

But regardless of the result, White can make one promise: He won’t take one minute of this season for granted.


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