Flashback to 2008, ten long years since Michael Jordan and company graced the hardwood at the United Center and secured their sixth title in eight seasons. Soon after, the team was dismantled by GM Jerry Krause and Bulls fans were forced to endure the likes of Marcus Fizer, Chris Mihm, Eddy Curry, and Tyrus Thomas just to name a few.
The Bulls finished with a 33-49 record, giving them only a 1.7% chance of obtaining the first overall pick in the 2008 draft and yet, that’s exactly what happened. It marked the second most improbable NBA Draft Lottery upset, only behind the Orlando Magic in 1993 who had a 1.5% chance at the first pick.
Lady Luck, who had taken a hiatus from the Bulls to smile upon other organizations in need, was once again looking down upon the team and it served as a beacon of hope for a fan base starved to re-live the franchise’s downright dominance for most of the 90s.
The prize of that year’s draft? Hometown hero, Derrick Rose. Indeed, it was a script tailor-made for Hollywood akin to LeBron James being drafted by the Cavaliers. Conspiracy theorists and skeptics alike might even say there’s no way this was simply a coincidence (but that’s a debate for another day). Regardless, with a special talent such as Rose at the helm, visions of grandeur seemed realistic once again.
Rose didn’t take long to burst onto the scene, winning Rookie of the Year and following that up the next season with a stat line of 21/4/6. During the 2010-11 season, he became the youngest MVP in the history of the league (25/4/8) and joined Michael Jordan as the only two Bulls to ever receive the award. Rose led the team to a league-best 62-20 record that year but unfortunately fell short in the Eastern Conference Finals to the newly-formed Big Three in Miami. In December of 2011, Rose signed a five-year, $94.8 million extension and Bulls fans around the world rejoiced, knowing their superstar, in all likelihood, would play out the entirety of his career in Chicago and go into the Hall of Fame as a Bull.
And then it all began to unravel…
In Game 1 of the first round in the 2011 postseason against the Philadelphia 76ers, the Bulls held a 12-point lead with only 1:22 left to play. Nevertheless, despite the team all but securing the victory, Rose and the rest of the starters were inexplicably kept on the floor by former coach Tom Thibodeau. On a drive to the basket, Rose came to a jump stop and, on the landing, tore the ACL in his left knee.
On May 12, 2012, Rose went under the knife and was given an estimated recovery period of 8–12 months. In January of 2013, Rose was given permission to practice without limitation and, in March, was cleared by doctors to play. Ultimately, he did not appear in a game during that season, saying he wasn’t mentally prepared to test the knee.
In October of 2013, Rose returned to the floor in a game against the Miami Heat, only to tear the meniscus in his right knee one month later against the Portland Trailblazers. In October of 2014, he was able to play in the Bulls’ season opener against the New York Knicks, but in February it was announced that Rose required another round of surgery and was ruled out indefinitely. An MRI confirmed a meniscus tear, the same injury he endured one year prior. He returned to action that same season in April and was able to play in the playoffs. The Bulls eventually fell to LeBron and the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, despite Rose’s heroic buzzer-beating bank shot in Game 3.
Rose stuck around for one final season with the Bulls before being traded to the Knicks along with Justin Holiday and a 2017 second-round draft pick in exchange for José Calderón, Jerian Grant, and Robin Lopez. What started as a meteoric rise to superstardom came crashing down to earth in what seemed like the blink of an eye. For the next three years, the point guard position would become a comedic carousel of players such as Rajon Rondo, Cameron Payne, Ryan Arcidiacono, and Kris Dunn. The team desperately needed its floor general, someone who could take the reins and maybe even become the face of the franchise.
Enter Coby White…
White, the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school basketball history, signed a letter of intent in 2017 to play for UNC, where he currently sits atop the all-time freshman scoring list with 469 points (Michael Jordan is second). In 2019, the Bulls selected White with the seventh overall pick, the first player from UNC to be drafted in the first round by the team since, you guessed it, his Airness.
White’s rookie season is best defined as fickle or temperamental, marred with bipolar-like inconsistency. At times, White showed flashes of greatness, proving on any given night he had the ability to carry the team on his back. These highs were counterbalanced by frustrating lows when his cold shooting stifled any hope for rhythm on the offensive side of the ball.
Being such a streaky shooter begs one to ask the question of whether or not White should even be a starter. Perhaps he’s more suited for a Lou Williams-like roll off the bench, providing much-needed scoring and energy as the leader of the second unit. Is White your prototypical pass-first point guard? No, and he probably never will be, but in a league trending toward position-less lineups, teams can thrive without having to define traditional roles. Regardless, when a team uses a top-ten pick on a player, we have to assume it’s to groom said player to, at least eventually, become a full-time starter.
But, with all the uncertainty surrounding White, why even mention him in the same sentence as Derrick Rose? What can we point to in order to feel comfortable enough to make such an assertion as the one in this headline? To answer that question, let’s break down his rookie campaign and take a deeper dive into the numbers.
Last year, former Coach Jim Boylen settled on a cautious approach with White, playing him only 26 minutes per game. Despite his limited usage, White still managed to finish the year with a respectable stat line of 13/4/3 while shooting 40% from the field, 35% from downtown, and 80% from the free throw line. As is the case for many rookies, he started off the year slowly, averaging 12/4/3 in October and 13/4/2 in November, but then took a turn for the worse in December (9/3/2) and January (10/3/2).
The high point of his rookie season, aside from the game against the Knicks on November 12th when he connected on seven three-pointers in the fourth quarter (a team record), was a stretch from February 22nd to March 10th which saw White produce at least 19 points in nine straight games, including 33 or more points in three successive matchups against the Suns, Wizards, and Thunder. White became the first Bulls’ rookie since Michael Jordan to record back-to-back 30-point games and the first rookie in NBA history with consecutive 30-point games off the bench. But, rather than simply revisiting the past, let’s take a look at the numbers through advanced analytics and compare Rose in 2008 to White in 2019.
When digesting the graphic above, the first and most obvious observation is that a comparison of the two players by traditional statistics alone (Per Game and Totals) favors Rose in almost every category. This should come as no surprise because, at the end of the day, there’s a reason why Rose was the first overall pick and considered by many to be the best point guard prospect since Chris Paul. However, the next two charts tell a very different story and show that if White had been given the same amount of time on the floor in 2019 as Rose was given in 2008, White, aside from a few categories, would have actually been the more productive player.
In professional sports, many times it’s not a lack of talent that stands in the way of a player realizing their dreams, it’s a lack of opportunity. This is exactly why certain advanced analytics such as “Per 36 Minutes” and “Per 100 Possessions” were created to level the playing field and show what a substitute would produce if given the minutes of a starter. And let’s be real, Jim Boylen was a microcosm of why Tom Thibodeau was ultimately let go; an old-school, antiquated mentality with an inability to accept modern-day, forward thinking. It boils down to simple Darwinism; adapt or die. While in Chicago, both of the aforementioned coaches chose the latter, professionally speaking, of course.
The bottom line is, if you take a player seventh overall and making the playoffs is not a realistic goal, you owe it to the organization to at least give that player the chance to develop on the job so the team can form a comprehensive and realistic evaluation. In this regard, Boylen failed the team and, in fact, his usage of White was as sporadic as White’s early-season production. Luckily for Bulls fans, who, for 17 long years, were forced to suffer through the clown show known as GarPax, it’s a new day in Chicago with Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley making the decisions.
New coach Billy Donovan, known for his development of younger players, understands just how important White is to the Bulls. “Coby has to play well for us to play well,” said coach Donovan after the Bulls’ loss to the Atlanta Hawks in their season opener. Will White be able to fill the massive void created by Rose’s departure? If Donovan’s quote is any indication, we’ll soon get the chance to find out.