19 Apr

Coby White’s 42-point performance in Play-In Tournament showed why he should win Most Improved Player

CHICAGO — Coby White drained a 31-foot 3-pointer with just under seven minutes left in the game to put the Chicago Bulls up by 21 points against the Atlanta Hawks Wednesday night. It gave him 37 points, tying his career high, and forced Hawks coach Quin Snyder to call a timeout. White’s 3-pointer sent the fans inside the United Center into a frenzy, and booming “Coby White” chants filled the 23,500-capacity arena as he put the finishing touches on the best performance of his professional career.

The seventh overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft ended the game with 42 points, and while it won’t count in the official record books as no statistics from play-in games do, it will serve as the pinnacle of what’s been a standout fifth season for the 23-year-old guard. Coming into the season, White was in a battle with Ayo Dosunmu and Jevon Carter for who would be the Bulls starting point guard as Chicago would endure another season without Lonzo Ball running the show. Coming out of training camp and preseason, White won the job, but it wasn’t until December that the trajectory of his season started to skyrocket.

But that ascension was no accident. In fact, it was the direct result of Bulls’ All-Star guard Zach LaVine going down with a foot injury in late November. LaVine tried to return in January but was ultimately ruled out for the rest of the season after undergoing foot surgery, and his absence meant someone needed to step up for the Bulls to aid DeMar DeRozan on offense.

Not only did White step into that role, he proceeded to turn in supremely efficient performances on a nightly basis. Over the course of the season, he’s averaging career highs across the board, none more impressive than his shooting efficiency, where he’s shooting 44.7% from the field and 37.6% from deep. His 19.1 points, 5.1 assists and 4.5 rebounds are all career highs, and when he’s on the floor, the Bulls score 5.6 more points per 100 possessions, which ranks in the 89th percentile in the league. White’s shotmaking, passing, decision making and defense have all seen major improvements. And if the regular season served as the groundwork for his Most Improved Player candidacy, then Wednesday night’s play-in game against the Hawks should serve as the stamp of approval to etch his name on the trophy.

“I thought he played a really complete game, I know the number, 42 [points] is a huge number, and it’s phenomenal, but I thought he played a really complete game,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “I thought he defended, I thought he assisted, I thought he got downhill, made the game easy for the guys, I thought it was a great performance by him.”

The game just looked incredibly easy for White against the Hawks. He took complete advantage of Atlanta’s porous interior defense, which allows the sixth-most points in the paint (53.7 points per game). He got to the rim at will, and even when he was met with resistance, he had no problem adjusting. There was a string of possessions at the end of the third quarter where he made Atlanta look particularly foolish.

The first came in transition off a missed Hawks jumper. White pushed the tempo and recognized he had two weak defenders, in Trae Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic, in front of him. He just so effortlessly shirked off Young, used his momentum to spin off Bogdanovic and finished easily at the rim.

On the next Bulls possession, off a missed 3-pointer from Jevonte Green, White corralled the offensive board, and as Donovan said, he made the game easy for his teammates by feeding a cutting Green for this thunderous dunk:

Right after that, White was right back at it pushing the pace in transition, and once again made quick work of Young and Bogdanovic trying to challenge him.

The Bulls could honestly use this game against the Hawks as the tape to prove why White should win Most Improved Player. He did a little bit of everything to show not only that he is capable of stepping up in big moments but also that he has grown in several areas of his game.

“I’m just grateful to be where I’m at, that first playoff series I ever had in my career didn’t go how I wanted it to go, and then last year I played better in the play-in, and then this year — I just wanted to be aggressive and take what the defense gave me, and just try to lead. Coming into the game, I want to impact winning on both ends of the ball, and that’s what I focus on. And tonight, I was just aggressive and things were going my way.”

Sure, White is getting far more opportunity this season due to the injuries to the Bulls roster, so naturally, his stats would go up, but no one could’ve predicted that White would be such an efficient scorer, as he was a career 41.9% shooter from the floor going into this season. He’s upped his production while also improving his efficiency, a difficult task for young players to do, and his decision making as a facilitator has him just a hair behind DeRozan for leading the team in assists. His commitment and willingness to defend has also helped him improve on that end of the floor, and while he’s not exactly locking anyone up, he’s active just enough to cause problems for the opposing team.

White’s been having an unbelievable season, and while Wednesday night’s performance felt like a peak moment in his breakout year, the Bulls will need him to build upon that for their next game against the Miami Heat. It will be another win-or-go-home situation for Chicago, and unlike the Hawks, the Heat will put up a far better fight defensively. There’s a chance Jimmy Butler may not be healthy for that game, but either way, the Bulls will need White to deliver once again if they want to grab the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. And if Wednesday night was any indication, White is not afraid of a high-pressure moment.

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