Inside Coby White’s grueling summer to become NBA’s most improved player for Bulls

Weeks after Coby White realized his dream of being selected in the 2019 NBA Draft, he returned to his North Carolina roots at the behest of his first pro mentor. It was only a few years earlier that White had starred for Chris Paul’s grassroots club, Team CP3, on the Nike EYBL circuit. Now Paul had invited White to his Elite Guard camp for top high school prospects in Winston-Salem as an NBA player the next crop of rising prep stars would measure up against.

When White arrived at the camp, he was put through a series of workouts with the other pros by Johnny Stephene, a trainer Paul had met years earlier. Paul credited Stephene for fine-tuning his ball-handling ability, and helping him regain strength in his right hand after he famously broke it in the 2016 playoffs with the Los Angeles Clippers. White appreciated the difficult workout, and approached Stephene about working together in the future. They would meet again for another session before White left town.

“He was really, really fast with the ball,” Stephene said to SB Nation of his first impressions about White. “But in this level of the game, you need to be able to make reads — and you can’t make reads all the time going full speed. I learned that from CP.”

At the end of the week, White flew off to Chicago to start his new life with the Bulls. It would be the start of a tumultuous beginning to his career that saw the young guard deal with obstacles both reasonably expected and completely unforeseen. White and Stephene stayed in contact through the years, and before long a mutually beneficial relationship would start to bloom.

The Bulls were in a rough spot when they selected White with the No. 7 overall pick in 2019. The team had won 49 games combined in the previous two seasons, and had replaced head coach Fred Hoiberg with Jim Boylen to disastrous results the previous year. Chicago had a growing young core in place — with White joining Lauri Markkanen, Wendell Carter Jr., and Zach LaVine — but they weren’t developing as quickly as the team hoped.

White’s rookie season was interrupted just months after it began by the global pandemic. The Bulls had already proven to be a terrible team by that time once again, so much so that front office leader John Paxson decided to step aside. The NBA resumed in the bubble without the Bulls, and the next time White took the court, he had a new head coach in Billy Donovan, and a new front office led by Arturas Karnisovas that had no previous allegiance to him.

Karnisovas would eventually trade Markkanen and Carter to accelerate the rebuild, bringing in veterans DeMar DeRozan, Nikola Vucevic, Lonzo Ball, and Alex Caruso. White and LaVine were the only two holdovers from the previous regime. As White geared up to join his new teammates, he suffered a torn labrum in a workout that threw a wrench into his progress.

Even after Ball went down with an injury he’s never recovered from in Jan. 2022, White struggled to grab a starting spot. He came off the bench for all of his fourth year last season, and averaged a career low in minutes per game. There were major questions about his place on the Bulls going forward, and what type of role he should ultimately have in the league.

Now in the midst of his fifth season, White has become one of the feel-good stories of the NBA.

White has been the NBA’s premier iron man this season. He’s played in and started all 66 games for the Bulls, and he’s leading the NBA in total minutes while doing it. His scoring average has jumped from 9.7 to 19.6 points per game, which is about even with Atlanta’s Jalen Johnson for the biggest jump in the league.

A bigger role isn’t the only reason White’s numbers have improved. Even over 100 possessions, White has drastically raised his scoring and assist numbers since last year, and his rebounding is slightly up, too. He’s doing it on the best scoring efficiency of his career with a 58.3 percent true shooting. He has the best three-point percentage of his career (38.8 percent) while already taking and making more three-pointers in a season than he ever has before. His 185 made three-pointers rank top 10 in the NBA.

Along the way, White has had to adapt in both role and responsibility. While he’s the nominal point guard for the Bulls, he also had to take on a heavy burden as an off-ball scorer with LaVine limited to only 25 games this season. White leads in the NBA in points off spot-ups. He’s gone from making 27.6 percent of his pull-up threes last season to making 40.8 percent this year. He’s top 20 in the league in drives, and top 30 in pick-and-roll ball handler possessions. He’s the rare guard who can toggle on- or off-ball without sacrificing anything from his game.

Everything came together for White this season. His body got stronger as the game slowed down for him mentally. As it happened, the advances in his skill level went through the roof. That started with tightening his handle, improving his jump shot off the dribble, and growing more comfortable in making reads as a passer.

At times, it seemed like White’s career would never get to this point. It isn’t uncommon for players to make a leap big in their second or third seasons. To do it in his fifth year is a testament to White’s drive, adaptability, and willingness to be ready in the moment. It’s the reason why he’s a major candidate for the NBA’s Most Improved Player award, and perhaps even the favorite.

After everything he’s been through in Chicago, it’s safe to say White has earned everything coming his way.

NBA: Chicago Bulls at Memphis Grizzlies

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White headed into the summer of 2023 with so much uncertainty hanging over his career. He was about to wade into restricted free agency. He was coming off his most well-rounded season yet to those watching closely, but his per-game numbers had dropped a bit in a smaller role.

He wanted to be a starter. He believed he had more left to accomplish with the Bulls. He just didn’t have any assurances of how it was going to play out. While he waited for free agency, White and those around him put together an aggressive plan to attack the offseason at The Dstrkt, a Los Angeles gym with no air conditioning also frequented by Paul and DeMar DeRozan.

“His goal was just to try to make yourself suffer,” Will White, Coby’s older brother, told SB Nation. “He was trying to push himself past the limits of exhaustion, to break those walls and try to get better when you’re tired.”

White and Stephene had worked together the previous two summers, but the trainer believed the best was still yet to come.

“I always looked at Coby as a three-year development plan,” Stephene said. “And he showed up this summer willing to run through the wall for me. It doesn’t matter what it is, he’s gonna do it 100% full speed.”

Stephene’s first year working with White was the summer of 2021. The emphasis was on improving his ball-handling ability, and gaining more control of the ball under pressure. Those workouts were starting to bear fruit until White tore his labrum.

The next year, White worked to improve his footwork, balance, and how to stop. He also trained more closely with Stephene’s “heavy ball” product, a three-pound ball that aims to improve hand speed, hand strength, and muscle memory. This past summer was the biggest step: focusing on ball manipulation and how to create space from a variety of play types. White also sought to improve his shooting range.

“We knew we had to work on reaction off the pick-and-roll and getting to the foul line,” Stephene said. “What to do when a big hedges, how to decelerate, how to change speed and bounce out to the three-point line.”

The skill work was only part of White’s routine. He’d lift weights in the morning, work with Stephene in the afternoons, and come back to shoot in the evenings. White was also working at Proactive Sports Performance with Ryan Capretta, a one-stop shop for strength and conditioning, nutrition, and recovery. He began to develop routines around the mental side of the game, too, meditating and listening to motivational speeches to put himself in the right head space.

What Stephene really appreciated about White was his willingness to practice full speed at all times without fear of failure. A year earlier, he had posted a video of White on his Instagram page that saw the point guard repeatedly make mistakes while trying to learn new moves. To Stephene, practicing at game speed was the only way to get better.

“We grew a bond, a trust together where this is a space where you can go hard as you can,” Stephene said “Every rep has to be 100 percent or nothing. I really fell in love with watching him work out that hard, mess up, and then come back and do it better next time.”

As the training sessions continued, White and the Bulls reached an agreement on a new contract. White signed a three-year, $33 million deal with escalators that took it up to $40 million. He had the financial security he had worked so hard to earn, but he wasn’t satisfied. When the deal went through, White and Stephene had a visitor to their grueling summer sessions: Bulls head coach Billy Donovan.

Donovan was so impressed by what he saw that he invited Stephene to Chicago to watch White work out at the team’s downtown practice facility. It was there that everyone involved saw the grind pay off.

White was reportedly incredible in those late-summer scrimmages in Chicago, pulling off many of the moves he had practiced over the summer. Bulls coaches and Stephene were wowed by what they saw. The Bulls’ backcourt was only getting deeper with the signing of Jevon Carter and the re-signing of Ayo Dosunmu, but privately they had made a decision for next season, and shared it with Stephene before almost anyone else: White was going to be their starting point guard.

“They said, ‘just don’t tell him yet.’” Stephene remembers with a laugh.

Chicago Bulls v Los Angeles Clippers

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Coby White’s breakout season didn’t start right away. At first, it looked like everything that could wrong for the Bulls would go wrong.

Chicago held a players-only meeting after the first game of the season after getting smacked on their home floor by the Oklahoma City Thunder. A couple weeks later, Chicago’s $215 million man, LaVine, essentially requested a trade. By the time Chicago got blown out by the Boston Celtics in an in-season tournament game on Nov. 28, the team was 5-14 overall, and losers of eight of their last nine.

The Celtics loss didn’t just represent the low water mark of the season for the Bulls — it’s also when LaVine exited the lineup with a sore foot. Suddenly, Chicago needed White to pick up an extra scoring load. That’s when both the player and team changed their fortunes.

For the first 14 games of the year, White averaged 11.4 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.7 rebounds on 37.9 percent shooting from the field, 29.6 percent shooting from three, and 47.8 percent true shooting. Since then, he’s been playing at a near All-Star level.

White was able to overcome his early season shooting slump with a little help from the Bulls’ most underrated addition of the offseason: new shooting coach Peter Patton. Before Patton was hired, the Bulls never employed a shooting coach, and they only had one dedicated player development coach on staff in Shawn Respert for the start of White’s career. Having another voice in the room with a dedicated eye on shooting was a huge help for a team that had finished No. 30 in three-point rate each of the last two seasons.

Patton noticed that White had a tendency to snatch his release back on his shot. He noticed that sometimes he would turn his release to the right, like he was trying to look at the ball when he was shooting. That caused his misses to be short right or long right. He helped correct both of those things, and has consistently given him feedback to keep his mechanics true as a shooter.

When the shots started falling again, White’s entire skill set fell into place, and his production exploded.

The Bulls started their climb up the standings with an inspiring overtime win against the Milwaukee Bucks on Nov. 30. Alex Caruso was the star of the game, but White was finally breaking out of his slump, too. With Chicago down two in the extra frame, White attacked Brook Lopez in transition, took one step inside the three-point line, and then bounced into a beautiful step-back three to give Chicago the lead.

This was everything he had worked so hard for over the summer: the footwork, the ball handling, the ability to slow down, the improvement as a pull-up shooter were all showing, and it helped deliver the Bulls a key win.

White’s pull-up jumper had been a hole in his scoring arsenal dating back to his days at North Carolina. His pull-ups often felt rushed and without proper balance. Not anymore. White now knew how to hunt the shots he wanted to get, and he had the confidence to let them rip:

White was always an above-average NBA shooter off the catch, but increasing his range was an important way to stress defenses for a Bulls team that attempted threes so infrequently.

Now when he had the chance to pull the trigger from extra deep, there was no hesitation.

White was shooting the ball better than he ever had before, and that unlocked his ability to attack with his new and improved handle. That offseason work shows up in the numbers: He’s posting the highest rim frequency of his career this season and his best free throw rate.

It also shows up video. Watch him freeze LeBron James with a hesitation and explode to the basket for a reverse layup.

The improvement in White’s ball control was evident to anyone who watched his career. Those reps he would fumble in the summer heat with Stephene were now being executed at the highest level of the game.

The advances in strength and ball manipulation led to another unforeseen growth in White’s game: He started dunking more than ever. White only had 20 dunks combined in his four NBA seasons coming into this year. He already has 11 dunks this year, with many of them coming in traffic.

Watch the way he toyed with Harrison Banes on his drive before exploding to the basket.

Or the way he rises up in transition off one leg to throw down against the Grizzlies:

White’s increased willingness to initiate and play through contact is something he lacked earlier in his career. With the game tied late against the Sacramento Kings in early March, White drove the ball into Trey Lyles’ chest, moved the 6’9, 235-pound big man out of the way, and laid the ball in for the go-ahead layup.

Despite having $70 million on the bench with season-ending injuries for Ball, LaVine, and Patrick Williams, the Bulls have been extremely resilient since their slow start. Chicago is 27-20 since they started 5-14, which equates to a 47-win pace over the course of an 82-game season. This season would have gone so far off the rails if not for White making the most of his big opportunity.

The Bulls are still considered one of the NBA’s most aimless teams. Chicago’s front office refused to make a move at the trade deadline for the third straight year, and hasn’t made a trade for a player since 2021. Karnisovas has repeatedly stated his goal is to make the playoffs, which is a paltry objective in a league where 53 percent of teams do so every year.

Still, White’s rise has given the Bulls some semblance of hope. All the work he put in over the summer is showing up on the court. The Bulls’ patience has been fully rewarded. The contract he signed in the offseason now feels like one of the most team-friendly deals in the NBA. He turned 24 years old a month ago, and at this point it feels foolish to try put a cap on his ceiling.

Stephene hopes his work with White gets noticed. He aspires to become a full-time player development coach with an NBA team. For now, he’s just thrilled with the progress White has made.

“Coby is one of my favorite athletes ever to train,” Stephene says beaming about his breakout season. “It feels like we grew together. I grew as a trainer by working with someone as dedicated as he is.”

White has never played for individual accolades, but it’s hard to think of someone who has a better case than him for Most Improved Player. Philadelphia’s Tyrese Maxey was already a 20-point per game scorer last year. Houston’s Alpren Sengun was already a full-time starter. In his fifth year, White has gone from a microwave bench scorer to an indispensable iron man pacing Chicago’s offense, knocking down shots, and attacking the basket like never before.

The player who entered the league as a wide-eyed 19-year-old has now fully grown into his body and his game. White is ascending thanks to his work ethic and approach. He’s only going up from here.

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