Westerlund: Having placed Coby White in an awkward situation, Bulls are living with the growing pains

The Bulls have asked White to become a type of player that he's never been.
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(670 The Score) The Bulls have been honest about the awkward situation they’ve placed Coby White in this season. On several occasions, coach Billy Donovan has admitted that in turning over the full-time point guard duties to White, the organization has asked him to put some of his natural instincts aside and work on becoming a type of player that he really hasn’t been at any point in his basketball journey.

Soon, the Bulls may have to be honest in assessing what they’re asking of White or how they’re utilizing him.

In losses to the Lakers and Celtics in the past four days, White has been a non-factor when the games were in doubt. That continued a recent trend, as he’s averaging 9.4 points on 33.3% shooting in his past five games while adding 4.2 assists per contest in that span. In a 119-103 loss to Boston on Monday, White had five points on 2-of-6 shooting with one assist and two turnovers in 24 minutes.

White’s player efficiency rating (PER) – a metric from ESPN that gives a window into a player’s value while admittedly weighting the offensive end more heavily – is 10.67. The average NBA player always rates at 15.00 in PER, which means White has been significantly below average about one-quarter of the way through the season. He ranks 251st in the NBA in that metric.

White’s inefficient play has been one of the primary reasons for the Bulls starters’ struggles. While that may sound harsh on a team with an abundance of one-dimensional players, such is the burden that point guards carry. And White is trying to learn the position on the fly in a new system at the ripe age of 20. Star shooting guard Zach LaVine sometimes initiates the offense, but White has logged 97% of his minutes at point guard this season after playing there 39% of the time last season, per Basketball Reference.

“He’s trying to run the offense and do the things we are asking him to do,” Donovan said. “I’ve said this about Coby – he’s a shooter. You know and a lot of times people say ‘scorer,’ but when you’re looking at guys that are really, really high-level scorers, they generally do it in three different ways. They do it from shooting it, they do it from the mid-range – well, four ways – they do it at the rim and they get fouled at an elite level. But I think for Coby when he gets freed up when he can get to his jump shot, that’s where he generally is really, really most productive and effective.”

Donovan’s comment about White being a shooter is spot on, because he hasn’t been a finisher. White is shooting 45.3% inside the restricted area, a mark that ranks 164th out of 168 players who have attempted at least 30 shots in that area, per NBA.com. He’s also attempting just 2.2 free throws a game, a troubling mark considering he clearly has the quickness and ball-handling ability to get into the paint regularly.

White has been better when not lost among the trees in traffic, which speaks to his comfort as a shooter looking for space. He has shot 56.3% from 10-16 feet, according to Basketball Reference, which represents a strong mark. White’s 3-point shooting needs to improve, as he’s shooting at a 35.8% clip on high volume. The league average mark from 3-point range is 36.5%.

“It’s not really affecting me,” White said of his shooting woes. “I try to still run the team and do what I do. I can’t control if the shots fall or not. But I can control running the team and how hard I play so that’s what I’m going to focus on.”

White has been subpar on the defensive end as well. While much has been made externally about center Wendell Carter Jr.’s positioning in the Bulls’ new drop scheme, Donovan has usually absolved Carter of blame and shifted the responsibility to his perimeter players for shoddy work in slowing dribble penetration. Translated another way, Donovan believes White and LaVine haven’t done enough at the point of attack. White’s defensive deficiencies are magnified in a way they weren’t in his rookie season, when he came off the bench and played more often against second units. Playing big minutes now, he’s being tasked with defending some of the most dynamic players in the NBA and isn’t doing his part consistently.

For now, Donovan doesn’t seem inclined to make any changes in his starting lineup as the Bulls sit at 7-10 and White struggles. He didn’t take the bait late Monday night when asked if he might consider using veteran Tomas Satoransky as the starting point guard soon, other than to mention he believes White and Satoransky are both team-first players who will do what’s asked of them without a fuss.

What Donovan, executive vice president of basketball operations Arturas Karnisovas and general manager Marc Eversley must weigh is the potential opportunity cost of the White-as-a-point-guard experiment. Are they getting a thorough evaluation on the rest of their roster without a traditional point guard running the show?

White’s uneven performance contributing to a loss here and there shouldn’t be that much of a worry, considering the organization’s priority should be the big picture and not a back-end playoff berth in a format that now features a play-in setup.

What would be more concerning is if the lack of a true point guard is adversely affecting other young Bulls. Big man Lauri Markkanen is playing in a contract season and for his future in Chicago under the new regime. His performance in the next two months before the trade deadline in late March carries massive implications for his personal future and the Bulls’ path moving forward.

Donovan’s recent penchant for using Markkanen at center in a five-man group primarily made up of the Bulls’ second unit is telling. Donovan has liked that look, and it’s a group made up of strong passers in Satoransky, wing Denzel Valentine and power forward Thad Young, who has done solid work in keeping the ball moving out of the pocket, at the elbow and from the block. The Markkanen-White two-man pairing has a minus-17.6 net rating this season, while the Markkanen-Satoransky pairing is positive-10.1, albeit in a small sample size as each was sidelined for a long stretch after landing in the COVID-19 protocols. While much of that disparity can be traced to the Bulls’ second unit as a whole playing so well, there also may be something to Markkanen flourishing when he plays with better passers who can read the court fluidly.

Like with Markkanen, the same question can be asked with others. Are the Bulls in any way stunting the development of Carter or rookie forward Patrick Williams because they're playing without a true point guard?

There’s wisdom and value in the Bulls throwing White into the fire and asking him to diversify his skill set – especially when, as Donovan put it bluntly, they don’t have many point guards on the roster to choose from. It’s a noble goal on the surface, because multi-dimensional players are the driving force behind success and good organizations develop youngsters in a variety of facets. White doesn’t turn 21 until February, and this is the time of his career and stage of the Bulls’ rebuild in which they should be experimenting. It should also be noted that White has shown progress in his playmaking. He’s averaging 5.6 assists, more than twice as many as in his rookie season. There are nights you can see him reading defenses at a level he didn’t previously.

It’s just not happening consistently. If the Bulls’ primary goal is ascend another step competitively -- and that might not be the case this season with a strong draft class awaiting -- there just comes a time when you also need to ask players to do what they’re best at and look to hide their weaknesses.

The Bulls may be nearing that point with White in the coming weeks. All indications early on in White’s career point to him being a shoot-first guard who’s better in a hybrid role than as the primary facilitator, but the Bulls continue to trek forward and ask him to be something he’s not. It’s a fascinating experiment with plenty of growing pains.

“I know I’m going to keep fighting,” White said. “I know I’m going to keep putting time in to get better. That’s all I can ask for.”

Cody Westerlund is a sports editor for 670TheScore.com and covers the Bulls. Follow him on Twitter @CodyWesterlund.