As he became the all-time leading scorer in North Carolina high school history, Coby White watched certain NBA players with perhaps a greater fandom and appreciation than others.
Damian Lillard, his matchup Tuesday night, was one.
“He was a scoring point guard, obviously,” White said via Zoom following the Bulls’ shootaround in Portland, Ore., in advance of their matchup with Lillard’s Trail Blazers. “Deep range. Shoots the ball. Scores at all three levels. Just a dog on the court. That’s what I was trying to be in high school.”
And it’s what White continues to aspire to now that he’s matched up against Lillard. That means, obviously, the fandom stops.
“For me, that happened the night I got drafted,” White said. “Playing against him, playing against CP (Chris Paul), dudes like that who I looked up to, now it’s like we’re going against each other. So it’s no more like fans. When I step on the court, it’s all business.”
Indeed, White played for Chris Paul’s AAU team and considers the veteran guard a mentor. But White can balance, say, taking a postgame picture with Paul with trying to beat him between the lines -- and try to learn from players like him and Lillard in both situations.
“Playing against really high-level guys brings the best out of you,” White said. “I’m the type of guy who is always learning. After the game, watch film and see what I can do better. I know there are going to be ups and downs when you play against someone of his caliber. So just learn from whatever comes my way (Tuesday night). At the end of the day, I just want to compete and help my team have a chance to win the game.”
Last season, White wore a microphone in game for NBC Sports Chicago’s “Wire to Wire” program. He unabashedly expressed his fandom and appreciation for Lillard.
The Bulls lost both matchups against the Trail Blazers last season, played in a five-day span in November 2019. White came off the bench in both games, shooting 8-for-26 and scoring 21 points. Lillard scored 41 points with 18 assists.
Back then, White didn’t start at point guard. Tomáš Satoranský did in one game, and Kris Dunn did in the other.
Now, White will start and be matched against Lillard, yet another high-profile defensive assignment following others like Russell Westbrook (twice) and Steph Curry. It’s all part of the development process for a player whose responsibilities in his second season have grown substantially.
“I think the biggest thing with a guy like Coby who can really score is understanding when to be aggressively offensively and when to look for his teammates and get everybody else involved,” veteran Garrett Temple said. “Decision-making is going to be really big. That’s the thing that sets the best point guards apart.”
Lillard already is where White wants to be. The lessons continue Tuesday. Temple and other veterans like Thad Young are there for advice when needed.
“All of our vets are real vocal so if they see something. they have no problem telling you that you should be doing that or you could have done that or that would have helped you a lot,” White said. “I’m always willing to learn. I’m all ears. Everyone knows that on the team. They can talk to me any type of way and I won’t take it personal. That’s the kind of relationship I have with all the players.’’
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