Johnson: Bulls should extend Coby White this offseason

Why the Bulls should extend White this offseason originally appeared on NBC Sports Chicago

Since the Chicago Bulls drafted Coby White seventh overall in 2019, he has played point guard and shooting guard. He has started games and come off the bench.

White’s minutes have been up, and they’ve been down.

And through it all, White, who is one of the most supportive and well-liked teammates in the locker room, has focused on the one thing he can control---improving his game.

He never has criticized his coach. He never has questioned his role. He never has spoken negatively on trade rumors or the lack of an extension of his rookie contract.

For these reasons, and the fact White only turned 23 this month and has displayed defensive and ballhandling growth this season, the Bulls should prioritize signing him to an extension this offseason. In fact, if the choice becomes keeping White or Ayo Dosunmu, there’s a strong argument to be made that White’s ceiling is higher.

This isn’t a knock on Dosunmu, whose professionalism, toughness and defense are pluses and whose professional makeup fits many of the above descriptions of White. Nor has Bulls management given any indication they don’t value both players.

But if financial projections for upcoming salary-cap scenarios present an either-or situation, White should be the one to keep, even if it would be more expensive to do so.

Even without extending White’s rookie-scale contract, management has told White that it values his contributions and role. The regime has walked that walk by rejecting underwhelming yet concrete trade offers for him last offseason and telling teams who generally inquired about him before this season’s trade deadline that it would listen---but that White’s role has value.

So now it’s time to place a monetary value on that role.

White will be a restricted free agent this offseason, assuming the Bulls extend a $9.9 million qualifying offer by the June 30 deadline. Like many teams, the Bulls have negotiated from a position of strength historically regarding restricted free agents.

The previous managerial regime’s approach essentially centered on the philosophy of, “Here’s what we consider a fair contact and if you seek more, go sign an offer sheet.” Zach LaVine and Omer Asik did. The Bulls matched the former and declined the latter, which contained a poison pill clause that hamstrung the Bulls.

Jimmy Butler also turned down what he and his representative deemed an underwhelming rookie contract extension offer, but the Bulls signed him to a near-maximum contract after he won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2015.

This managerial regime’s main restricted free agency case came when the Bulls signed-and-traded Lauri Markkanen to the Cleveland Cavaliers in a three-team deal that netted Derrick Jones Jr. and a lottery-protected, first-round pick from the Portland Trail Blazers. Markkanen, now an All-Star with the Utah Jazz, grew so alienated by his lack of extension and offensive role in 2020-21 that he asked out.

Despite his changing role, White hasn’t reached that point, at least publicly. And so even though he, along with LaVine, represent the only players whom Artūras Karnišovas inherited from John Paxson, the Bulls should extend him.

“We’re going to need him,” LaVine said in response to a question about White’s stretch run, not his long-term future. “He’s the sparkplug that helps us win a lot.”

The Bulls are 14-11 this season when White scores in double figures. They’re also 12-12 in games in which he logs 25 minutes or more.

Obviously, neither of these records are earth-shattering. But both are better than the Bulls’ 29-33 overall record.

White is averaging a career-low 8.9 points and playing a career-low 22.4 minutes. Yet he has drawn praise from coach Billy Donovan for his notable defensive improvements. And his better ball-handling and decision-making not only pass the eye test but check out statistically; he’s at a career-low 1.3 turnovers in his per-36 minute averages.

White also is shooting over 63 percent from the rim for the second straight season after struggling to finish his first two seasons.

Both White’s 3-point attempts (5.8 to 4.6) and percentage (.385 to .358) are down from last season and also sit below his career averages. While he owns numerous examples of heating up in a hurry, he also misses his share of good looks from 3-point range. He needs to become more consistent for a player labeled as a shooter.

Would more consistent minutes help? The Bulls are loaded at guard but still added Patrick Beverley from the buyout market. For now, Beverley is closing games, a role White has played at times throughout this season.

The Bulls face a challenging offseason. Nikola Vucevic could become an unrestricted free agent. So could Javonte Green. Andre Drummond and Jones Jr. own player options. White and Dosunmu are headed to restricted free agency.

White, given his draft status and the fact Dosunmu came from the second round, projects to be more expensive to keep if management, which already has guards LaVine, Alex Caruso, Lonzo Ball and Dalen Terry under contract for next season, chooses for an either/or scenario.

Would a $40-42 million deal over three years or $48-52 million over four years secure White? Can he find that deal in restricted free agency, forcing the Bulls to decide whether or not to match? Remember: The salary cap is expected to rise if a new collective bargaining agreement is reached, so even $15 million annually might not be too much in regards to percentage of overall cap.

Although if management faces an either/or scenario regarding White and Dosunmu, it wouldn't surprise to see Karnišovas prioritize re-signing Dosunmu since he'd be cheaper and White's deal could be too expensive for a reserve role.

Whatever the case, White is improving as a complete player even if his offensive statistics are down. He’s focusing on what he can control---and making it hard to see him potentially leave.

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