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A year ago, Coby White had just become the top scorer in North Carolina high school boys basketball history and the Greenfield School senior and McDonald’s All-America selection had a bright future ahead of him at the University of North Carolina.
Now, White’s present is brighter than even he could have imagined his future would be last year at this time. As the starting point guard for the No. 9-ranked Tar Heels, White has emerged as one of the team’s most indispensable players, ranking at or near the top in several offensive categories. His 15.2 points per game is second only to senior Cam Johnson’s 15.8 average.
While scoring is what White has always been able to do, he has had to learn how to adapt to the dual role of facilitator as well as producer. White has helped the Tar Heels to a 16-4 record overall and 6-1 in Atlantic Coast Conference play, where he’s really started to step up his game. In league games, White leads UNC starters in points per game (17.6), field-goal percentage (.506), free-throw percentage (.810) and assists (4.6) and is tied with Johnson in steals (1.3).
In short, on a team with Johnson, senior All-American Luke Maye and Nassir Little, the highest-ranked recruit in the freshman class, White has become a major problem for UNC’s opponents. It’s not something White — who was The Wilson Times Athlete of the Year in 2018 — expected to happen so quickly.
In a telephone interview Thursday afternoon, White said that his freshman season, so far, “was everything I thought it would be and a little bit more.”
“I didn’t expect me to play this well that soon in the season but everything’s going great,” he said. “We’re finding our role as a team and getting better each and every day, so we continue to win in the best conference in the country. So, everything’s going good.”
Certainly at Greenfield, where he and fellow senior Elijah McCadden accounted for nearly 62 percent of the Knights’ points in 2017-18, White was expected to score — a lot — every game. Even with his CP3 team in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League, White got his fair share of points, often as the No. 2 guard while fellow UNC freshman Leaky Black handled the point.
But at UNC, where the offense runs through the point-guard position, White had to adjust, a process that wasn’t always smooth.
“At Greenfield and with CP3, I was a point guard but at Greenfield, the team needed me to score the ball, so that’s what I had to do,” he said. “But here I have to facilitate more and be more of a playmaker and get my teammates involved and be more of a leader, because we have so many great players, so many talented players that can score the ball on any given night. Our 1 through 8 can score 15 or 20, so we’ve got so many good players that I have to be more of a point guard. It was kind of hard at first because I was so used to being that guy who always scores, so now I have to be more of a playmaker.”
A big part of that process has been understanding what to do and when to do it and White’s biggest improvement, by his own rationale, has been learning his role in real time.
“My decision-making has gotten a lot better, even in transition, picking and choosing when I need to score or when I need to attack or when I need to hold back and set up the offense,” he said.
White said that he still needs to be “more of a vocal leader on the court” and, as any of UNC head coach Roy Williams’ players will attest, needs to get better on defense.
“Just getting in the right spots and rotating correctly and standing in front of the ball,” White said. “Here, you’ve got to play defense on the court and you’ve got to play hard every possession and you definitely can’t take possessions off on the defensive end.”
The freshman acknowledged that he also had to learn not to force his shots, something he was able to get away with at Greenfield. But, he said, Williams has given him the freedom to make those decisions.
“I think Coach has been real lenient on my shots,” White said. “Sometimes he could take me out for some of the shots I take, but he doesn’t. I feel like he’s trusting me each and every day and I’m getting better and better.”
LEARNING TO GRIND
Williams hasn’t been as lenient on the team when it comes to defense, especially after an 83-62 loss to Louisville on Jan. 12. It was UNC’s worst loss at the Smith Center in Williams’ 16 seasons as head coach and he wasn’t happy with his team’s play as the Tar Heels were outshot, outrebounded and outhustled. It was the second loss this season in which UNC greatly underperformed from its averages, including an 84-67 defeat at Michigan on Nov. 28.
“I feel like that we just didn’t come prepared to play. … I think against Louisville, we just kind of overlooked them and they beat us pretty bad,” White said. “I think that Louisville game gave us the wake-up call to don’t overlook anyone and pay attention to detail every day and try to get better in practice and just practice all out and hopefully, everything else will just take care of itself.”
The Tar Heels will find out Saturday when they visit the No. 15 Cardinals for a rematch. After the first meeting, Williams spoke of his team’s need to be able to “win ugly” by compensating for poor shooting.
“I think that defense will take care of that,” White said. “If we’re not shooting the ball well, we need to stop the other team. Our seniors, they’re really good at leading us in other ways to score. So just find different ways to score the basketball without making 3s and making shots and stopping people on the defensive end.”
While White has met or exceeded expectations as a freshman, Little has struggled at times this season. The MVP of the McDonald’s All-American Game last March, Little hasn’t started a game for the Tar Heels all season but has played well in recent games, including a season-best 23 points in a Jan. 21 over then No. 9 Virginia Tech in Chapel Hill.
“Nas is really strong mentally and he was just staying positive through it all,” White said. “He started off slow but now he’s starting to figure everything out and the game is starting to slow down for him and he’s becoming a real offensive threat and defensive threat on the court. He’s just playing with a lot of intensity and getting better everyday. He and Leaky (both) are. We’re really coming along as freshmen and I feel like that we are playing at a higher level than we were at the beginning of the season.”
Off the court, this UNC team with its three highly regarded freshmen — White, Little and Black — and mix of veterans seems to have fun. While Williams continues his tradition of entering the locker room after a win and dancing with his players, videos of the team dancing before and after games have surfaced on Twitter.
White didn’t shy away from expressing his opinion when asked who was the best dancer and who was the worst dancer on the team. He credited Little and sophomore Brandon Huffman as having the best moves.
“It’s close between Nas and Huff,” White said. “They can really dance but, I don’t know, it’s kind of hard because they dance all the time but I see Nas dance more so I’m going go with Nas because I’m his roommate!”
And the worst?
“I’m going to go with Sev because Sev never dances,” White said with a giggle about junior point guard Seventh Woods. “I feel like he can’t dance at all. Like, it’s got to be Sev!”
White, a fastidious housekeeper who keeps room tidy and makes his bed every day, said that Little passes muster in that regard as well.
“Nas is really, like a clean guy,” he said. “He doesn’t like a mess so most of the time his room is clean and his bed is made.”
Even though he’s been projected as a first-round pick in this summer’s NBA draft, White didn’t reveal if he’s considering turning pro after just one season of college basketball.
“I’m taking it one day at a time,” he said. “Man, I’m not paying attention to any of the draft boards or NBA draft or none of that. I’m just trying to stay focused. We’ve got a goal to win the national championship and I think everybody is just trying to focus on that right now and take it day by day.”
White is, however, paying attention to Greenfield, which has won 15 in a row and is back in the hunt for a North Carolina Independent Schools Athletic Association 1-A title after losing to Fayetteville Trinity Christian in the championship game last year — White’s last in a Knights uniform.
“Everybody counted them out this year because they were losing me and Elijah, but they’ve surprised a lot of people,” he said. “I think they’ve only lost four games so far this season towards the end going into tournament play. I’m really hoping they get that state title this year.”
More than anything else, White is happy to be part of the UNC basketball family and is enjoying his time in Chapel Hill.
“Just all the support the fans show and the students show. They come out to every game, no matter who we’re playing,” he said. “All throughout campus, they encourage us and say, ‘Have a good game tonight.’
“It’s just like family all through the organization. In the program, a lot of the old players come back to play and that’s a big thing. They’ve got love for Chapel Hill, like we do, and so, all those things just kind of combine into one. It’s just great being here.”