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Finding Coby White’s Sweet Spot

UNC is at its best when Coby is at his most balanced.

NCAA Basketball: Virginia Tech at North Carolina Bob Donnan-USA TODAY Sports

With three days to let UNC’s dominating win over Virginia Tech marinate, I’ve been trying to reconcile what took place on Monday night. Nassir Little continued his strong play with a true breakout performance. Garrison Brooks quieted his misguided critics, for now, with a strong 12-point, 5-rebound performance. Luke Maye showed the outside shooting that’s been missing all season, going 4-5 from deep. It wasn’t just fun. After the frustration of watching the Heels struggle with inconsistency and meshing into a cohesive unit, the win against the Hokies was almost cathartic.

That doesn’t even take into account Coby White’s performance. Along the way, White finished with a historic final line of 27 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, and 4 steals. The last person to lead UNC in all those categories in the same game was Joe Forte, when he tortured Duke in 2001. (You may remember that game as the “cheerleader” game). It was just another emphatic step in his growth as UNC’s point guard.

Starting Freshman PGs at UNC since 2000

That got me to thinking. How does Coby compare to previous UNC point guards who started the majority of games during their freshman season? To make this a little easier, I kept the comparison to this century, made the cutoff 30 games, and identified four other freshmen who started more than 30 games. Raymond Felton, Bobby Frasor, Ty Lawson, and Marcus Paige were the survivors. Since Kendall Marshall only started 20 of 37 games as a freshman, he did not make the completely scientifically based arbitrary cutoff.

Some advanced metrics that are common today were not common in the days of Felton, Frasor, and Lawson so I kept it to the basic per game averages for minutes, points, rebounds, assists, and turnovers. Besides, this is more for fun at the moment. Coby still has a little more than half a season remaining, so a more accurate assessment with more advanced metrics will be more useful at a later time. Here are the breakdowns.

UNC Freshman PGs since 2000

Player Season Games Started MPG PPG RPG APG TO
Player Season Games Started MPG PPG RPG APG TO
Raymond Felton 2002-2003 35 35.4 12.9 4.1 6.7 3.7
Bobby Frasor 2005-2006 31 27.5 6.4 2.2 4.4 2.4
Ty Lawson 2006-2007 31 25.7 10.2 2.9 5.6 2.2
Marcus Paige 2012-2013 34 29.2 8.2 2.7 4.6 2.5
Coby White 2018-2019 18 25.1 14.9 3.2 4 2.8

The general takeaway? Coby is a better scorer, an above average rebounder, and is lacking in his facilitating and ball security. Considering he (so far) is averaging fewer minutes than any of the other four, there’s an argument to be made that he is having a better all-around season than his predecessors.

That will bear itself out as the season progresses, but isn’t it fun to imagine the numbers he could put up if this team needed him to play 35 minutes a night like Felton did in 2002-03?As conference play continues, his playing time will likely become a point of emphasis.

Adjusting to the ACC

It’s easy to look at those numbers and be a little skeptical. ACC play is difficult, most freshmen hit a wall, and Coby is learning to run an offense and get others involved while controlling his natural score-first mentality. A natural decline would be understandable, but Coby has flipped that narrative on its head.

We touched on this in the postgame analysis after the Miami win and it still holds true. When Coby White meets/exceeds his current season averages of 14.9 points and 4.0 assists, (his overall averages in the above table), North Carolina is 5-0 with wins against UCLA, Gonzaga, N.C. State, Miami, and Virginia Tech. Three of those teams — State, Virginia Tech, and Gonzaga — are currently top-30 teams both in KenPom and the NCAA NET rankings. It’s not as though White is feasting on bad competition.

Here are his stats from those 5 games:

UCLA: 19 points, 1 rebound, 8 assists, 2 turnovers
Gonzaga: 15 points, 1 rebound, 6 assists, 5 turnovers
N.C. State: 19 points, 5 rebounds, 4 assists, 5 turnovers
Miami: 15 points, 5 rebounds, 8 assists, 3 turnovers
Virginia Tech: 27 points, 7 rebounds, 6 assists, 3 turnovers

Check out the last three games on that list. When he meets/exceeds averages of points, assists, AND his 3.2 rebounds per game, North Carolina is 3-0. Those wins came against ACC opponents N.C. State, Miami, and Virginia Tech.

In ACC play, he’s averaging 26.8 minutes, 17.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 3.7 turnovers. That includes the dismal Louisville game where he was saddled with foul trouble and never got into a rhythm in just 19 minutes. Those numbers hardly indicate a decline. Only the turnovers show any downward (upward?) trajectory. In layman’s terms, Coby White has played his best basketball of the year against ACC competition. That has resulted in a 5-1 start and a piece of first place in the conference standings.

Overall, it’s among the best conference starts for a freshman point guard at UNC. From a team perspective, only Lawson’s 2006-2007 squad had a better opening conference record. They went 7-1 before losing their second game — an overtime defeat at N.C. State.

Interestingly enough, White and UNC can match that record with wins next week at Georgia Tech and Louisville. If they reach 7-1, they will return to Chapel Hill looking for their eighth win. The opponent? N.C. State.

Coby’s Role Going Forward

It appears that 15 points, 3 rebounds, and 4 assists per game is a reasonable sweet spot for Coby’s production to mesh with UNC’s success. Those roughly match up with his current season averages. Again, I came to those numbers with a thorough scientific method completely arbitrary perusal of box scores, but check out his stats in North Carolina’s four losses.

Texas: 33 points, 2 rebounds, 3 assists
Michigan: 12 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists
Kentucky: 8 points, 2 rebounds, 2 assists
Louisville: 4 points, 1 rebound, 2 assists

A skeptic will use the Texas game as proof that your point guard can’t be your primary scoring option. Comparatively. one could point to the Michigan debacle and argue Coby should have tried to shoot more, even though he was 6-12 from the floor and tied Luke Maye for most field goal attempts in that game. In all four games, any human with two functioning eyes will remind you that the Heels forgot how to play defense.

There are plenty of reasons for these numbers. Each game has variables that make direct comparisons difficult. I fully acknowledge it’s an inexact science, but the results are what they are. While Coby’s scoring numbers are up in conference play, it’s important to understand that this North Carolina team doesn’t need him to score to be successful the way previous teams needed Joel Berry or Marcus Paige to produce points.

Five players – Nassir Little, Luke Maye, Kenny Williams, Cam Johnson, and White – have already led the Heels in scoring at least once through the first 18 games. Maye is an All-American and Johnson is hitting 47% from 3. Little is on the verge of being the dominant, game-changing presence that had fans giddy over the summer. There is firepower on this squad that was lacking last year.

Coby just has to find the balance of pushing the pace, finding his teammates, and getting his own buckets.

Why Does That Matter?

Last year I touched on the dangers of having a point guard as your leading scorer —both for winning a title and UNC’s historical chances of a deep tourney run. The quick version of that research is that since 1990, just four teams have won a title with their point guard leading the team in scoring. None of those point guards were freshmen.

If my Google skills are as sharp as I think they are, just two national champions this century even had a starting freshman point guard. Kentucky in 2012 and Duke in 2015, both of which had experience in the backcourt to help Marquis Teague and Tyus Jones. Neither of those players were even in the top-3 of their team’s scoring.

Additionally, Roy Williams has had just two point guards lead his teams in scoring — ever. Marcus Paige did it twice. First as a sophomore 2013-14 and again as a junior in 2014-15. Joel Berry II barely beat out Luke Maye in 2017-2018 for the honor. In 2014, Paige’s team blew a late lead to Iowa State in the second round, and Wisconsin sent them packing in the Sweet 16 in 2015. Of course, Berry’s career ended at the hands of Texas A&M in the second Charlotte.

To take that a step further, Ty Lawson is the only freshman UNC point guard, of the four listed in this piece, to advance past the first weekend of the NCAA Tournament. His team, with five future NBA players, made it to the Elite Eight before squandering a late lead against Georgetown. Felton’s squad played in the NIT, and both Frasor’s and Paige’s team lost in the second round to George Mason and Kansas.

Yes, Coby is a scorer. There is no arguing that. He will have games where he erupts with Joe Forte-esque outbursts. Those will be fun to watch and his mix of creativity, confidence, and fearlessness are inspiring. They just aren’t a nightly requirement for UNC to reach its ceiling. These Heels have been at their best when White is a consistent third or fourth scoring option, with limited freedom to hunt his own shot and take advantage of his streaky shooting or a defense that’s slow to get back in transition.

It’s already tough enough for a freshman to lead his team to March and April success. It’s even more difficult if that guard shoulders the main burden of producing points, no matter how exciting those points are. For UNC to reach its maximum potential, Coby will have to find that sweet spot.

If his ACC performances are any indication, he may already have.