R.L. Bynum, Correspondent
CHAPEL HILL, N.C. — North Carolina freshman Coby White plays the game at an overdrive speed and pushes the pace close to the levels that Coach Roy Williams loves.
When a 6-foot-5 point guard slithers through a defense with that kind of speed, either staying in front of him or anticipating his next move requires instant decision-making that’s always a challenge.
White seems to be bringing his game to another level as the No. 15 Tar Heels’ ACC season starts Saturday in Pittsburgh, and it’s because the game is slowing down for him.
He’s also learning better when to downshift so that he avoids a turnover.
“Yeah, things have slowed down a lot compared to when we first started the season. But I feel like I’m just getting better each and every game,” White said.
“I’m just getting more comfortable. It all comes from getting more comfortable on the court.”
That can’t be of much comfort to the rest of the ACC.
Williams has compared White’s ability to ratchet up the tempo to that of Ty Lawson, who helped lead the Tar Heels to the 2009 national championship.
But the coach knew to expect some uneven games from a freshman point guard.
“It’s a work in progress,” Williams said.
“I’m extremely confident in Coby. I think he’s going to be a really good player and he’s had some really good games already. I think it’s not just how many points he scores. He’s going to be fine. I don’t worry about him.”
It’s foolhardy for an opponent to underestimate White’s speed, as Harvard found out when he went the length of the court to score and complete a 3-point play in UNC’s 77-57 victory Wednesday.
He generated quick baskets going coast-to-coast twice after Crimson baskets.
Coby White beats the press and the foul pic.twitter.com/twTxF1pyji
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) January 3, 2019
White is a major reason why UNC is eighth in the country in possessions per 40 minutes at 79.0 (according to sports-reference.com), ahead of all other power-five schools.
Joel Berry II brought quite a bit to UNC, but not that kind of tempo.
In the previous three seasons, UNC was 74th (71.7 in 2017-18), 51st (72.6 in 2016-17) and 119th (70.2 in 2015-16).
The Tar Heels haven’t finished in the top 10 since coming in eighth in 2012-13 (71.7) and 10th in 2011-12 (72.8).
Obviously, many teams play faster these days.
White admits that being consistent at the college level has been tougher than he expected.
“Each game may not be your night,” White said.
“We have so many scorers on this team that some days you might have 7 or like 5 and some days you might have 16. I think I’m getting better little by little. Sometimes, you’re not going to keep progressing and going up, you’re going to have downfalls sometimes.”
Game management can be daunting to an 18-year-old kid getting his first exposure to big-time college basketball.
But that’s also coming along.
“I’m definitely being more of a point guard overall,” White said.
“Not to just score the ball, but to show that I can do other things as well.”
The list is long of point guards who eventually excelled but struggled early to learn the position in Williams’ system.
Early in the season, the guidance of former UNC point guard Kendall Marshall, who graduated from UNC last month, helped with that process.
“Kendall teaches me a lot because he was probably one of the best to come through to distribute the ball in North Carolina history,” White said.
“He’s a big help. He’s more of a mentor. He’s been where I want to get to. His IQ is off the charts and his love for the game is crazy.”
Early in the season, it was an adjustment for his teammates who were often left behind in transition by White.
That isn’t happening as much in recent games, and White is making better decisions.
“I think he’s showing a little bit more maturity now,” second-year graduate student Cameron Johnson said.
“He shows flashes of great passes and really getting to the hoop and creating for others, so everything’s coming together. He’s more comfortable. He’s making more shots. Overall, he has a better feel for it, better control with what’s going on.”
Scoring came easily in high school at Greenfield School, where White set the all-time state scoring record with 3,573 points and the single-season mark with 1,069 points as a junior.
He showed that he can do that at the college level when he scored 33 in a loss to Texas.
Although he’s scored in double digits in eight of 12 games, that isn’t really needed from him.
In the victory over Davidson, he had a half-dozen assists before he got his first points.
“It’s definitely not as much needed as in high school because in high school, it was different,” White said of the need for him to score.
“But, I’m just here to play my game and play my role. I knew coming in, I wasn’t going to be able to do the same stuff in college that I did in high school. My shots are going to go down, but I need to do more of the little things.”
White has been in a bit of a shooting slump in the last three non-conference games.
He’s shot 8 for 28 for 28.5% from the floor and 2 for 13 for 15.3% from 3-point range after shooting 44.4% from the floor and 42% from 3-point range in the previous nine games.
But he’s compensated by not only distributing the ball more but doing it effectively within the half-court offense.
After averaging only 2.8 assists in the first six games, he’s averaging 5.2 in the last six games.
In recent games, White is doing a better job of figuring out when to keep pushing the ball to the rim and when to take advantage of the attention from defenders and pass.
With the notable exception of his 2-assist, 4-turnover game against Kentucky, his assist-turnover ratio keeps getting better.
He’s had a pair of 4 to 1 games, including Harvard (with the one turnover a double-dribble call), and was 7 to 3 against Davidson.
“I know against Kentucky, I had a lot of turnovers and all other games too, but I’m just trying to get better at it,” White said.
“Just slowing it down and don’t try to make the hero plays, just try to make the easy play.”
Although Harvard struggled to stop White in transition, he’s finding that some teams, such as Davidson, tried different approaches that also open passing lanes.
“They kind of shaded my side and double off the transition to stop it and it was hard. That was in the gaps, so it was kind of hard to drive,” White said.
“In practice, Coach wants us to get great spacing and move the ball and move ourselves. If they’re doubling me, I know somebody is open.”
White says figuring out what is expected on defense has been his biggest challenge.
“The hardest part is definitely defensive-wise, coming in as a freshman. It’s hard to focus on all the rotations and on-the-ball D and all the lingo,” White said.
“I think I’m getting better at it. I think I play defense pretty well overall, so I’m starting to try to get better at it.”
Carolina’s defense has been so poor this season that no players qualified for the defensive award in four of its 12 games.
Players are charted for good defensive plays and bad defensive plays, and the award goes to the Tar Heel with the best ratio.
In those four games, nobody had more good plays than bad plays.
White has won the award twice this season, including for the Davidson game.
Senior guard Kenny Williams says White clearly has improved his play on defense.
“I think so,” Williams said.
“When he wants to, he can definitely hound the opponent’s point guard. I think he’s gotten into his mind these last couple of games that’s what he’s going to do, and I think he’s done a really good job. The point guard is the start of our defense. If the point guard is strong, then that just makes everybody else a little bit stronger.”
Coby White's defense is improving pic.twitter.com/ayG48gSpR1
— Dadgum Box Scores (@dadgumboxscores) January 3, 2019
He’s forced turnovers with his length in the backcourt and isn’t shy about diving for the ball.
He and the rest of the Tar Heels fueled the decisive rally against Harvard with torrid defense.
White also might be a little more aerodynamic since, as he calls it, he “twisted” his hair into a ponytail before the Davidson game at the urging of his mom and sister.
“I just wanted to change the look a little,” White said.
Most Tar Heel fans probably don’t care what he does with this hair.
But they have to be excited about what is ahead as White keeps improving his game.
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