NEVER IN DOUBT: Coby White’s Unprecedented Journey to the NBA

by July 15, 2019
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He scrolled through his phone and made it a priority to get screenshots of as many of them as possible—tweet after tweet. He wanted a record of all the doubts that existed regarding him and his game. His phone soon was inundated with photos of social media posts—some by complete strangers, others by people he knew really well—that predicted how long it would take for him to have a shot at becoming an NBA player.

They all said it’d be at least a few years before the League would come calling for him. And the mock drafts agreed.

Yet, here is Coby White, inside a gym in Thousand Oaks, CA, just one year after he began collecting those same screenshots. There are still three weeks to go before the NBA Draft, but he wastes no time reminding you just how inaccurate and flat-out wrong all those predictions were.

“It’s a great feeling because I used all that as motivation. Even people from my city that I knew, I was cool with—you have them on Twitter and personally I know them, talk to them a lot and I see them around the city—they’d say, Yeah, give Coby two or three years and he’ll be in the League. And Give him two years and he’ll grow and he’ll get better. I screenshot all that,” he recalls. “I just like to have it because on draft night—I’m not petty, but I’d want to send the picture to them like, Remember when you said I was…But I ain’t petty. I [just] used it throughout the season [for motivation], but now I had to clear storage on my phone. I had to get some apps. I be flying a lot so I had to download movies. I deleted a lot of them but throughout the season I did [look at them].”

At the same time, he does understand where the doubts stemmed from. A one-and-done guard out of UNC? When was the last time that happened?

When White arrived at Chapel Hill last fall, he was well aware of the stats. Only three hoopers had ever stepped foot on campus and become one-and-done players during head coach Roy Williams’ 16 years with the Tar Heels: Marvin Williams, Brandan Wright and Tony Bradley. None of them were guards.

The likes of Ty Lawson, Raymond Felton, Kendall Marshall, Marcus Paige and Joel Berry all came before him. All guards that came in as McDonald’s All-Americans but ended up staying multiple years at UNC.

Coby knew that history seemed to back those very same tweets he screenshotted coming into his freshman year. Yet he paid no attention to what the odds said.

“I think everybody was so fixated on saying, North Carolina holds people back, especially point guards or Coach Williams doesn’t let them play. This and that. I think that because they were so fixated and feeding on that, [they said], He’s going to be there multiple years,” says White in retrospect.

“I know how great of a basketball player Marcus Paige was. Kendall Marshall, Joel Berry, Ty Lawson. I know how great they were and they stayed multiple years. So you can’t help but to think coming in that maybe it is a thing that point guards go through. I think I helped change that and I think I helped set the road for it. I stayed me. I did what I did throughout high school. I didn’t change anything. Stayed in the gym all the time…And it got me where I’m at.”

He arrived on campus as a top-25 recruit who had just finished his prep career with over 3,500 points and North Carolina Mr. Basketball honors. Nonetheless, the starting position—or even just playing time in general—was never promised. But White, who committed to UNC when he was a high school sophomore, quickly earned it and ended up passing Michael Jordan on the Tar Heels’ all-time freshman scoring list by the end of the season. He was also named second-team All-ACC. He took the Tar Heels to the Sweet 16 with a 29-7 overall record and finished his freshman campaign averaging 16.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.5 rebounds.

As impressive as becoming the first guard to successfully do a one-and-done year under Roy Williams at UNC is, it doesn’t come close to the biggest obstacle he found himself having to overcome heading into college.

White’s father passed away right as his senior year of high school was starting. His dad, Donald, hooped at North Carolina Central and introduced the game to Coby as a youngster. His passing had a profound effect on Coby.

“That was the hardest year of my life. A lot of things go through your head. Like, why? At that time I think I was 17. I’m saying, why me? I’m 17 years old and my dad is never going to see me play at North Carolina. He’s not going to see me on draft night. He’s not going to see me get married. It all comes with its trials and tribulations,” says Coby. “I had a choice to make. It was either keep going and stay on the right track or differ from that. “I was the only one at home with my mom. I had to take care of her and make sure she was straight. My dad wanted me to achieve my goal and he wanted me to go to the League. My dad was one of the realist people I’ve met. He was my best friend. It was hard for sure but I think it brought me closer to God.

“I had to grow up quicker than most my age because I had a lot more responsibility. Where I’m from is not the safest area. It still messes with me at night because I’m not there with my mom—she’s there by herself. When I went to college it was super hard for me because I knew she was the only one there.”

White couldn’t escape the “first first-round pick from North Carolina since Michael Jordan” headlines that dominated the local news cycle in the hours after the Chicago Bulls selected him seventh overall. He got there by not succumbing to all the social media projections that popped up along the way. Those will only intensify now as he prepares to help turn around such a historic franchise. Regardless of the outcome, confidence is one thing he won’t ever lack.

“When you have so many people doubting you—only a very small percentage get drafted into the NBA. For me to be one of those top guys is a blessing,” he says. “It also feels surreal. This is your dream but you don’t really think—growing up, I didn’t think I’d be here. But it was my dream. It still hasn’t hit me but I now know it’s all part of God’s plan for me. I still have a long way to go and I plan to be in the League for a very long time.”

Franklyn Calle is an Associate Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @FrankieC7.

Video presented by AT&T.

Portraits by Atiba Jefferson.