Imagine, if you will, the current NBA draft class as classic gaming characters. It’s not so difficult: the Draft is the league’s “Player Select” screen, a moment when teams choose a champion to lead them to victory against soon-to-be lesser opponents. So, given that. Zion Williamson is Mario — the multi-tool star who could change the game entirely. Ja Morant is Link, a warrior whose intellect and offense primes him for a long title quest. RJ Barrett is Guile; I don’t know who Taco Fall is. And then there’s Coby White, the University Of North Carolina freshman who’s not a Double Dragon brawler or ice-cold killer in the Mortal Kombat mold. What White is is focused, fiery, and really freaking fast. Coby White is Sonic the Hedgehog and he just might save the Chicago Bulls.
I’m not just saying that because White projects to fall to the Bulls with the Draft’s seventh pick, nor am I saying that because Sonic actually saves animals (though not bulls, natch). My argument that White will help save my favorite childhood team is rooted in both his basketball acumen and personal character could change a franchise, let alone anchor sixty-something video games. Bill Lambeer’s Combat Basketball he isn’t.
Let’s talk White’s sports skills first. The Bulls need a smart and nimble point guard to achieve anything close to playoff contention. White weaponizes speed. Seriously. Watch his highlights. It’s like trying to track a blur until time grows gelatinous. Scope the clip below: White rolls toward the hoop — lightning all but trailing behind him — only to split Virginia Tech’s D and then scoop n’ shoot when challenged near the rim.
Do I feel silly writing “scoop n’shoot?” Reader, I do. But that’s what White demands: language as ludicrous as his scoring is inventive. There were times during UNC’s 2018 campaign where white’s skills made opposing teams look more 8-bit than human — especially in crunch time. When the game was on the line, White had a tendency to Harrell toward the hoop and dare defenders to plant their feet. He’s then hit a pull-up dagger or no-look pass to Cam Johnson with almost sleight-of-hand smoothness. There’s a reason scouts went nuts for White at the combine two weeks ago. White’s playmaking is instinctive and not system-dependent. His game’s not as polished as Ja Morant’s or fellow point guard prospect Darius Garland but Sonic The Hedgehog isn’t graceful either: he’s fun, merciless, and makes wins happen.
He also demands an opponents attention, which could be a level up for Jim Boylen’s Bulls and their electric shooting guard Zach Levine. Levine is almost the Knuckles to White’s Sonic. He’s a dogged and delirious point-scorer as likely to slam the ball home as swish an impossible jumper. He’s confident, erratic, and his peak-form Numbers are bonkers (during a late stretch last year, he averaged 27.4 points per game, 5.8 rebounds, and 6.4 assists with 52.1/47.5/78.2 shooting splits). Teams have to double him. That would prove difficult, though, with White collapsing a defense towards the paint on plays like this one:
Opportunities like that could do more than improve the Bulls turgid offensive efficiency — they could level up their pace, which loitered in the league’s bottom third last season. Boylen called the slog “self-imposed,” claiming his squad had to “crawl before they could walk.” With White at the helm, that squad might start sprinting. A speedier offense would unlock opportunities for face of the franchise Lauri Markkanen and, with White being a threat from downtown (35..3 percent on 6.9 attempts per game), the one-two threat of he and Otto Porter Jr. could spread the D like butter. (And speaking of D: White can play it and the Bulls cannot. Next question.) That’s something the Bulls are in desperate need of. Does White make the Bulls title contenders? No. At best, he probably nudges them towards “LA Clippers East” which I could totally, joyfully live with. But it’s White’s character that also makes me want him on our squad.
Because when I say Cody White is “Sonic” what I really mean is “classic Sonic,” the Sonic not of Generations or Jaleel White shows or (gulp) Jim Carrey movies but a 1991 Genesis game. That’s the one I loved as a kid. When I took on the role of Sonic I wasn’t just fast; I was sure. Sonic is undeniably confident. He doesn’t persevere so much as navigate effortlessly as he adapts to the changing landscapes of Marble Zone or the labyrinthine paths of Green Hill. He never stops smirking. (Seriously: even when that dude gets all the rings knocked loose from him the corners of his mouth are upturned. I’m a professional actor who attended a prestigious school and none of my training prepared me to do that. Just try. It’s physically impossible. Sonic is amazing.) That assuredness isn’t laced with any cruelty or hubris; instead it stays playful or, at worst, tends towards steely. For a kid who got beat up all the time, that was a nice thing to embody — if only through a game controller.
The reality of the NBA is this: we ask its players to embody their fans hopes and dreams and that doesn’t always mean “wins.” Sometimes it means the ways they move or their skill for Twitter trolling. And while basketball isn’t the full-body brutality of American football, it’s unreasonable to draft any athlete for durability alone. Injuries happen and, unlike game avatars, when they do players can’t load save points. There is the only their sudden, hampered present.
So give me a player who’s personality and skill set are presently electric. Let’s draft a guy I think nine year olds are going to lose it for that makes the Bulls much better from the start. I want a point guard whose video game equal collects rings by the hundreds because maybe — just maybe — his fierce game can lead a flailing team to one. Please, John Paxton: pick the freshman from North Carolina who beat some guy named Michael Jordan’s scoring record in his one year there. And when you debate shopping that seventh pick, remember that Jordan wasn’t first off the board in ’84.
The Bulls should draft Coby White, this draft’s Sega the Hedgehog and the potential Genesis of something excellent.
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