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When Greenfield School graduate Coby White’s name is called at the NBA draft Thursday night, ostensibly in the first dozen picks, he will be the first player with Wilson ties to be drafted in a quarter century.
Fike High product Jamie Watson, who was taken in the second round by the Utah Jazz out of the University of South Carolina in 1994, is the only other player from a Wilson high school to have played in the NBA. White’s hometown of Goldsboro is nearly as bereft of NBA players.Only Mike Evans, who played nine seasons after being drafted by the Denver Nuggets in the first round in 1978, actually played in the league. Anthony Teachey was drafted in the second round out of Wake Forest in 1984 by the Dallas Mavericks, but decided to play in Europe and never stepped foot onto an NBA court.
DEFYING THE ODDS
So how did White defy the odds and emerge as a lottery pick as a one-and-done player out of the University of North Carolina? The short answer is talent and a lot of hard work.
“I’ve been proving people wrong my whole life and I’m not going to stop now,” White said in a telephone interview last week from California, where he has been living and training under the guidance of former UCLA and NBA player Don MacLean since late April. “You always have doubters but ever since I was in high school, people have told me what I can’t do and what I could do. I never let that bother me and now people are telling me that I can do it or how good I am. I’ve been proving those people wrong my whole life so I just feel like I’m not going to stop now.”
For starters, basketball is in White’s bloodlines. His late father, Donald “Doc” White, played collegiately at North Carolina Central University and his older brother, Will, was a standout at Eastern Wayne High who played at Catawba Valley Community College and Mars Hill University.
It was through Will’s friend and former Eastern Wayne teammate Darian Cahill, who played three seasons at Greenfield, that the connection to Greenfield was established. In fact, Knights head coach Rob Salter said, Will White considered transferring to Greenfield but, because he played football, opted to remain at Eastern Wayne. But the door was ajar for Coby to become a Knight.
“Will just said that he knew when Coby got out of middle school, he was coming to Greenfield,” Salter said. “He knew how successful the program’s been and the style they wanted Coby to play. They wanted him to play for me, which was a huge compliment.”
White was already making waves on the AAU circuit, starting when he was 8 years old and playing for Kendrick Williams, first with Garner Road, then North Carolina Rising Prospects until he was 14 and then again on Williams’ 15U Team Wall squad.
Coby White showed up Greenfield School as a skinny freshman in 2014 with a ton of potential but nothing that suggested he would be an NBA lottery pick five years later. But White didn’t take long to flash his talent for putting the ball in the basket.
Knights head coach Rob Salter remembers a game midway through the 2014-15 season against High Point Wesleyan Christian, then ranked No. 7 nationally, and its vaunted junior forward Harry Giles, who would be a one-and-done player at Duke two years later.
The Knights lost, but White led the way with 22 points and seven assists, serving notice that he was not just an average freshman.
“In that type of environment, he showed why he’s one of the best freshmen in the state,” Salter told the Times after the game.
Early in his sophomore season at Greenfield, White started scoring points in buckets, including 34 against Virginia prep schools Genesis Academy in the Phenom Hoops Showcase that made Salter think White could be a really special player.
“I knew he had a chance to be really special then because he just has a motor,” Salter said. “He just competes every single play and that’s what makes him who he is.”
White emerged as a force in 2016, earning the first of three consecutive Wilson Times Boys Basketball Player of the Year honors. In the spring, White further displayed his progression in the Nike Elite Youth Basketball League for Team CP3 under coach Andy Poplin. By midsummer, UNC head coach Roy Williams had offered White a scholarship and within a week White had decided to become a Tar Heel.
PUTTING IN THE WORK
From the summer of 2016, White continued to get better seemingly every day. That’s in large part due to the amount of work he’s done toward that end.
Former Greenfield player Jeremy Jeffers, who, with Cahill, operates Power Plex training facility in Wilson, has seen it up close. Jeffers played collegiately at NCAA Division I Drake University and then on Indiana University of Pennsylvania’s NCAA Div. II national runner-up team in 2015. He began working with White and Greenfield teammate Elijah McCadden when both were sophomores.
For White, the relationship extended far beyond the daily workout sessions.
“Jeremy, he was a big influence on my game,” White said. “He taught me a lot of stuff working out with him that translated to the college level. I’m thankful for what he did and now I think we’ve built the relationship to where it’s more than a trainer. He’s like family now. We’re definitely family.”
So much so that Jeffers and Cahill will be among the friends that White has invited to attend the draft Thursday in New York.
While the impact of Jeffers’ tutelage is evident, he defers to White’s dedication.
“I give all the credit to Coby, to be honest. He worked really hard, but what I tried to do with my style of training is that everything is game-related movements,” Jeffers said. “All the drills kind of focus on translating to the game and I just tried to give him my knowledge of the game, mentally. He was already skilled when I started working with him but I was trying to train his mind for the next level as far as being able to read plays, read passes and knowing situations as far as when to control his speed.
“That’s what we worked on — sharp movements as far as creating separation, finishing at the rim, honing that mid-range game — just trying to sharpen those things. But he was already skilled. He wanted to put the work in but those are the things that I focused on because I had already seen them and I wanted him to be advanced mentally when he got to college so he wouldn’t have to learn everything over as far as positioning and college terminology, so to speak, on defense and offense.”
Salter was also on hand, working with White in those extra sessions.
“He’s such a sponge and he wanted to learn and I think that’s why he was ready to play at Carolina so quickly,” Salter said. “Jeremy did a terrific job with him breaking down moves that he would do at the next level and you see a lot of kids do that stuff, but you don’t see them transition it into the game. There’s a lot of times I’d see Jeremy work his butt off with him but I wanted to make sure he did transition those moves into a game. So I’d tell (White) to look for this, look for that. You’re not doing all this hard work just to be doing it.”
Will White thought his brother’s growth really accelerated the summer before and into his senior season at Greenfield. That belief was driven home during the John Wall Invitational when Coby White scored 119 points to break the 27-year-old tournament scoring record.
“I thought that’s when he took the biggest jump and that’s when I could see him playing in the NBA and not just being a scorer, but also being a playmaker,” Will White said. “He’s always had that. I don’t think that people saw that because at Greenfield the type of style that Coach Salter loves to play, he had to score a fair amount of points for the team to be in those games and win some of those games. But he’s always had that playmaking ability.”
White has always been lucid about describing his work habits and his strengths and weaknesses. While there’s an entire online industry devoted to breaking down each potential draft pick’s game, White innately articulated the challenge before him.
“I think just adjusting to it,” he said of the NBA game. “I think a lot of people have the idea that in college, I just went fast all the time and in the NBA, one of the biggest things — other than ball screens — offensively is using your change of pace. So I just feel like that since I’ve been out here in California, Don has been preaching a lot and speaking into my head that it’s all about change of pace, you know, using your speed but also changing your pace. So I’ve been working on that a lot.
“And the NBA has a lot of ball screens and I’ve been working on that a lot. At Carolina, we didn’t run any ball-screen offense. That’s not part of Coach Williams’ plan. So those two things are things that I think I can get a lot better at, so I’ve been working on them a lot since I’ve been out here.”
But White is also aware that his style of play may be better suited for the NBA than it was in college.
“Being a big guard at 6-5 and being a point guard, I’m confident that my scoring ability will translate over,” he said. “And with more spacing, I feel like my playmaking ability — in the NBA, it’s not like in college where everybody helping — so my playmaking ability, I feel like is going to translate better in high school than it did in college.”
White quickly realized his miscue and giggled, reminding his listener that he is still a teenager.
“Oh, my fault! I meant, in the NBA than it did in college!” he said.
Now that White is on the precipice of a professional career, it seems as the hunches of those involved his development were correct.
“I always knew he was special just based off his work ethic,” Jeffers said. “After his 11th-grade summer, I told him that he was one and done. He didn’t believe me. A very, very, very humble kid but I told him that he has something special built in him. I knew it for a while but it was just a matter of him proving it to the world and he did that. It’s just his drive. He’s different from other people. He doesn’t care about what people say, he works his butt off. He’s super-focused. He’s not one of those kids that get sidetracked by anything. He has his goal in mind and he’s gone after it and he’s almost there!”