Coby White entered college basketball with high expectations, but he wasn't the most prominent player in North Carolina's 2019 recruiting class.
Though he was a 5-star prospect and considered the No. 25 overall player in the cycle, White typically fell behind Nassir Little in the conversation. Little, who was ranked No. 3, earned the McDonald's All-American Game MVP award.
But as valuable as Little has been in a sixth-man role, White is the unquestioned top freshman for UNC this season.
Over the summer, he overtook junior Seventh Woods to start at point guard. He earned second-team All-ACC honors while helping UNC secure a share of the ACC regular-season title, as well as a No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. Entering the Sweet 16, White has tallied 16.1 points, 4.1 assists and 3.6 rebounds per game.
Whenever the Tar Heels' tournament run ends―whether in a loss or a national championship―the widely held expectation is White will declare for the NBA draft and leave Chapel Hill.
Considering where he began the season as a pro prospect, White's rise to likely NBA lottery pick is truly outstanding. Given his performance―all season, but mostly since ACC play began in January―however, it's also not the least bit surprising.
On B/R, White has moved from the projected 18th overall pick in October to sixth. He was unlisted on both Sports Illustrated and SB Nation in November but is now eighth and 16th, respectively. The Athletic pegged White 25th in January but recently put him 11th.
At the next level, he projects as a combo guard. Bleacher Report's Jonathan Wasserman notes White ranks in the 96th percentile as a spot-up shooter and in the 98th percentile as a pick-and-roll passer.
The 6'5" guard has knocked down 36.3 percent of his triples and set a UNC freshman record with 82 makes. That range propelled the Heels in tight victories over Miami, Syracuse and Clemson. White buried at least six trifectas in each of those contests, accounting for three of his five 25-plus-point showings.
"He's the best scoring point guard I've ever coached," said Carolina boss Roy Williams, per Jonathan M. Alexander of the News & Observer.
White also has eight outputs of at least 15 points and five assists, the second-most by a UNC player since 2010-11. His ability to facilitate in the Tar Heels' fast-paced attack has shined.
"He's always a threat," said Virginia coach Tony Bennett, per Holt McKeithan of the Daily Tar Heel. "... He's quick, he's triple-threat, he can really hit you in transition."
After the Heels toppled Louisville in the quarterfinals of the ACC tournament, opposing coach Chris Mack left impressed with White's intelligence when running the offense.
"Coby White made the right decision each and every time whether it was an advance pass to Cam Johnson, whether it was to [Garrison] Brooks underneath. ... They're a load when they play that quickly."
White's mental acuity is about to face a formidable test.
In the Sweet 16, the Tar Heels will challenge fifth-seeded Auburn. The SEC squad forces the highest rate of turnovers in the nation and the 31st-highest three-point attempt rate. White has just eight giveaways in the last six games and hoists 52.7 percent of his shots from beyond the arc.
But he's suited to attack an under-the-radar weakness.
According to Hoop-Math.com, Auburn's opponents have posted a 59.1 effective field-goal percentage―the 283rd-worst mark in Division I―within 10 seconds of a made shot on the other end. Only five teams attempt a higher rate of initial shots in that category than UNC.
White's quickness and decision-making with the ball can prevent Auburn from mounting a game-changing run. Being unable to make a defensive stop after scoring could ruin the Tigers.
Throw in Auburn's 223rd-ranked three-point defense, and the matchup is ideal for White to show off his offensive skill set. With yet another superb performance, he will only continue to ascend NBA draft boards.
He's already climbed a long way, but he's not finished.