Coming out of high school, Isaiah Whitehead was the 14th-best player — according to ESPN — in the entire Class of 2014. The top shooting guard in his class was D’Angelo Russell and Whitehead was right behind him, just ahead of No. 3 Devin Booker.
Both Russell and Booker immediately dominated in their one-year stints at Ohio State and Kentucky and headed to the NBA. Whitehead, on the other hand, put up 12 points per game at Seton Hall but slashed an ugly .367/.346/.746 and averaged almost as many assists as turnovers.
He improved all of those numbers slightly during his sophomore campaign, but his reputation as a big shot player exploded. His dagger in the Big East Championship was the best example. And while his offensive numbers might have been mediocre, his play was not. The Nets had liked him for a long time — they had him at No. 18 in their internal mock draft — and not just for his scoring but for his defense.
There were the problems with his decision-making, but as the Nets told him and anyone else who was listening, they wanted him, far-from-finished product or not. And they put their money down on him, buying his draft rights for $3 million and giving him first round money —$4.6 million over four — after taking him at No. 42.
The Nets’ coaching staff has had to break Whitehead’s game down and try to start it anew from scratch since coming to Brooklyn. Kenny Atkinson and Co. had to get rid of the me-first tendencies from Seton Hall and try to accelerate Whitehead’s development from a high school shooting guard to a NBA point guard.
"I think we have multiple guys who can play point guard. But Isaiah’s going to push guys for that position, no matter who’s there. I don’t think he’s coming in here saying, ‘I’m going to take my time.’ He has an urgency about him and a competitiveness. He’s ambitious, and that’s what I like about him.”
The loss of Jeremy Lin and the departure of Greivis Vasquez pushed that development... hard. He’s started 15 games and gotten extremely valuable experience a lot earlier than he or the Nets expected.
He’s also getting better. In his first six games, Whitehead averaged 4.7 points on .387/.143/.750 shooting with nearly as many turnovers (2.8) as assists (3.0). The three-point shooting improved greatly, as did his assist-to-turnover ratio, in his next 10 games. Now, in his most recent six games, he’s slashing .537/.385/.727 with 9.5 points and 3.2 assists per contest (and only 2.0 turnovers).
His best NBA game yet was the Nets’ win over the Nuggets which started that six-game stretch as he scored 14 points on 5-of-11 shooting along with four steals.
As expected, though, his passing still needs work. He’s only averaging a shade over three assists a game and with more than two turnovers a night, his turnover rate is right around 5 percent, much too high for a ball-dominant point guard. But with the outside shooting starting to round into form, the 21-year-old’s promise is definitely peeking its head out more often now than at the beginning of the season.
What has set Whitehead apart, though, is not a specific aspect of his game or a statistic; it’s his toughness. As Atkinson mentioned in the quote above, he doesn’t wait for the game to come to him, as he goes out and gets it.
That definitely plays a role in his proclivity to commit turnovers, but it results in a bulldog mentality that allows him to get to the rim and draw contact. He even draws a charge once about every four games, which is the 18th-highest mark in the entire league (without adjusting for playing time).
Atkinson is not afraid to put him into tough situation, as he did in the loss to Philly.
“At the begining of the fourth, we had our young guys in. Look that's what we’re doing. We want those guys to get experience. Maybe it didnt work out but hopefully down the road, it will.”
It’s always cool to have a legitimate hometown player, especially on a young team that isn’t going anywhere in the standings but downward. He might not be the fastest point guard, or the most efficient, but Whitehead will certainly be a useful part of this team’s future. Not many 2nd round guards combine a decent shot with aggressive defensive instincts, and it turns out that skillset is perfect for the style Kenny Atkinson is trying to instill in Brooklyn.