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Kenny Atkinson: Isaiah Whitehead will have to compete for a job, minutes

NBA: New York Knicks at Brooklyn Nets Nicole Sweet-USA TODAY Sports

The loss of Jeremy Lin and the departure of Greivis Vasquez pushed the development of Isaiah Whitehead more than anybody expected. He started 26 games —a third of the season— and gained valuable experience at the point.

One year later, the Nets are logjammed at the guard position with eight players fighting for minutes. Kenny Atkinson addressed this at Tuesday’s press conference.

“He’s gotta compete. He’s gotta compete for minutes, compete for a job,” Atkinson said.

Whitehead had an impressive rookie campaign and only got better as the season went on. However, the Nets have the option of sending players to the G League if they feel minutes are necessary for those who aren’t getting them. Atkinson has praised Whitehead in the past, saying he could play a “Marcus Smart type of role” where he can handle the 1, 2, or 3 on both sides of the ball.

So, it’s easy to tell why his first words came as a surprise. But then he continued.

“I thought Isaiah had some really great moments last year. I really believe in him. Obviously he’s still a young player, but I’m anxious to see him compete in training camp. I think he fits how we wanna play.”

Then, he reiterated what he had said in the offseason.

“One thing we learned last year is that we can put this guy at the 2, the 3, and the 1. And that was a revelation. We talk about development and where guys fit in this league, obviously him being a versatile player like that is gonna give him some opportunity. Very excited about Isaiah’s future.”

Whitehead seems to be ready for the challenge, tweeting on Wednesday afternoon...

There was another quote, not directed at Whitehead, where Atkinson may have hinted at just how he plans to sort out all those guards... assuming none get traded.

“I do think there’s development through competition. Minutes will be... we’re gonna have to compete for minutes. The players know that. I think that drives development also. And listen, I think you saw last year, we used our roster, our entire roster. We’ll continue to do that. I think there will be plenty of opportunity to develop the whole roster.”

So, he’s going to be competing with guys like Jeremy Lin, D’Angelo Russell, Allen Crabbe, Caris LeVert, Sean Kilpatrick, Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, even Summer League standout, Milton Doyle.

What set Whitehead apart last year is not a specific aspect of his game or a statistic; it’s his toughness. He’s a strong guard who brings grit to his team. He is the hometown kid that Brooklyn appreciates.

Atkinson said this about Whitehead last December:

“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 urgency is about to be tested.