Isaiah Whitehead had one of those weeks the adults in your life prepare you for: up and down, triumph and tragedy.
Five days ago, his name showed up in a list of players and others who received “loans” from now disgraced NBA agent Andy Miller. According to Yahoo! Sports, who found the list in papers associated with an FBI investigation, Whitehead received $37,657 from Miller while a freshman at Seton Hall, a clear violation of NCAA rules and maybe more.
Whitehead kept quiet.
Then three days ago, he took the court in Greensboro, NC, for the Long Island Nets and erupted for a career high 52 points. It was also the most points any player had ever scored for the Nets G-League team and the most any G-Leaguer had scored this season.
Whitehead had this to “say.”
Glory To God— Isaiah Whitehead (@IsaiahW_15) February 25, 2018
And that was that. Take it as it comes. Take him as he is.
It was the best moment of this adversity-filled basketball season following a respectable rookie campaign with last year’s Brooklyn Nets last season: 26 starts in 73 games, filling in for injured veterans, learning the game and most of all, repping his city, Brooklyn.
The ballad of the Nets Brooklyn baller begins as the 42nd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, a selection the Nets had to trade up to acquire. It cost them $3 million and the rights of Marcus Paige. While other Nets were introduced at HSS Training Center, Whitehead was introduced on Surf Avenue in Coney Island, with Kenny Atkinson at his side. Brooklyn’s first Net. Hometown boy makes good. It’s always a good story.
Following in the tradition of other NBA players like Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair and Lance Stephenson, Coney Island’s Whitehead was the lowest profile of the group and both he the Nets expected a slow apprenticeship, time to grow, probably with Long Island. The basketball gods intervened and fast.
Down went Jeremy Lin, out went Greivis Vasquez, leaving the Nets with Whitehead. Tough if opportune times. The Lincoln High School alum averaged 7.4 points, 2.6 assists and 2.5 rebounds in 73 appearances (starting one third of the team’s games) while logging 22.5 minutes per game as a rookie.
Again, the basketball gods intervened. In comes D’Angelo Russell, up comes Spencer Dinwiddie, out goes Lin again. The original plan, to give Whitehead big minutes in the G-League, is now the new plan.
“I really didn’t know what to expect after all the moves they made in the offseason,” Whitehead, then in Brooklyn, told NetsDaily just before All-Star Weekend. “I’m definitely playing less than I thought, and less than last year, but that’s just the way the NBA works I guess … I mean, I’m pretty happy. I’m in the NBA, so I really can’t complain. I’m on a one-year contract, I’m just living every day.”
With Lin out, Russell’s missing two months and the emergence of Dinwiddie, Whitehead’s only been able to participate in 16 games for the big club, at 11.3 minutes per, as the Nets have elected use their nearby farm club to raise the Coney Islander. It’s not that he hasn’t improved. Ask Kenny Atkinson.
“I felt like when he came back, I told (Long Island Net head coach) Ronald Nored and his group; ‘that kid’s gotten better,’” Atkinson told NetsDaily two days before Whitehead dropped 52. “He looked like a more confident player – unfortunately for him we have a lot of wings and a lot of guards, so he hasn’t had the big minutes with us. But I felt like he got better. And that’s the plan going forward, too, he needs minutes – he still needs professional minutes.”
And on occasion, he’s shown it. His best game came early in the season vs. the Rockets, when he dumped 24 points in a 113-107 loss at Houston. He shot 10-of-16 and showed off more than a few of his copyrighted “cyclone” moves, but most of his time has been spent in Long Island.
In the G League, Whitehead has played 20 games this season, starting 14. Including the 52-point explosion, he is averaging 20.5 points, 3.8 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 44.7% from the field, 35.1% from three and 84.5% on free throws. Teamed mostly with Milton Doyle in the Nets backcourt, they’ve got Long Island on the cusp of the G-League playoffs.
In short, he’s performing exactly the way an NBA player should when at that level. Atkinso is an unapologetic believer in Whitehead. He’s seen it for himself.
Atkinson says that while the original idea was to continue finding Whitehead minutes in Long Island, injuries had accelerated things, forcing the organization to yank him back and forth between the G-League and NBA Nets, which they’ve done countless times this season. Whitehead and he are in constant contact with one another, the coach says. Atkinson, an admitted ‘texter,’ shot Whitehead a message after the talented combo guard hit a game-winner against the Delaware 87ers on January 19.
Atkinson, optimist by choice and hope-infused by necessity, has exuded unwavering support for Whitehead since the ’16 draft – literally Day One.
“There’s no doubt about it, he’s gonna make it,” said Atkinson with confidence. “I heard DeMarre (Carroll) talking to him in the weight room today just about where DeMarre was. DeMarre was a D-League player. He told Isaiah that in the NBA, things can change in a heartbeat. You don’t think you have a future and then all the sudden you have an opportunity. Taking advantage of that opportunity is going to be his key.”
It can change any time, Whitehead knows this, which is why his self-confidence remains.It leaps off the screen during his top G League moments: Quick decision making, elevated aggression on both ends, holding his form after converted floaters like he did at the 51-second mark of his 52-point highlight.
It’s also apparent because he says so.
“Yeah I think I’ve benefitted (from Long Island),” Whitehead said. “I’ve just gained confidence. Just knowing I could play … playing instead of being up here sitting on the bench, I mean, it’s much better. It’s been a great experience for me, but I’d rather be up here.”
And while “up here,” he’s played well.
In those 16 NBA games he’s played in this season, Whitehead’s averaged 6.3 points per game, which translates to 20.0 points per 36-minutes. He’s only averaging 11.3 minutes per showing. He’s also shot 46.5% from the field and 38.9% from three.
Atkinson’s recognized it.
“To be honest, I think he’s done a good job, it’s been tough to get him minutes,” said Atkinson. “I know he gets frustrated. I know it’s frustrating sometimes. It’s like ‘man, in five minutes I played with the (Brooklyn) Nets, at the end of the game, in those minutes, I was pretty good.’
“But he’s also got to understand he was the 42nd pick in the draft. It’s tough, the odds are against him if you just look at it statistically,” continued Atkinson. “He not only has to be good but he has to be impeccable with his habits. Impeccable with his diet, his sleep, his focus. Yes, we believe, but the road is a little different for him, and so far he’s done a heck of a job. I think he might tell you he’s been frustrated at times. I’ve never seen such a caring organization. We debated it. Our coaches were fighting ‘let’s stop yanking him back and forth, let’s leave him there.’”
For right now, we just don’t know what’s next for Whitehead. We don’t know where he fits. Nor does he. He has a team option for 2018-19. It’s cheap, $1.5 million. Will it be declined or accepted in June? For now, Atkinson has some advice for Whitehead.
“My message to him is he’s just got to look at the G-League, understand what skills are going to translate into the NBA and work on that,” he said. “Being a competitive defender, which I really think he is. Being impeccable with his on and off court habits, and then, leading the way for those guys. You’re up here with the first-team, so to speak, and then when you go there, you’ve got to lead. It’s not perfect, but it’s also his role right now, and he’s gotta work to where he’s a permanent guy with us, that’s the goal.”
For Whitehead, he’s not worried about June, he’s just worried about improving.
“They have to pick-up my option. Then I’ll go from there,” he said. “They like the progression, they like how I’ve been playing when I’m here and down there, so it’s all positive.”
Ups and downs may come and go. Steadiness, consistency gets you through it.