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From Day 1, being a Net ‘meant everything’ to Isaiah Whitehead

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

The Nets and Isaiah Whitehead were made for each other. Until they weren’t, and not that they’re not, but for now, the two sides have gone in different directions.

The appreciation of the Coney Island/Lincoln High player who brought it all started on Draft Night of 2016. The Nets had the 55th pick, which is where a lot of mock drafts placed the 6’5” combo guard who’d played two years at Seton Hall. The Nets front office had a much higher opinion.

He was listed at 18th on the internal mock, according to one insider. So they moved on him, sending $3 million in cash and the rights to Marcus Paige to Utah so they could move up to 42. It was the most the Nets had moved up in the days of Rod Thorn, Billy King and Sean Marks. Still is, in fact.

And while the other players got their Nets introduction at HSS Training Center, Whitehead got his at the Nets surfside store not far from the apartment tower where he grew up. It couldn’t get any more ‘Brooklyn’ than that.

“There’s no words for it,” Whitehead said about growing up in Brooklyn and playing for his hometown team. “To actually have a press conference where they introduce me in my backyard it’s amazing. I really can’t put it into words.”

The beginnings of the relationship between Whitehead and the Nets can actually be traced as far back as May 2016 where our Dexter Henry uncovered the mutual interest, and at what level, in a series of tweets.

It wasn’t just that Whitehead was all Brooklyn, all the time. He had just come off a sensational sophomore season at the Hall, where he led the Pirates to the Big East championship, handing the ultimate national champion Villanova its last loss of the season.

In his first season, things were tough, very tough. After injuries to Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, he was thrust into the starting lineup as a point guard and the results were predictable. There were spectacular plays but a lot of learning.

Still, he filled the breach, playing in 73 games, starting 26 and coming up with averages of 7.4 points and 2.5 assists, getting five votes for the All-Rookie team.

Then, in the off-season, the Nets made moves — big moves — that spelled a lesser role for Whitehead. D’Angelo Russell went from west to east coasts, the Nets started to work Caris LeVert out of the 1 and Spencer Dinwiddie came into his own. Whitehead wound up on Long Island and unlike Chris McCullough, embraced the experience.

Still by the season’s end, Whitehead was stuck in the G-League, occasionally showing how well he had developed like his 24-point outburst vs. the Grizzlies at the end of November. The bottom line was not good, though. In his second year, Whitehead was on the outside looking in of the Nets future plans, making only 16 NBA appearances in 2017-18.

It wasn’t that his game had deteriorated. He got better from his rookie to sophomore year, but so did his teammates. He showed a bit of that when he took over G-League game in February, scoring 52 points in a big game.

“There’s no doubt about it, he’s gonna make it,” Kenny Atkinson confidently said of Whitehead shortly after the 52-point outburst. “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.”

Always the good soldier, Whitehead spoke about how his G-League stint had helped him.

“Yeah I think I’ve benefited (from Long Island),” Whitehead told Netsdaily, also in February. “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.”

But things didn’t work out so well. It is, after all, a business. On Friday morning, after two seasons, the Coney Island native was traded to the Denver Nuggets in exchange for Kenneth Faried, Darrell Arthur, a top-12 protected 2019 first round pick and a 2020 second round pick. This came less than two weeks he had agreed to extend his team option date by a month, perhaps the first evidence of a deal being on the horizon.

On learning of the deal, I reached out to some of those in Whitehead’s circle, who shared some thoughts regarding the move ... and word that Denver will waive his contract.

Whitehead expressed himself on social media, humbly thanking the Nets and spreading love. It’s the Brooklyn way.

The Seton Hall alum has also previously discussed what playing for his hometown team meant to him during his featured appearance in Backpack Broadcasting’s The Sports Walk last summer.

“It means a lot. I mean, I come back as much as possible, as much as I can,” he said. “I came from here and I’m never going to forget where I came from.

“Playing for Brooklyn means everything – I mean it’s just great being home and being comfortable. Just being around friends and family, and really enjoying everything,” he later added.

And Friday night, the Nets publicly sent out a Thank You to the first Brooklyn native ever to don the Black and White – very proudly we might add.

For the Nets, the trade provides much needed depth on the interior where they were routinely decimated throughout last season.

As for the Brooklynite, who is expected to hit the market as a free agent, he will continue to be active in the community, starting with his Annual Cookout on August 4th.

Though, the run was short lived, fans, and more importantly, the city, will always remember “The Cyclone.” And being that Whitehead is from Brooklyn after all, this isn’t goodbye forever, but only goodbye for now.

By developing and coming into his own in the G League last season, averaging 32 points a game on their playoff run, he also proved to be a symbol for what the Nets wish to do in Long Island moving forward, and as a result, Whitehead may eventually line-up opposite of Brooklyn at Barclays Center soon. It will be as odd a night for his fans as it will be for him.

Hello Brooklyn, he’ll no doubt say and try to do his best. He always has.