Nets find intriguing prospect in Isaiah Whitehead
NEW YORK– The Brooklyn Nets aren’t your average rebuilding team. Owning the worst record in the league should be good news, as it normally secures the best chance to land the number one pick and a major talent like Markelle Fultz. But thanks to the slew of draft picks Brooklyn dealt away in the past; a top pick is a pipe dream for the time being. No, the Nets have to build from scratch by finding guys the opposition missed later in the draft and in the D-League.
It’s the sports equivalent of the needle in a haystack; only the needle also looks like a piece of hay. If Brooklyn can turn some of these shots in the dark into legitimate NBA pieces, it’ll make the coming years a lot easier. And amidst all this losing, Nets fans can feel encouraged, as their team may have already done so with Isaiah Whitehead.
“For a rookie, I think he’s done a pretty darn good job,” Kenny Atkinson, head coach of the Nets, said following practice on Tuesday. “A lot was thrust upon him.”
On draft night last June, Brooklyn dealt its 55th overall pick and cash considerations for Utah’s 42nd pick, which they used to draft the Coney Island native. At the time, most draft experts saw it as a great value pick, though the second round is mostly a crapshoot. Now midway into his rookie season, Whitehead’s statistical results have been underwhelming, but there are more than enough good signs to believe he’ll be a solid contributor.
Those same draft experts labeled Whitehead as a shooting guard coming in, but Atkinson had other plans. Whitehead has primarily manned the point in his rookie season, even starting 26 games with Jeremy Lin’s hamstring troubles.
“It’s real tough,” Whitehead told FanRag Sports. “Started off extremely tough. As I watch film with guys like Jeremy, Randy [Foye,] people like that, they help me out a lot. Just about when to be patient, when to attack the big or when to hit the roller. It’s kind of slowing down for me every game, so I’m just trying to keep progressing.”
Being thrown into an unfamiliar and difficult role as a second-round pick can lead to disaster, but Whitehead has shaken off his rocky start. At the head of Brooklyn’s ‘poor man’s Spurs’ offensive attack, he’s keeping the ball moving well. After some early-season moments when he’d try and do too much, Whitehead sticks to running the offense, save for flashes of his creating ability.
His handle is tight to his body, and he’ll actively seek out weak-side corner shooters on the pick-and-roll a la John Wall. Defenders will get pinned behind his 6’5”, 210-pound frame as he snakes into the lane and drops a pin-point pocket pass to Brook Lopez. Vision and timing like this can’t be ignored:
Turnovers have been a problem for Whitehead, as a fifth of his possessions end in them. A majority have been bad passes, but sans any lingering issues. There were October nerves and the occasional miscommunication, but for the most part, Whitehead had the right idea and just fell victim to NBA-level defenses. Atkinson raves about his I.Q., and predictably, his giveaways have gone down as the season has progressed. He’s cut out some bad habits, like telegraphing and jump-passing.
“I was definitely trying to cut down on that; I think I did it quite a bit,” Whitehead said.
While Whitehead has impressed in surprising areas, he’s yet to make an impact where many expected him to: scoring the basketball. His true-shooting percentage is currently only 46.6, among the worst in the league. There are some real points of concern: Whitehead’s close-knit dribbling makes it hard to get his opponents off balance through crossovers or hesitations, he’s a bit too grounded on lay-up attempts leading to a lot of blocks. And pull-up jumpers are missing in ugly fashion. We’ve also seen little of an in-between game, or even the makings of one. He’s only shooting a couple of free throws per-36 minutes.
“I think he’s a rookie who’s up and down,” Atkinson said. “Some really good moments and times where he’s struggled.”
Luckily his tools afford him some benefit of the doubt. Whitehead has deceptive strength and quickness, both on display when he’s getting to the basket. A lot of terrific looks around the rim just haven’t fallen, which should change in time. That low free-throw number is partly due to his build; Whitehead will bounce off seven-footers like it’s nothing.
He’s shooting 40 percent from three on catch-and-shoot attempts, so good news there. And then there’s his right-to-left spin move that’s become a go-to:
(As a side note, that move is so filthy, it inspired Ian Eagle to come up with “Cyclone” as Whitehead’s new nickname. For those that aren’t aware, the Cyclone is a historic roller coaster in Coney Island. We as a basketball community need to make this a thing, as there aren’t enough great nicknames out there. The kicker? Whitehead approves: “I loved it, I love the name. I hope it sticks.” I hope so too.)
If his offense hasn’t shown enough signs, his defense more than makes up for it. Brooklyn’s allowed 1.9 fewer points per 100 possessions with Whitehead on the floor, not a breathtaking number, but a reassuring one. Whitehead said defense has been the toughest part of his rookie year, but at times it looks like the easiest.
His size helps him guard multiple positions, and the 6’9” wingspan certainly helps. Personal defensive field goal percentage isn’t the best number to use, but opponents are shooting worse than their average against the rook.
Positioning has been a strong point, as Whitehead is where he needs to be more often than not. The effort is there, and leads to some fun plays where he’ll get screened and track down his man for a late block. Only ten players in the NBA are averaging a block and steal per game. Whitehead’s at 0.8 and 0.9 per-36 minutes, respectively. He can’t stifle the league’s better starters and needs to bump the roll man more liberally, but this is good stuff out of a second-round pick:
These are the makings of a good NBA player, despite what some statistics and the history of late picks might indicate. Atkinson (who is well-known for his player development) throwing Whitehead into the fire is a sign of trust that can yield big dividends. There’s a long journey ahead of these Nets and their intriguing rookie, but one day Brooklyn will be ready to move past the ridicule and lost seasons to make a statement in April, or even May. When that day comes, Whitehead will be ready too.