As well as Isaiah Whitehead played as a Seton Hall sophomore last season, the temptation when the Nets acquired him as a second-round draft pick in June was to say the opportunity to market a Brooklyn-born-and-bred player was impossible to pass up. But draft picks are precious commodities for the Nets, and new coach Kenny Atkinson sounds confident that Whitehead’s selection was a sound investment.
The Nets’ backcourt is loaded with NBA veterans such as Jeremy Lin, Greivis Vasquez and Randy Foye, and first-year man Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and first-round pick Caris Le Vert can swing between shooting guard and small forward. But Atkinson believes Whitehead can challenge for playing time as a rookie.
“I think we have multiple guys who can play point guard,” Atkinson said. “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.”
Whitehead arrived two years ago at Seton Hall as Kevin Willard’s most high-profile recruit, but it wasn’t until midway through his sophomore season when he began to meet expectations. Whitehead averaged 18.2 points and 5.1 assists and led the Pirates to the Big East Tournament title and an NCAA bid.
What clicked? “Basically, it was learning how to play point guard,” Whitehead said. “I think I just got comfortable at the spot. The beginning of the year was my first time ever playing it, so there were some struggles. But I got into a groove and started understanding where everyone would be and where they liked the ball and I watched a lot of film. After that, it was second nature.”
Whitehead might not be a classic point guard, but Atkinson said his powerful 6-4, 210-pound build is a major plus. “To me, he’s a point guard, because he passes it well, he sees the court, he can defend the position, he can shoot the ball,” Atkinson said. “Isaiah’s got an NBA body.”
The 21-year-old Whitehead already has forged a good relationship with Lin, the starting point guard. “Jeremy is great,” Whitehead said. “I can speak to him about anything, and he’ll open up and speak to me. That’s the type of ‘big brother’ mentality he gives off to me. It’s a blessing.”
It could be a complicated thing for Whitehead to play so close to his home in Coney Island, where he starred at Lincoln High, but Whitehead said the proximity is comforting and his priorities are straight.
“It’s been great just to be home and playing for my hometown team, especially with the teammates I have,” Whitehead said. “They’re real welcoming. My family and friends know that it’s my job first and family second. There’s definitely an understanding about that.”