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Nets think Isaiah Whitehead has makings of a leader

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends Brooklyn Nets

Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert defends Brooklyn Nets guard Isaiah Whitehead on his shot attempt in the second half of an NBA basketball game at Barclays Center on Monday, Jan. 2, 2017. Credit: Kathleen Malone-Van Dyke

Rudy Gobert set his pick and rolled to the Barclays Center basket. The Utah Jazz’s giant-sized Frenchman — 7-1 with a standing reach of 9-7 — took a pass and was about to stuff two points in the net when a 6-4 rookie point guard rose up to the skyscraping occasion.

Isaiah Whitehead took a leap of faith and swatted the ball away from behind during the third quarter of Monday night’s game.

“It was a great play,” Whitehead said after the Nets practiced Tuesday at the HSS Training Center.

The Jazz ended up swatting away the rebuilding Nets, dropping them to an NBA-worst 8-25. But the Nets are busy trying to develop players like Whitehead.

He’s all of 21 after leaving Seton Hall two years early, but the first Brooklyn-born player to appear for the Nets since they moved there in 2012 has had to try to grow up faster at this level because starting point guard Jeremy Lin has played in only 12 games and is out again with a hamstring strain.

Whitehead has indeed taken steps forward.

“The focus right now with him is to really defend the position and then offensively he’s got to find his way,” coach Kenny Atkinson said. “I think he’s getting better in both areas, but I would say he’s progressed most defensively.”

The Nets acquired the second-rounder from Utah on draft night. Whitehead has started 19 of his 26 games and takes averages of 6.9 points and 2.9 assists into Thursday night’s game at Indiana.

“When you’re from New York and when you have a guy like that who’s kind of fearless, I think it’s something that really helps him and it helps our team because Jeremy goes out and you have Isaiah who’s playing starter minutes,” guard Sean Kilpatrick said.

The Nets need leadership with Lin sidelined. Whitehead is trying.

“Our team really responds to me well,” Whitehead said. “Being a rookie, they really trust me with the ball. They really trust me to call out the right plays.”

Atkinson said he sees signs of Whitehead “taking command” despite his quiet nature.

“But we need him to take more command,” Atkinson said.

Lin gives him advice, and Whitehead does feel more at ease now.

“I just calmed down,” Whitehead said. “I just really feel comfortable out there.”

And he’s coping with the losing.

“It’s a process,” Whitehead said. “We’re going to hopefully get it together.”

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