Isaiah Whitehead: Building Block or Expendable Asset
Among a weak rookie class, Isaiah Whitehead stood out as a promising player. This is a huge positive, as it is crucial for Sean Marks to make the most of the Brooklyn Nets’ few draft picks.
There is a reason why former Nets publics address announcer, David Diamante introduced Whitehead as, “a 6-4 guard, from Brooklyn!” Whitehead was a highly-touted recruit during his time at Lincoln High School in Brooklyn. Along with Stephon Marbury and Lance Stephenson, Whitehead was one of the best players to come out of Lincoln. Despite receiving offers from big-time programs such as Indiana and Minnesota, he chose to stay local and attended Seton Hall University. The Pirates went 6-12 during conference play the season before Whitehead joined the team, meaning he would have a lot of pressure on his shoulders to bring the program back to relevancy.
Under Kevin Willard, Whitehead thrived during the 2014-15 season and led Seton Hall back to the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2004. Following this run, he opted to forego his final two years of NCAA eligibility, thus entering his name in the 2016 NBA Draft.
Whitehead was thought of as a sleeper leading up to the draft. He turned a lot of heads after leading his team to an upset of eventual National Champion, Villanova, in the Big East Championship. Analysts projected him to go at varying points in the second round. This was partially due to an ongoing debate over whether he would be best suited as a point guard or shooting guard at the next level.
Despite entering the draft with little flexibility, Marks walked away with his preferred players. In addition to trading Thaddeus Young for the 20th pick (which turned into Caris LeVert), the Nets also acquired the 42nd pick from the Utah Jazz. The front office did not hesitate to take Whitehead at that spot.
Whitehead had an impressive rookie year in Brooklyn. He played well above his 42nd pick value over the 73 games he participated in throughout the season. “The Cyclone,” as Ian Eagle has affectionately nicknamed Whitehead, notched more points last season than Kris Dunn and Jakob Poeltl (both lottery picks) did combined.
Whitehead showcased a multitude of talents last season — specifically, on the offensive end of the floor where he showed potential as a playmaker, shot creator, finisher, and mid-range jump shooter. While he didn’t seem to particularly overachieve in any of these categories, the Nets have openly welcomed a unique player like Whitehead.
For starters, Whitehead showed he can not only create opportunities for himself to score but his teammates as well. These instances were rare but looked impressive when successful. This was, in fact, a theme of Whitehead’s rookie season in all facets. Despite being few and far between, he showed several small flashes of a well-rounded, versatile guard.
His favorite targets included Trevor Booker, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and of course, Brook Lopez. Hollis-Jefferson was particularly efficient off Whitehead’s passes, as he converted on 51 percent of his shots fed by the Seton Hall product. Whitehead and RHJ continued to show a connection during Summer League. Among other notable stats, Lopez and Justin Hamilton connected on 58.7 percent and 62.5 percent of shots respectively off passes from Whitehead.
Despite these flashes, Whitehead attempted to create his own scoring opportunities more often than not last season. This was seen most prominently in one of his most impressive performances against the Mavericks:
It is clear Whitehead went into this particular game with confidence. This contest came at the tail-end of a very impressive West Coast road trip for “The Cyclone.” By the time the Nets arrived in Dallas in mid-March, Whitehead was prepared to try some unique tactics to get buckets. Through nifty floaters and drawing fouls, he posted a career-high in points that evening.
It’s interesting to note Whitehead was a marginally more efficient player on the road. He posted some of his best numbers of the season away from the Barclays Center. Perhaps having the pressure of playing in front of friends and family at home contributed to his 45 percent field goal percentage on the road, as opposed to only shooting 35 percent in Brooklyn.
Despite shooting a mediocre mark of 29 percent from behind the arc in his rookie season, Whitehead should not be considered a below-average shooter. He showed he can, in fact, make mid-range jumpers consistently, as he shot nearly 35 percent from 10 to 14 feet. To put this in perspective, notorious sharpshooter Kyle Korver only connected on 27.8 percent of his shots from that range last season.
This provides Whitehead with a solid base for ultimately becoming a shooter with expanded range. There are countless stories of guards and wings starting off their careers with bad shooting numbers, followed by rapid improvement in the following years. One of the more crucial aspects of this progression is a player shooting a high percentage from mid-range early in his career. This was the case with Kawhi Leonard, who is one of the more notable cases of this storyline.
However, to go with a more realistic comparison for Whitehead, let’s look at Arron Afflalo. In Afflalo’s rookie year, he played in 75 games and only shot 20 percent from behind the arc. He was able to work through his mistakes, and as a result, he has shot 35 percent or better from 3-point range on a yearly basis. Ideally, if Whitehead follows this trend, he should aim to connect on 35 percent of his threes next season.
Worst case scenario: dreams of Whitehead becoming a reliable 3-point shooter never come to fruition, and he instead focuses on improving other aspects of his game. This outcome should not signal the end of Whitehead’s career with the Nets. For a team that attempted the fourth-most 3-pointers in the NBA last season, perhaps it would be wise to showcase a perimeter player who prefers to attack the basket.
There were six Nets who attempted at least three 3-pointers a game last season. Naturally, opposing defenses are going to concentrate their attacks on the perimeter when facing the Nets. Whitehead attempted 231 shots from less than five feet away from the hoop last season. This uniqueness should be valued in situations where the team goes cold from behind the arc for long stints.
A year later, finding a true position for Whitehead still appears to be an issue. He mainly demonstrated skills that fit the persona of a shooting guard, with a few attributes of a point guard mixed in, as opposed to visa-versa. Averaging 2.6 assists per contest does not exactly fit the criteria of a primary ball-handler. Whitehead’s 6-foot-4, 213-pound frame make it difficult for him to match up against most shooting guards in the NBA. While he was mediocre on defense last season, it’s entirely plausible that as his minutes grow, he will be completely handicapped defensively.
It’s no secret Whitehead is going to struggle in the future covering shooting guards who are 6-foot-6 or above. On paper, it would be easier for him to match up with smaller two’s such as CJ McCollum or Bradley Beal. Yet, oftentimes, the reason these undersized shooting guards are playable is because they are elite scorers. This makes it seem quite difficult to imagine Whitehead ever becoming a plus defender.
Still, there are certain lineups that would make Whitehead playable on defense — particularly, one involving a bigger point guard. Playing Whitehead and D’Angelo Russell would still present matchup issues for whoever matches up against the bigger opposing guard. Rather, a lineup involving a backcourt pairing of Whitehead and Spencer Dinwiddie (6-foot-6) would be wise. In this case, Dinwiddie would be the primary ball-handler on offense, with Whitehead playing off the ball. On defense, the two would cross match their opponents. This is a lineup Coach Atkinson should consider utilizing next season, as it allows both Dinwiddie and Whitehead to play to their strengths.
Considering Whitehead was one of Marks’ first investments, it’s tough to imagine him being dealt anytime soon. This, combined with the fact that Whitehead played more minutes last season than several first-round picks, make it likely that he will be in Brooklyn long-term.
However, if a beneficial trade offer arises, particularly one for a promising big man, then Whitehead shouldn’t be considered untouchable. It is likely the Nets’ front office values the Brooklyn native a bit more than most teams around the league do, but there are several borderline playoff teams in need of another guard off the bench who can be a ball-handler in some situations. A team such as the Hornets or Bucks could value Whitehead as another guard off the bench. If one of these teams offered a protected first-rounder or a young big man, Marks would be inept to not consider it.
The Nets have Whitehead on the books for $1.3 million next season, with annual raises the following two years. Assuming Brooklyn accepts his player option for the 2019-20 season, the Nets won’t have to worry about negotiating an extension with Whitehead for quite some time. The Nets will look like an almost entirely different team in three seasons, which makes it difficult to tell what Whitehead’s role on the team will be by then. If he fails to progress by that point, the front office may see him as expendable.
In the short-term, expect Whitehead to continue being a regular contributor off the bench for Brooklyn. He will likely be competing with Sean Kilpatrick and Dinwiddie for guard minutes. If last season wasn’t evidenced enough, Kilpatrick should show early on next season that it is difficult for him to be productive without shooting an inordinate number of times. This would open up minutes for Whitehead to continue his development, with the opportunity to grow into a bigger role always being present.