Like modern hip-hop, the denizens of New York City constantly scour its concrete skeleton for the Apple-repping basketball player to revive NYC as the vanguard of basketball culture. It’s rarely fair to stack millions of arbitrary hopes and prides on the back of one usually high-school aged guard and ask him to leap. Sports, however, aren’t about fairness but about the narratives that entertain and reflect the macro and micro of life.
Therefore, Kenny Anderson, Felipe Lopez, Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, Kemba Walker, and Lance Stephenson all took the mantle as the underage flag-bearer for the biggest city in the country. Each became a beacon of the city’s brash swagger, the city’s playground basketball mythologies, and the city’s urge for a proxy to distract from Knicks disappointment. Isaiah Whitehead has been the latest “next big thing” to inherit the crown in New York City. Whitehead followed the footsteps of the fellow Abraham Lincoln High School alumni Marbury, Telfair, and Stephenson in winning the 2014 Mr. New York Basketball award.
Whitehead earned the moniker at his Brooklyn high school via upholding the swagger of NYC basketball folklore. Whitehead projected the aura of a star when he pulled up for 20 foot jumpers with supremely confidence. Whitehead looked like a rumbling juggernaut nearly every time he fearlessly drove to the rim. He would further cement his status as New York City’s beloved son by deciding to attend and try to revive the once-acclaimed Seton Hall basketball program in nearby South Orange, New Jersey.
Whitehead’s two year tenure in Seton Hall had its pros and cons. Seton Hall achieved its highest AP poll rank (no. 19) since 2000-01 in Whitehead’s freshman year. To top that achievement, this past sophomore year, Whitehead led the Pirates to its first NCAA Tournament berth in ten seasons. However, Whitehead’s individual success would be much more muted as the two seasons showed clear warts in the former five-star recruit’s skillset.
In the face of more imposing athletes and defensive schemes, what was once seen as Whitehead’s confidence in his jumper often skewed into recklessly opting for inappropriate low-percentage shots. A propensity for heat checks and swaying leaners from midrange led Whitehead to a 50% True Shooting Percentage for his entire Seton Hall career and a career 37.5% field goal percentage.
Whitehead also frequently pounded the air out of the ball to halt any free-flowing ball movement in the Seton Hall offense. His ball-dominance worsened with a rather high turnover rate from his inaccurate passes when he did swing the rock. As a prospect, it is almost assured Whitehead will have to adjust his style significantly to last in the NBA.
But Whitehead still had enough tools to also make the 42nd overall pick acquisition of him by the Brooklyn Nets nowhere near a reach. Whitehead gets to earn a chance to play in front of his hometown due to his sturdy 6’4”, 210 pound frame that offers potential defensively and tight ball-handling for his size. His lack of explosiveness hurts the extent to which Whitehead can use his size and strength on smaller guards. However, being able to bring the ball up while having the length to guard forwards never fails to expand the possibilities of a coach’s playbook and strategy.
Whitehead might be returning to Brooklyn as one of the borough’s many legends but he will need more than cult status to make a lasting NBA impact. New Nets coach Kenny Atkinson’s wing rotation on Opening Night remains quite open-ended with Caris LeVert, Greivis Vasquez, Joe Harris, and Sean Kilpatrick ready to join Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Bojan Bogdanovic in the rotation.
As a 2nd round pick, Whitehead likely has the luxury of receiving plenty of on-court minutes for Brooklyn’s new NBADL affiliate, the Long Island Nets. Getting beaten out in training camp will still leave Whitehead’s professional basketball sojourn far from jeopardy. Whitehead wouldn’t even be transferring out of the Brooklyn facilities as one of the inaugural Long Island Nets. But if Whitehead makes it through training camp and preseason, best believe the Barclays Center will finally give Isaiah the homecoming a couple of years in the making.