After injuries to Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, Isaiah Whitehead has already started for Brooklyn despite having just been drafted #42 in 2016. What has his play so far this season shown about what his future might be?
Isaiah Whitehead found his way into the starting lineup far earlier than many anticipated. After injuries to Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, the Nets were left with two rookies in Whitehead and Yogi Ferrell as their only options at the point guard position. After some experimentation with Sean Kilpatrick in the lead guard role, Kenny Atkinson has given Whitehead the challenge of running the offense for the Nets. Whitehead has started six games for Brooklyn, including all of their previous four. Whitehead has held his own on the defensive end, but he will need to develop his offensive game to have an impact going forward.
Isaiah Whitehead was a McDonald's All-American in 2014 and finished 11th in his high school class according to the RSCI rankings. Whitehead spent his freshman season at Seton Hall as mostly an off-ball player but was the team's primary ball-handler and scoring option during his sophomore season. He averaged 18.1 points per game during his sophomore year but shot only 37.9 percent for the season and 37.1 percent for his college career. His poor field goal percentage does not tell the story, however, as he shot 43 percent of his looks from three-point range. Whitehead shot 34.6 percent on threes as a freshman and 36.5 percent in his sophomore season. His struggles mostly came from two-point range, where he shot only 38.6 percent in his two seasons at Seton Hall according to Synergy. He converted 44.2 percent of his shots at the rim—he is aggressive about getting into the paint and attacking the rim but had difficulty finishing over college defenders. He was ranked #38 in the 2016 draft class by DraftExpress, but fell to Utah with the #42 pick. Brooklyn traded the #55 pick Marcus Paige and $3 million in cash for Whitehead and hoped the Brooklyn native could be developed offensively and use his solid frame to his advantage on the defensive end.
Isaiah Whitehead has all the physical tools to be a solid defender and has been surprisingly strong on that end of the floor for a rookie. Whitehead is 6'5" with a 6'9" wingspan, and has guarded both point guards and shooting guards so far this year, something that will be useful for Brooklyn's defensive schemes going forward—especially once Jeremy Lin returns to the lineup. Whitehead has allowed 0.837 points per possession so far according to Synergy, which is in the 65th percentile in the league defensively. He has been pesky on that end of the floor, and has provided consistent energy on that end since the start of the season—his first NBA basket came in transition after he stole the ball from Tony Snell and ran down the floor for a layup. He also does a fantastic job of working around screens—he is in the 90th percentile defensively at going over picks in the pick-and-roll and is in the 95th percentile at going over the pick on dribble handoffs. His effort allows him to use his length to his advantage to contain ball-handlers, which allows him to contribute defensively even if he has trouble on the offensive end of the floor.
Whitehead has had difficulty on the offensive end to start his NBA career, in a similar fashion to how he struggled with his efficiency while at Seton Hall. His shot chart shows that he has struggled from almost every area on the floor:
Whitehead has shot a paltry 35.7 percent so far this season. He has shot 39.2 percent on two-pointers and 26.3 percent on his three-pointers. His lack of touch from behind the arc seems out of character given that he was able to shoot from behind the arc at an average clip in college on a healthy number of attempts. While his shooting inside the arc seems to be following his troubling trend line from college, his offense should improve over the latter part of the season simply through regression to the mean from three-point range. His small sample size from three-point range has also contributed to his low percentage from there, so it will take more time to determine whether he can be league average from three, but either way his college trend would indicate that 26.3 percent is not representative of his three-point shooting ability.
After a slow start, Whitehead has been able to improve his decision making, especially in terms of his passing. After a .73 assist/turnover ratio in his first five games (11 assists against 15 turnovers), Whitehead has a 1.92 turnover/assist ratio in his last seven games (25 assists against 13 turnovers). His assist/turnover ratio has been far better in his starts than his overall numbers; in his six starts, he has a 1.85 turnover ratio. He will occasionally over-dribble and hunt for his own shot as he did in college, but his passing vision has looked better when playing with the starters.
Isaiah Whitehead is a project player pushed into the starting lineup early in his rookie season due to injury. Despite his inexperience, he has been an asset to the Nets on the defensive end and has run the offense well for a combo guard that was expected to be more of a shooting guard in the NBA. If Whitehead can improve his accuracy near the rim and make better decisions with his shooting, he can be a key contributor and a late-round steal for the Nets going forward.