Isaiah Whitehead is gone, but his departure for the NBA has not tempered expectations in South Orange.
With practices kicked off and the season less than a month away, it’s not about the team that Whitehead left.
It’s about the team that has four returning starters and several key new arrivals. No one will fill Whitehead’s role, but the Pirates can improve upon a 2015-16 season that included a NCAA Tournament appearance and a Big East Championship.
“I’ve always been focused, even when [Isaiah] was here. I guess I got to get more focused now,” Khadeen Carrington said at Big East Media day on Tuesday. “It’s going to be harder for myself. He took a lot of pressure off me, a lot of defenses focused on him, and that gave me a lot of open shots. He’s not here anymore, we’re just going to have to focus on getting good shoots, getting my teammates good shots, and that’s just the way it goes.”
Carrington is expected to take over at point guard duties, but he said he will play off the ball as well. Madison Jones and Jevon Thomas – once active – will also see time there.
Whitehead may be gone, but he is still influencing the Pirates. Carrington said he talks with the Brooklyn Nets rookie every day. Desi Rodriguez, Whitehead’s teammate going all the way back to their days at Lincoln High School, said he gets to see Whitehead often.
“Isaiah speaks to us all the time, he gives us points of NBA life, and we definitely take that in,” Rodriguez said. “Me and Khadeen go to Isaiah’s house when we get a day off, so we just stay over there, go out to eat, just talk and catch up on things. Our friendship never broke, it’s still the same. He’s just in a different place and a bigger place, and we’re so excited for him.”
While the Pirates may not miss Whitehead on a personal level, as they still see and hear from him regularly, they will miss his production and leadership on the court.
Kevin Willard said making up for Whitehead’s loss is not the responsibility of a single player. Instead, everyone has to take small steps forward.
“No one is all of a sudden going to replace a guy that’s playing for the Brooklyn Nets, it just doesn’t happen,” Willard said. “But that’s the thing when sophomores become juniors, you expect everyone to step up a little bit more. So all of a sudden you have a guy like Ish [Sanogo] that averaged four points – if he averages eight and 10, then you have Desi averaging two more, Khadeen averaging four more, Angel [Delgado] averaging four more. Well there you go, you’ve already made it up, and that’s before anyone else gets on the court.”
The players know this needs to happen in order to build upon last year’s success. Delgado is not too concerned, however. He said that he thinks this year’s team will be better than last year’s.
It is a confident claim for a team that lost a now-NBA player who contributed more than 18 points and five assists per game last season. That was the past, though.
The Pirates are looking ahead.
“Khadeen got to know to average more, I got to know to average more. And Desi knows, Ish knows,” Delgado said. “We’ve known each other for too long, and we know how to get it done.”
Elizabeth Swinton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eswint22.