Isaiah Whitehead, Seton Hall’s latest NBA product, has fully embraced the professional basketball world. Entering his sophomore year in the NBA as a member of the Brooklyn Nets, Whitehead has grown from the player that raised the Big East trophy at Madison Square Garden in 2016.
Whitehead’s first year in his hometown as a Brooklyn Net was what some may call a baptism by fire. With starting point guard Jeremy Lin injured early in the season, Whitehead was thrown into the starting role frequently.
In an 82-game season, the stretches against top-league talent each night were often overwhelming and eye-opening for Whitehead.
“We played Damian Lillard, the next game we played Kyrie Irving, the next game we played Russell Westbrook and then we played Jrue Holiday,” Whitehead told The Brooklyn Game on Nets media day on Sept. 25. “It was just like, man, that’s just straight starts for a rookie. It was like, wow, it’s here. It’s definitely here.”
Out of 73 games played, Whitehead started 26 of them. As a rookie and the No. 42 pick in the 2016 draft, Whitehead was ready to fill the role.
While Whitehead’s rookie year was considered by many a success, his absence at Seton Hall left many ‘what ifs.’ What if Whitehead had stayed? What if Whitehead was in the NCAA Tournament game against Arkansas?
Just because Whitehead is no longer enrolled at Seton Hall does not mean he does not support or follow the team. He often came to campus last season, visiting with his old teammates and coaches. Coach Kevin Willard even joked that Whitehead was in his office more after he left school than when he was on the team.
When at games, Whitehead graciously gave out autographs and took pictures with most fans that came up to him.
Now, Whitehead told The Brooklyn Game that he holds floor seats for the season at The Rock, and will be courtside as well when the Pirates play in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center for the NIT Season Tip-Off from Nov. 23-24.
If he was still at Seton Hall, though, Whitehead would have rounded out what many already consider the best senior class in the country.
“I think my guys, we got the best freshman class, sophomore class, junior class, senior class,” Angel Delgado said. “The way we working right now, I think we’re going to impress a lot of people.”
Whitehead agrees that Seton Hall has the best senior class in the NCAA. Even though he is not a part of it, he makes sure he is still involved with the team and providing support.
“I still visit a lot, I go play with those guys,” Whitehead said in an interview with The Brooklyn Game. “I definitely played a lot over there in the offseason, just trying to give them some confidence, trying to build them up for the year. I know it’s a big year for them, senior year, so I’m looking forward to it.”
The bond between Whitehead and seniors like Khadeen Carrington, Desi Rodriguez, Delgado and Ismael Sanogo has not broken since Whitehead left South Orange for Brooklyn.
“He came over a lot during the summer and worked out and played pick-up with us. It was good because he’s a guy that’s playing at the highest level right now, so it’s only making us better,” Carrington, a senior guard, said. “Other than that, it’s a brotherhood that we have that can’t be broken, so we’ll always do things like getting in the gym together.”
The possibilities of Whitehead being a part of the NCAA run will never be known, but he has grown more as a person since leaving Seton Hall. The 22-year-old’s biggest change came in the birth of his daughter, Zaria, on May 12, 2017.
“She’s great, she’s 4 months now,” Whitehead said of his daughter to The Brooklyn Game. “That was definitely a blessing in my life, it changed my whole mindset of everything. Just being home early, being with her as much as possible.”
On the other side of the spectrum, Whitehead has found himself adjusting his game in many facets since leaving college basketball.
“It’s much different,” Whitehead said to The Brooklyn Game. “Seton Hall, I had the ball probably 25 seconds [out of a 30-second shot clock]. It’s much different, the NBA clock is not even 25 seconds. It’s just about picking your spots and just becoming a better player off the court. Just watching film, knowing what you need to do on the court. I didn’t watch much film at Seton Hall, so I think film helped me out a lot.”
Whitehead’s situation for his second year with the Brooklyn Nets may not provide as many opportunities that came in the first. The team is rich in guards, including D’Angelo Russell, Lin and Spencer Dinwiddie. To break into the rotation, Whitehead has a new mindset.
“That’s my whole motto now, ‘Stay ready so you don’t have to get ready,’” Whitehead told The Brooklyn Game. “You never know what’s going to come at you, the opportunity that comes up.”
That kind of preparation helped Whitehead to win Big East Championship MVP, and he notices it is as important in the NBA as it was in college.
When it comes to this year’s Seton Hall team, Whitehead has big expectations. Just as Delgado emphasized the strength of this team from top to bottom, Whitehead recognizes the young talent on the team as well, namely in one freshman.
“They have a couple great freshmen and sophomores. I’m a real big fan of Sandro [Mamukelashvili],” Whitehead said to The Brooklyn Game. “I’m a real big fan of him coming this year. I think he’s going to be a great player. Of course Khadeen, Desi [Rodriguez], Angel, Ish [Sanogo], they’re gonna do their thing, but I think Sandro is gonna be a big part.”
While some may think of what this year’s Seton Hall team could have been if Whitehead had stayed, the Brooklyn Net has found success in a niche of his own. He may no longer be on campus in South Orange, but he is putting the pressure on his old teammates now more than ever.
“I think they’re great, preseason Top 25,” Whitehead said to The Brooklyn Game. “I think easily third round of NCAAs or bust. I always tell them, just definitely shoot for the stars.”
Elizabeth Swinton is the managing editor of The Brooklyn Game. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @eswint22.