At Big East Media Day last year, there was a Royal Rumble around Isaiah Whitehead, the new face of Seton Hall basketball.
Cameras were flashing. Reporters were shoving each other. Everyone wanted to get at him.
The Brooklyn native was named Mr. New York Basketball his senior year at Lincoln, the same high school powerhouse that churned out pro players like Lance Stephenson, Stephon Marbury and Sebastian Telfair.
Whitehead was a McDonald’s All-American. He played in the Jordan Brand Classic. He was ranked as ESPN’s No. 2 shooting guard in the country. He was a star—the brightest South Orange had seen since 2000 when Eddie Griffin, the nation’s top recruit, committed to be a Pirate.
Whitehead, a 6-foot-4-inch guard, said he came to Seton Hall in part because of its proximity to home. But that was not all.
“I picked Seton Hall to bring the program back to where it used to be,” he said.
And for a certain period, he did. The Pirates, for the first time in a long time, were on the national radar.
Through his first 11 games, Whitehead helped SHU get to 9-2. During that 11th game, a loss to Georgia (UGA), Whitehead suffered a stress fracture in his right foot. He missed the next nine contests.
During that nine-game stretch, the Pirates became Sterling Gibbs’ team. The point guard carried Seton Hall to No. 19 in the national rankings as the likes of No. 6 Villanova and No. 15 St. John’s fell victim to one of the country’s hottest teams.
When Whitehead returned, the team’s dynamic was different and he was no longer the go-to guy. Both he and the Pirates failed to adjust.
Seton Hall lost nine of its final 11 contests as controversy bubbled.
Gibbs and Whitehead nearly came to blows in a loss to Georgetown. Jaren Sina transferred as reports surfaced Whitehead was clashing with teammates.
The cameras stopped flashing. The reporters went from shoving one another to bashing the player. Everyone wanted to take a shot at him.
The Golden Boy had become the problem child.
With Gibbs now at UConn, Whitehead is the unquestioned point guard this year and looking to change that reputation.
“I think I got a lot to prove,” he said. “We definitely put last year behind us. It’s the past, man. There’s nothing we can do about it. We didn’t know how to be the team that’s ranked in the country. Before we were ranked, we were much more aggressive. We were hungry.”
Last year, he seemed to focus on scoring. This year?
“Leadership,” Whitehead said while at Madison Square Garden, the same place he was named Preseason Rookie of the Year the previous season. “Trying to be a point guard, trying to get everyone involved. I think we have a real athletic team this year, so we can get out and run the floor.”
Over the summer, Whitehead spent time as a camp counselor with, for his goal, arguably the best teacher in the world—reigning NBA MVP Stephen Curry.
“Knowing when to shoot and when not to shoot, when to pass and when not to pass. Things like that,” Whitehead said of what the Golden State Warriors star taught him. “Just becoming a floor general. As a point guard you have to lead the team; everything is on you. If you’re losing, it’s your fault. If you’re winning, it’s on the team.”
Stephenson, now a starting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers, cautioned Whitehead—who Willard called “the king of Twitter”—to stay off social media. Whitehead and his teammates are planning to go without it for the entirety of the season.
The pro also talked about his relationship with Whitehead, who was not always into basketball.
“We’ve known each other for a while,” Stephenson said. “We grew up in the same building. I’ve known him since he was 11. He didn’t even play basketball. He started late, so about when he got to high school, I knew he was next level.”
Stephenson, who got the nickname “Born Ready” at Rucker Park in New York, worked out with Whitehead this offseason.
“We were together the whole summer. He was working on his point guard skills and learning how to play off the dribble and stuff like that. He’s going to be alright.”
Sophomore Khadeen Carrington will share the backcourt with Whitehead in 2015-16. He noticed some changes in his teammate this offseason.
“I think he’s definitely more focused this year. That plays a big part in it. He’s been working hard all summer. He’s been trying to lead more.”
Willard called the difference in this year’s Whitehead “night and day.”
“Isaiah does it on the court,” the coach said. “He’s not a rah- rah type of guy. He’s very serious about his game. He’s such a nice kid off the court. It’s about getting him to understand that I want him to be a high-energy, bad MF’er at all times on the court. When he plays at a high level, he’s scary good. Scary good.”
Of Whitehead’s NBA aspirations, Stephenson was very clear: “I think he could do it. He’s just got to show everybody that he can play the point and that he can play the 2.”
So will the cameras start flashing again? Will reporters shower him with praise? Will he recapture everyone’s hearts?
Whitehead does not care. And that’s the biggest difference from last season.
“My mom raised me to be the best man that she could,” he said. “I won’t change myself for no one.”
Thomas Duffy can be reached at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @TJDhoops.