Isaiah Whitehead bounced back nicely from an underwhelming freshman year at Seton Hall. But it wasn't until March that the NBA buzz started to strengthen.
He was sensational during the Pirates' Big East conference tournament run, which ended with Whitehead hanging 26 points on Villanova, the eventual national champions.
Though he followed with a disastrous performance in an opening-round NCAA tournament loss to Gonzaga, Whitehead looked solid at the NBA combine and must have heard positive feedback from teams. He'd ultimately choose to keep his name in the draft with the likely goal of securing a first-round spot.
|Isaiah Whitehead 2015-16 Numbers|
Whitehead's 18.2 points per game were the most of any point guard prospect on the first-round radar. He shot better from the three-point line as a sophomore, having hit 2.4 triples per game (up from 1.6) and connecting on 36.5 percent of his attempts (up from 34.6 percent).
He also got to the free-throw line twice as often on a per-game basis (5.8 attempts), and despite the heavy increase in scoring, he still raised his assist average to 5.1 from 3.5.
On the negative side, he was notably inefficient, making just 37.9 percent of his total field goals and averaging 4.3 turnovers per 40 minutes.
At 6'4 ½", 210 pounds with a 6'8 ¾" wingspan, Whitehead possesses terrific size, strength and length for a ball-handler. He blends quickness and shiftiness with power.
A scoring point guard, Whitehead plays with a competitive edge. He's a tough cover off the dribble, given his sharp handle and ability to create separation using hesitation, speciality moves and a threatening first step.
Except for spot-up threes, he relies almost exclusively on one-on-one action. Of his 113 two-point field goals, only 10 of them were assisted, per Hoop-Math.com. Though he still has work to do in terms of executing consistently, Whitehead at least has the floater, pull-up and step-back in the arsenal. And he gets the ball out of his hands quickly on the release.
His dribble creativity translates to playmaking as well. Though known more for scoring, there shouldn't be questions concerning his ability to play point guard. He's a willing and effective setup man with strong vision on the move. He can deliver timely, advanced passes off ball screens, penetration or transition chances.
As a shooter, Whitehead is streaky but dangerous. He's incredibly confident—a quality that has both its ups and downs. A microwave shot-maker, Whitehead can knock down jumpers in bunches, whether they're fallaways inside the arc or deep pull-ups behind it. He sunk five three-pointers in a game three times over the last five weeks of the season.
Whitehead's brutal inefficiency is difficult to look past, even when you consider his giant 31.6 percent usage rate. Without explosiveness or bounce, he finished just 46.7 percent of his shots at the rim, per Hoop-Math.com, and struggles to convert in traffic around the paint and basket.
He put up improved shooting numbers but was still erratic. Off days got especially ugly: He missed all 10 of his three-point attempts (4-of-24 from the floor) during Seton Hall's NCAA tournament loss to Gonzaga.
He's also reckless with his decision-making when it comes to shot selection and reads. His role as lead guard at Seton Hall called for him to do some heavy lifting, but Whitehead still must recognize when to dial it back. He tends to force the issue with dribbles, drives, passes or low-percentage field-goal attempts.
Whitehead also did little damage in transition, where he registered a 50 percent effective field-goal mark and made just 14 buckets at the rim all year.
Despite blocking 1.4 shots a game, he could stand to improve as a defender. For a guard, he lets his man turn the corner too easily, and he'll occasionally find himself out of position following an unsuccessful gamble.
Jarrett Jack/Dion Waiters
Whitehead projects as more of a point guard than a 2, like Jarrett Jack. But like Dion Waiters, he's a scorer at heart.
Jack has been able to win starting jobs for weaker teams, thanks to his ability to run and generate offense. That's what coaches will value in Whitehead, who can catch fire and rattle off buckets on demand as well (like Waiters).
Jack and Waiters won't ever win awards for their player efficiency ratings, but they can produce. I expect to say the same about Whitehead.
Whitehead offers some upside fueled by textbook physical tools and exciting scoring/playmaking skills.
No matter what, he'll start his career at the end of the bench or in the NBA Development League. But depending on how he adjusts and progresses, he packs the talent and firepower to compete for a rotation spot over the next few years.
To ever have a chance at starting, he'd need to land on one of the few teams in the league missing an established floor general. Realistically, if the game slows down for him, Whitehead becomes a quality backup or sixth-man spark.
Whitehead won't be locked into an NBA roster spot right away; he'll have to make a few significant changes to compete for a job and playing time.
Average burst may make it difficult for him to ever score with efficiency. He couldn't finish through two years at the college level, and the rim protection only gets stronger looking ahead. If he continues coughing up the ball, taking tough shots and getting beat on defense, he could find himself trapped in the D-League or overseas.
It's all about potential with Whitehead, given the well-documented holes in his game that he'll need to close. His upside should earn consideration from teams selecting in the 20s.
All it takes is one general manager to buy into Whitehead's NBA body, offense and chances of improving. But with a handful of worthy international prospects having remained eligible for the draft, it's more likely Whitehead hears his name called in the 30-to-45 range.
I ultimately expect him to pack a potent-enough punch for an NBA reserve. Look for Whitehead to carve out a career for himself as an offensive specialist in an 18- to 22-minute-per-game role.