When the Brooklyn Nets initially relocated, Isaiah Whitehead thought about how amazing it would be to play for his hometown team. The 22-year-old grew up as a New York Knicks fan, but that’s only because the Nets weren’t in his borough yet. Born and raised in Brooklyn, it was surreal when the Nets picked him with the No. 42 overall pick in the 2016 NBA Draft.
As a rookie, Whitehead averaged 7.4 points, 2.6 assists, 2.5 boards and .6 steals in 22.5 minutes per game. This season, he is averaging 7.6 points, 2.1 boards, 1.8 assists and .6 steals, but he’s been limited to 13.8 minutes a night and he’s only appeared in 11 games. However, the Nets have been using their G-League affiliate in Long Island to develop Whitehead. In 17 G-League games, Whitehead has averaged 17.4 points, 3.9 assists, 3.6 rebounds and 1 steal in 26 minutes per game.
HoopsHype caught up with Whitehead to discuss what it’s like to play for his hometown team, his growth as a player, how he’s handled his decrease in minutes, his experience in the G League, the Nets-Knicks rivalry, the toughest guards he’s faced and more.
How much do you feel you’ve grown as a player from your very first day in the NBA to now?
Isaiah Whitehead: I think I’ve grown a lot and I’ve gotten a lot of experience. Last year, playing in 73 games definitely helped a lot. This year, it’s just about getting better no matter where I am, whether it’s in Brooklyn or Long Island. I think it’s been good either way, just getting more experience and getting the chance to play.
What aspects of your game do you feel you’ve developed the most, and what areas are you still focused on improving?
IW: I think I can get to the rim whenever I want. I feel like I’ve worked on that a lot and it’s paid off. I’m continuously working on my three-point shooting, limiting my turnovers and just getting more comfortable with the game. I think that playing a lot this year will help me as I work on those things.
You mentioned getting to the rim and I know you’ve earned the nickname “The Cyclone” because of your spin move that consistently allows you to get to the basket. What’s the origin of your spin move?
IW: I was in my junior year of high school and when I was working out, I started doing it a lot. Then, in the games, it just started to feel like second nature and I’ve been doing it ever since. I’ve been doing it for quite awhile now, so I know exactly when to do it and when I can’t do it.
You’re a Brooklyn native who is now a Brooklyn Net. If I had told you when you were a kid – when there was no such thing as the Brooklyn Nets – that you’d someday be in the NBA and playing for Brooklyn, what would you have said?
IW: I wouldn’t have believed you. I wouldn’t have been able to believe you because, like you said, there wasn’t even a team in Brooklyn. My favorite team was the Knicks when I was growing up [since we didn’t have a team]. But it was a dream come true when I was drafted by Brooklyn. It’s been great so far and I’m looking forward to staying here.
What’s it been like having your friends and family nearby? I know sometimes that can be overwhelming and stressful because you get a ton of requests and stuff like that, but it must be nice being familiar with your surroundings and having those people close to you.
IW: I think it’s been nice; I’m really comfortable. I don’t have a lot of family in Brooklyn, so it wasn’t like there were a crazy number of people asking me [for tickets]. There have definitely been a lot of friends reaching out, but I find it easy to say no to friends if I have to because they understand if I can’t get them tickets to specific games or things like that. And they don’t want to stress me out, so they’re cool about it. They’ve definitely made me more comfortable too. They’ve really helped me out a lot.
I always feel somewhat bad for rookies who go to a team that has no other young guys. Some rookies are the only young player – everyone else is older and a lot of them have a family at home. You’ve gotten the opportunity to play with a lot of young guys who you can relate to and hang out with and develop alongside. How nice is it being part of an organization where there’s other young players around?
IW: It’s great. I’ve known Jahlil [Okafor] since junior high school. Same with D’Angelo [Russell] and Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson], I’ve known them since junior high school. I’ve known and been playing against some of these guys for a long time. I met Caris [LeVert] last year and we get along; it feels like we’ve known each other since junior high school too! It’s easy to bond with them and they can relate to me when it comes to a lot of different things. It’s definitely a luxury.
Since you’d known Jahlil for so long, what was your initial reaction when the trade happened and you guys became teammates?
IW: It was shocking because Book (Trevor Booker) was a key factor for us, but I guess the Nets wanted to go young, like you said. Jahlil is a great addition and he can definitely help the organization going forward. But Book was my vet, so that’s why it was a bittersweet moment.
Yeah, I’ve only heard positive things about Book from anyone who has played with him. I actually interviewed him right after the trade to Philadelphia, so it was interesting to get his perspective on the deal. When you look at this young core, how good can this group be when you guys reach your full potential?
IW: I think we can be really good. Everyone is in the 20-to-24 age range, we’ve all had experience in the NBA and we all know each other and care for each other, which makes it much easier on the court. I think we have a lot of young talent, so we could have a really, really deep team. Like, we could have two guys at each position who can really play. I think that’s what the Nets are trying to build.
You’ve played well this year when given minutes and you mentioned trying to make the most of your playing time, whether it’s in the NBA or the G League. How do you stay positive and stay ready when the minutes aren’t as consistent as last year?
IW: I think that the players on the G League team really helped me a lot, just making me feel comfortable being there. I also think the coaches in Brooklyn have really done a great job of communicating with me. They told me instead of being up there [with the Nets] and not playing, go to the G League and get a lot of minutes and a lot of reps. I think it has helped me a lot and I’m just happy to play. They say that they see me as part of their future, so that’s all I can ask for.
You’ve seen the Brooklyn-New York rivalry up close. Based on your experiences and what you’ve seen, is it a budding rivalry or is it a full-blown rivalry at this point?
IW: It’s definitely a rivalry. For sure. I would have to say our games against New York were four of the hardest games that I played last year. Neither team was in playoff consideration, but you could tell that each team badly wanted to win each of those games just to get bragging rights.
Being a point guard in today’s NBA is so difficult because there’s so much talent at the position. Who are some guys who were really difficult for you to go up against – offensively and defensively?
IW: There wasn’t one particular guard, but it’s tough every night. Man, there was one stretch last year when I was starting where I went up against Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas really close together. It was crazy. To go from being the third point guard and just learning from the vets to starting and going against guys like that, it was just crazy.
Are there any guards that you study film of now?
IW: I try to watch everybody now. I used to watch a lot of film of CJ McCollum when I was in college. We have the same body, the same build, and he likes to attack the rim. He’s a much better shooter, but I feel like I can get there one day so I watched him a lot then and I still do now.
Interview, Interview, Top, Caris LeVert, Chris Paul, CJ McCollum, D'Angelo Russell, Damian Lillard, Isaiah Thomas, Isaiah Whitehead, Jahlil Okafor, John Wall, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Russell Westbrook, Trevor Booker, Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks