As a graduate and die-hard fan of St. John's University, I have spent the past two years watching Isaiah Whitehead publicly commit to Seton Hall University out of Lincoln High in Brooklyn, significantly struggle to find his fit within the culture of his team, privately feud with the established leaders of said team, and rapidly grow to become the best player on a Big East Champion basketball team. It certainly wasn't an easy two years for anybody involved in the program, but Whitehead's story, and therefore his candidacy for the NBA, are impossible to glean through statistics and individual scouting reports. So, I'll impart what I think I know about the 21 year old combo guard and challenge you to compare it with his stats to make up your own mind. Most of these guys are going to flame out anyway. What do I know?
Perhaps the most significant thing to know about Whitehead is that he never found a consistent environment in which to thrive until his sophomore season. What appeared to be an ideal situation on paper in 2014 was made more complicated by actual human interaction. Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard, who is widely considered by many Big East pundits and fans to be terrific, returned two floor leaders from the 2012-13 season to help mold superprospect Whitehead into a bonafide college scorer. Jaren Sina and Sterling Gibbs were two veterans on the squad, which also featured newcomer and rebound savant Angel Delgado, positioning them to compete in the conference while working Whitehead into a natural rhythm. It took Whitehead only a few games to work himself into that rhythm however, picking up consecutive Big East Freshman of the Week awards in December. His month would end on a miserable note when he learned he'd have to sit awhile due to a stress fracture.
The team on the other hand had worked itself into the NCAA's top 25 thanks to a 12-2 start that included huge conference wins over (#15)St. John's and (#6)Villanova. Those two games were won without Whitehead, but Seton Hall's success without him was subterfuge as they soon lost three straight to Butler and DePaul* before a 1-6 February. Their February woes arrived despite a January 31st Whitehead return, but that was hardly the freshman's most concerning issue.
News broke in the middle of the month that Jaren Sina kind of hated to play on the team. Sterling Gibbs essentially agreed with him, and they both decided to leave after the year was over. Whitehead was vaguely accused by members of the media of freezing out one or more of his teammates, and he did not take any of the news in stride even publicly, posting stupid garbage about it on Twitter.
The situation Whitehead forced upon himself was essentially: You scared away two of the mainstay guards on the team, including its best player in Gibbs, because you wanted more shots. Now go prove your strategy is more effective. Lacking better options, Coach Willard handed Whitehead the keys to the offense, which activated a defensive intensity in him as well. Along with fellow Brooklynite sophomore guard Khadeen Carrington, Whitehead improved immensely throughout a season during which he'd lead the Big East in usage percentage. Although that statistic was achieved in part by a massive sum of turnovers, it also illustrates Whitehead's confidence with the ball in his hands and willingness to try to make plays.
In stark contrast to 2014-15, Whitehead's squad would both begin and end the year on 12-2 runs before finally falling to Gonzaga in the NCAA Tournament. (Looking back on their season, I think Seton Hall fans would happily take another first-round exit so long as it followed a 2015-16 Big East Championship over eventual NCAA champion Villanova.) Whitehead's individual efforts led to a unanimous First Team All-Big East selection.
The 21 year old stands roughly 6'5" in shoes and his wingspan stretches nearly 6'9". Because of his wingspan, quickness and anticipation he was able to finish tied for fourth in the conference in blocked shots, with a top-10 block percentage. In spite of his wingspan, quickness and anticipation he was unable to crack even the top 20 in steal percentage. Overall his defense is solid-to-good, and could probably touch on excellent should he become highly involved in an offense.
Whitehead shot abysmally from the floor throughout college, though many of the offensive skills necessary to succeed as an NBA guard are there. His jumper looks good out to about 25 feet, leading to a solid percentage from the three considering some of the shots he was forced to take, while going three-quarters from the charity stripe is usually a good sign for a young player. His skill set lends itself to the screen-and-roll strategy, which is where Whitehead found much of his college success. His mentality is to use screens to worm his way into the paint so he can use his athleticism to draw a foul, bank a layup, or drop a pass to his big man. He shows a real knack for hitting those awkward-range floaters that have become necessary for NBA guards. He was second in his conference in free throws made and attempted as well as third in assist percentage.
A game predicated on supreme athleticism typically leads to recklessness and freelancing from college guards, and Whitehead was no exception. He often worked himself into difficult shots which resulted in an abominable field goal percentage. When he made a concerted effort to involve his team he became overambitious with his passes, and when he would start to get cooking he'd over-dribble himself into defenders. This led to an astronomical turnover rate that will likely be the red flag that drops Whitehead in the draft.
Although an athleticism-based game typically leads to college bogarting, it also represents a framework around which to build an NBA player. Bad athletes can't defend. With a deeper three point line and more space to squiggle, Whitehead should be able to use screens effectively at the NBA level; he is more cerebral than his statistics would indicate. A professional game devoid of cramped confines should help to alleviate his turnover problems if only a bit, though many scouts do not consider turnovers from young guards necessarily to be a concern. His willingness to pass and self-confidence will be required at the next level, and a more reigned-in offensive role would allow Whitehead to focus on the things he does well.
With his tumultuous 2014-15 season in mind, I think a fair question is how Whitehead will react to a decreased offensive role. He lacks the vision to start at point guard, but in a shrinking and widening NBA he may be the perfect size for a shooting guard. If unimproved upon, his mediocre steals and rebounding numbers will submarine his chances of starting at the next level, but his confidence and creativity with the ball in his hands should prove a potent enough combination to make him useful to an NBA team.
*Losing to DePaul is synonymous with hitting rock bottom for teams in the Big East