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Isaiah Whitehead – 6’4” Guard, Seton Hall University, 21 Years Old
Isaiah Whitehead has finished his sophomore season at Seton Hall. He led the Pirates to the Big East Championship, where they beat out Villanova. A McDonald All-American in high school and Big East Rookie of the Year his freshman season, Whitehead averaged 18.2 PPG, 4.8 RPG, and 4.5 APG while playing 32.2 minutes a night in the 2015-16 season. He played his way into the Big East All-First Team as well as the Big East Player of the Year. Projected as a mid to late second round pick, Whitehead could be the most undervalued player in this draft and could have great success at the next level if he finds the right fit.
Whitehead can score in every way possible. Whether it is taking it to the rim and beating his guy off the bounce, pulling up from mid-range, or from behind the arc. Scoring 22 points per 40 is nothing to shake your head at, and Whitehead was second in his conference for total points scored (618) and points per game (18.2) behind only Ben Bentil. Dynamic in transition, the Seton Hall guard is nearly unstoppable in this category and is not shy about looking for his own shot. Not an overwhelming athlete, Whitehead is strong and has good size for his position, moving gracefully between defenders when getting to the rim. With a true shooters conscience, meaning he has none, he will pull up form deep if given room. Not one to rise up above the rim, he has shown good touch on floaters and has an impressive euro-step to create separation from defenders. In the half court he is often isolated up top, where he used his strength and good handle to bully his way to the paint and was surprisingly adept at taking mid-range jumpers. He struggled at times to finish against length inside but made up for this by going to the free throw line the second most of any player in the Big East and converting on 76% of them. His stroke is what will most likely make him stick at the next level, as the Brooklyn native was able to convert on 36.5% of his three-pointers even though he took an incredibly high amount (6.5 per game).
As a facilitator, Whitehead is very skilled. He was 3rd in the Big East in assists per game (5.1), total assists (173), and assist percentage (33%). He has a very good handle, and uses his size and frame to bully his way to the paint, collapsing the defense and finding the open man. At 6’5″ he can see over the defense and has the ability to make breathtaking passses. Again, it is his ability to attack in transition that boost his numbers, making him perfect for a high octane and up-tempo offense. In the pick and roll he is equally effective at finding teammates as defenders must be conscious of his jump shot and driving ability. They will often leave their man and collapse onto him, allowing easy dump off passes and kick outs for open shots. Midway through the season, Whitehead was not only contributing to an incredulous amount of his team’s offense with his distribution skills, but also was creating high efficiency scoring chances where his teammates converted 66% of their shots when he was the man passing the ball.
Defensively, Whitehead is polarising. With size (6’5), length (6’9 wingspan), and tremendous strength (210 lbs), the sophomore was able to lock down the best perimeter players. He was rarely asked to, as he had to carry such a large offensive load. For this reason it isn’t easy to gauge his full defensive ability, but he has shown promise. It is never good to rely too heavily on defensive metrics, but Whitehead’s are impressive. He ranked 7th in the Big East in blocks per game (1.4), tied for 5th in total blocks (tied 49), tied for 14th in steals per game (1.2), 10th in defensive rating (97.4) and 8th in defensive win shares (2.1). He was able to be a ball hawk. And because he rarely guarded the opponents’ best player, he was able to swoop in from the weak side using his wonderful length to protect the rim (all while not fouling as he was outside the top 20 in fouls). Whitehead is a tremendous rebounder for a guard, and grabbed 9% of all available defensive rebounds, averaging 3.6 RPG in his sophomore season.
While he tends to take some plays off, he will not shy away from the big moment. In the Big East Tournament against Creighton, Whitehead grabbed an offensive rebound off a missed free throw resulting in a foul. He hit both free throws to extend Seton Hall’s lead.
While he was a big time scorer in college, Whitehead did not do so efficiently. From behind the arc he was exceptional, but once he got inside he often settled for inefficient 2-point jumpers (most of them contested), contributing to his woeful 39% 2-point field goal percentage. Playing on Seton Hall did not help, as he was surrounded by players who were not the most skilled offensively, meaning defenses would often double or even triple team him. Once this happens, it is much easier to funnel him towards shot blockers, as Whitehead lacks elite explosiveness and struggles against NBA type length. His average first step means that he had to rely on his strength to bully through players, allowing big and strong wings to stay in front of him and contest. While he improved at the rim to shoot 44% from close, he shot only 32% on runners and 38% on mid-range jumpers.
At this point in his career Whitehead is not adept at playing off the ball too much, rarely doing so while at Seton Hall. This diminishes his value some since it is unlikely that he will be the top offensive player on whichever team he goes to and will have to learn how to find gaps as a cutter and spot up shooter.
For this reason he led the Big East in turnovers and had the 9th most in all of division one basketball. Whitehead’s handle is impressive, but he dribbles upright and can be a bit loose at times, throwing errant passes or going for the home-run play. There is hope however, as he had by far the highest usage rate in his conference at a lofty 31%. Given that he had so much responsibility to handle the ball and create for his teammates and himself, he would invariably make mistakes, and it’s not as bad as it seems. His actual turnover percentage was 16%, still not good but down from 20% from his freshman year.
Defensively, he has been known to check out at times and not give maximum effort. While this is not excusable, it’s more understandable considering the offensive load he carried.
While he is ranked by DraftExpress to go 56th overall, Whitehead could rise quickly. Possibly the steal of this draft, he has a unique blend of size and offensive talent as well as untapped defensive potential. If a team is convinced that he can buy in on the defensive end he can be seen as a 3-and-D with play making ability. He can guard both backcourt positions and that versatility is highly valued in the NBA. He has deep range from behind the arc and was only a sophomore, meaning there is room for him to grow as a decision maker. Perhaps with less to do offensively he will cut down on his turnovers and hopefully maintain his playmaking ability.
He lacks the size of Milwaukee’s Khris Middleton, but he could play a similar role as an elite defender and secondary ball handler who spaces the floor. He is far more skilled offensively than Middleton was at that age and a much superior ball handler. Defensively, he has some catching up to do, as he is a little upright at times but his instincts are better than advertised. While his shooting mentality is closer to the likes of J.R. Smith, hopefully playing alongside more talented teammates will mature Whitehead into a valuable piece and a steal in the second round.