The Nets are Brooklyn’s team, and now one of the borough’s biggest stars can call the team his own.
The pride of Coney Island, Isaiah Whitehead, received a warm homecoming on Tuesday, as the Nets introduced their draft pick in front of an enthusiastic crowd.
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams and Nets Head Coach Kenny Atkinson were on hand with Whitehead at a festive press conference at the Nets Store right off Surf Avenue across from Nathan’s.
“I grew up in Coney Island and to actually have my press conference where they introduce me as a Net in my backyard, it’s amazing. I really can’t put it into words,” said Whitehead.
“This is a little different. It is indicative of our feeling toward him,” said Atkinson. “I think he’s going to be a part of this franchise for a long time.
Whitehead starred at Lincoln High School, where he was a McDonald’s All American. He stayed close to home for college, as he played two years at Seton Hall.
This past season was a statement year for Whitehead, as he led the Pirates to the Big East Tournament championship, where they beat eventual National Champion Villanova. Seton Hall made its first NCAA Tournament appearance since 2006.
“From the Brooklyn Nets standpoint. to be able to draft a local guy, I think it’s a great thing,” said Atkinson. “I think we all realized when we interviewed him and talked to him that he’s a guy that can handle that pressure. He proved it in The Garden in the Big East Tournament, proved it in high school, and I think he’s ready to prove it at the NBA level.
“I think he’s physically – if you look at his body – physically, he’s mature enough, and mentally, I think he’s ready for this. I’m sure (Seton Hall) coach Willard might disagree with me, but I think he’s ready.”
Whitehead will be the first player from Brooklyn to play for the Nets since they moved from New Jersey in 2012.
Last Thursday, the Nets acquired the draft rights to Whitehead, the 42nd pick in the 2016 NBA Draft, from the Utah Jazz in exchange for the draft rights to guard Marcus Paige, whom the Nets chose with the 55th pick, and cash considerations.
“I was telling my friends it probably won’t sink in until I’m actually on the Barclays floor, looking around and seeing family and friends,” Whitehead said of what it will be like to play for his hometown team.
In his two years at Seton Hall, Whitehead averaged 18.2 points, 3.6 rebounds and 5.1 assists in 32.3 minutes per game in 34 games (33 starts) as a sophomore, earning unanimous All-Big East First Team honors and an Associated Press All-America honorable mention. He was also named the 2016 Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player after averaging 23.3 points and 5.7 assists in the Big East Tournament, where the Pirates claimed their first conference tournament title since 1993. As a freshman, Whitehead averaged 12.0 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists in 27.8 minutes per game in 22 games (19 starts) en route to Big East All-Rookie Team honors.
In addition to being a McDonald’s All American while at Lincoln High School, he was named Mr. New York Basketball by the state’s Basketball Coaches Association in 2014.
Nets Head Coach Kenny Atkinson sees Whitehead primarily as a point guard, although he sees him as a shooting guard as well.
“From our perspective, we were very impressed with how well he distributed the ball,” Atkinson said. “I think people view him as a scorer – and we definitely want him to score – but our vision of this thing is we’re really going to move the ball well, and be a high-assist, share-the-ball type of team.
“I see him as a 1 (point guard) because he passes the ball well and I think he’d make his teammates better. I think you guys know, with the way the NBA is, versatility is key. I think it’s huge if he can definitely slide over and play some 2 (shooting guard), with his size, his ability to guard multiple positions and I think he’s going to be able to shoot the ball well enough to be off the ball, too.”
Whitehead’s first action for the Nets will be in the NBA Summer League in Las Vegas starting in July 9.
“I’m real confident. That’s one of the traits about me,” said Whitehead. “I would never back down from anyone. I feel like I can play on the (next) level.”
Atkinson is impressed by Whitehead for many reasons, including his skills on the court and who he is as a person.
“He said, ‘My decision-making can be a little better, I can shoot a little better.’ That’s pretty telling. He didn’t want to tell me how good he was. He wanted to tell me what he was working on. We love that about him.”
The Nets see Whitehead as part of their young nucleus, along with Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Chris McCullough. They are a key part of general manager Sean Marks’ vision of how he wants to build this team, and have them execute an up-tempo, entertaining style of basketball.
“We’re building something special here. We are building,” said Atkinson. “I think we proved it kind of what we’re doing with the draft and how we got in the draft. This is an up-and-coming program, and we’re optimistic, and with the right type of players, we can kind of turn this thing around.”
Brooklyn’s own, Whitehead, will be out to make Brooklyn’s team, the Nets, one the borough can be proud of.
Coney Island certainly takes a lot of pride in their native son.