Seton Hall head coach Kevin Willard laughs when he thinks about his first encounter with his starting point guard. It was the summer after Isaiah Whitehead's sophomore year at Abraham Lincoln high school, a New York City basketball power in Coney Island whose alumni include Stephon Marbury, Sebastian Telfair, and Lance Stephenson. During an AAU game, Willard noticed a dynamic presence on the floor. He approached Whitehead to introduce himself. What did the two talk about? "Not much," Willard recalls, still chuckling to himself.
As Willard tells it, Whitehead, the sophomore guard who is leading the 21-8 Pirates to a likely berth in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2006, isn't much of a talker, or at least wasn't at the start. "He's very guarded," Willard said. "But once he trusts you and gets to know you, you can't shut him up." The relationship between coach and player has developed over the years, but getting to this point hasn't been easy.
Whitehead had reason to be guarded—as a McDonald's All-American and the 14th-ranked recruit in the class of 2014 by ESPN, he was being circled by sharks. Willard won Whitehead's trust, and then his commitment, and the reigning New York Mr. Basketball averaged 12.0 points and 3.5 assists in his freshman season at Seton Hall, although a stress fracture injury sidelined him during the season. When he came back, Whitehead says he tried too hard to prove himself, to the detriment of the team. "I did a horrible job," he admits. After a 7-0 start and a climb into the national top 25, Seton Hall finished 16-15 overall, with a 6-12 record in the Big East. They lost nine of their last 10 games.
At the end of the season, Willard sat down with Whitehead and told him he would be be a full-time point guard the following season. There wasn't much to talk about then either. Whitehead simply looked at his coach and replied: "About time."
The adjustment wasn't easy, since Whitehead has been a score-first guard his entire life, but he and his teammates devoted much of their summer working out at the school and developed a team dynamic in the process. Whitehead spent days working on screen-and-rolls with his teammates, on executing the proper jump stops, on understanding the spots his teammates would be on the floor. He also spent plenty of time in the film room with associate coach Shaheen Holloway, a former McDonald's All-American who broke Seton Hall's single season-assist record as a point guard in 2012.
Willard noticed his freshmen at the gym, working out at 8am, then coming back in the evening for open gym sessions. Internally, Willard felt he could have been fired after his team's collapse, but told people in the athletic department that this year would be different. Whitehead has spent this season proving Willard right, and correcting critics who had written him off as another overhyped New York prodigy.
The Mr. Basketball lineage in New York contains a number of instantly recognizable names—the award has been bestowed upon the likes of John Wallace, Felipe Lopez, Marbury, Elton Brand, Telfair, and Jonny Flynn over the years—but comes with some extremely heavy hype. "It was a dream come true," Whitehead said of the honor. "I've set that goal since I was little. It made my parents happy." Whitehead still remembers the SLAM Magazine photoshoot, another rite of passage of sorts for any up-and-coming New York player, he had in 2014 at Coney Island's MCU Park, home of the Brooklyn Cyclones. His mom picked up every single copy of the magazine issue when it hit the local newsstands in Coney Island.
The prestige of the title is real, but those pressures are, too, and the list of past winners includes plenty of cautionary tales. Kenny Anderson, who received the honor in 1989, and went onto have a 14-year career in the NBA, believes tightening the inner circle is a key as the attention grows. "You have to remain grounded," Anderson said. "You have to have people in your corner. Some of these guys have hidden agendas. It messes with you, and they don't go as far as they can go on their potential."
One of the people in Whitehead's corner is Lance Stephenson, a fellow Lincoln alum who has taken Whitehead on as something of a protege. "I tried to get a big body like him," Whitehead said. "I try to model my game after him, just his bullyball mentality and how tough he is on the defensive end."
The two met when Whitehead was in eighth grade and Lance was at Lincoln and still text daily. "He reminds me of me," Stephenson said. "I think he can shoot a little bit better than me. He's a tough player. He's from the same neighborhood, I mean, we're from the same building. I think he's going to be the next one coming out of New York."
Willard believes that Whitehead's experience with the New York hype machine helped him overcome adversity last season, and that the disappointment of last year's collapse made it easier for the young point guard to become a different player and teammate this year. Whatever the case, Whitehead is turning it on at the right time, and is enjoying the most impressive stretch of his college career when the Pirates need him most. In a late February matchup against Providence's Kris Dunn, who is projected to be a top-five selection in this year's NBA draft, Whitehead displayed the purpose and confidence that Willard spoke of, surveying the floor and attacking the defense with every dribble. He was aggressive but also under control, demonstrating the balance required to run an offense but at the same time finding his own shots within the flow of the game. Early in the first half, Whitehead raced past Dunn after a turnover in an end-to-end sequence that concluded with a reverse layup and the foul.
As the Prudential Center crowd roared, Whitehead did a celebratory leg kick to complete his move and roared right back at the crowd. Whitehead ended the first half with a buzzer-beating three, and helped Seton Hall's lead balloon to 20 points in the second half. After Providence cut it to single digits in the closing minutes, a no-look over the shoulder pass from Whitehead capped off the 70-52 victory. It was, in every facet, a dominant performance—25 points, six rebounds, nine assists and four blocks. He hit eight of his 12 shots, including 5-for-8 from three.
A few days later, on Senior Day, Whitehead scored 22 points to lead Seton Hall to a 90-81 victory over fifth-ranked Xavier. On Saturday, Whitehead scored a career-high 33 against DePaul in another victory. The Big East Tournament starts this Thursday, and the Pirates appear set to make their first NCAA tournament appearance in a decade.
Moving Whitehead to point guard was more about shifting his focus on the floor than dictating what he could or could not do on the court, Willard says. "Kids think a point guard is someone who brings the ball up and calls the offense," he explains. "A point guard is the leader of the team. You have to have confidence in what you're doing, and what was my biggest concern with moving him to point guard. It wasn't with him making basketball decisions... You don't want to take away the creativity and vision. Sometimes you just need to lay down a bunt for another guy to hit a home-run. He's getting much better at understanding that."
Teammates have noticed a difference too. Khadeen Carrington, a teammate at Seton Hall who also attended Lincoln High and has known Whitehead since seventh grade, has noticed a shift in his teammate's approach on the court. "He's focused on everybody instead of just himself," Carrington said.
"I went from a me person to a team person this year," Whitehead said, summarizing from growth from last year. "It's just about making everyone happy on the court." With March's madness looming, Whitehead can now safely keep the talking to a minimum, and let his game do the convincing.