Is Isaiah Whitehead a Top 3 Rookie PG?

AP Photo/Reinhold Matay
(AP Photo/Reinhold Matay) by Ben Nadeau Resolution: Keep improving, keep doin' you After the aforementioned injuries to Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez, Isaiah Whitehead was hurled into the fire against the likes of Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, and Damian Lillard -- and, hey, for a second round rookie, he's covered ground pretty quickly. At the beginning of the season, Whitehead was prone to silly turnovers -- most often by jumping without an endgame in mind -- and struggled to tap into his range. With almost half a season under his belt now, Whitehead has proven to be a capable game manager and, if he starts hitting the three-pointer more consistently, can be a regular contributor to the crippled side. Of course, his assist numbers aren't particularly great, although that's fair given Atkinson's rapid-ball movement offense, but he's saved the Nets from having a historically poor season in all likelihood. In 2017, Whitehead should look to continue working that #BrooklynGrit moxie, get to the free throw line more, and find that three-point shooting range that made him a collegiate star at Seton Hall. It's an incredibly early diagnosis on Whitehead, but Atkinson must be pleased with the rookie's play and his quickly matured confidence way ahead of schedule.
(AP Photo/Reinhold Matay)

Is Isaiah Whitehead a Top 3 Rookie PG?

Did you know that when Isaiah Whitehead isn’t yakking on fools, there’s an argument to be made that he’s one of the best three rookie point guards to emerge from the 2016 NBA Draft? It’s true! … Well, kinda. When the Nets traded up to take the hometown kid in the second round of last year’s draft, expectations for the Seton Hall sophomore point guard were about as low as the Trump Administration’s EPA standards.

Of course, no one expected him to start a single game, let alone almost 30, but after the two veteran point guards on the Nets’ roster  — Jeremy Lin and Greivis Vasquez — both went down with injury, Brooklyn had their hand forced. So with the dearth of point guards in Brooklyn, Whitehead has played in 48 games this season, starting 26 of them, and is averaging 7.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists.

OK, here we go — some disclaimers.

The first caveat, and this one is likely accompanied by a collective shudder from all Nets fans, is that one of the other best rookie point guards this season has been (the 2017 version) undrafted Yogi Ferrell. Ferrell, who, you no doubt remember, was on the Nets roster at the beginning of the season. Remember? When Yogi Ferrell — now averaging 12.8 points per game with the Mavs — was on the Nets? 

The second caveat is that no. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons hasn’t played at all this year and has now been ruled out for the season. And considering he’s basically a power forward-sized point guard, he doesn’t count.

The third caveat is that the 2016 NBA Draft was oddly devoid of ‘pure’ point guards and heavily titled towards the shooting/combo likes of Jamal Murray and Buddy ‘Steph’ Hield at the top and then sifted through Denzel Valentine and Malachi Richardson to the likes of Patrick McCaw and Andrew Harrison later.

‘Wait,’ I can hear you cry, ‘dude is only averaging 7.2 points, 2.5 rebounds, and 2.9 assists! How can he be a top three rookie point guard?’

Right — and don’t forget his brutal 39.1 field goal percentage and how he is shooting only 32.3% from three. Worse of all rookies, Whitehead is dead last in Win Shares with -1.0 — Ferrell, in contrast, is ranked 4th, with +0.8.

The tough part in analyzing Whitehead’s numbers is that he’s played more minutes than all but three of his point guard draftmates, meaning that just through sheer sample size they’re more depressed than some of his counterparts. For instance, the trio (all picked ahead of Whitehead) of Valentine, Murray, and Baldwin have played less minutes than Whitehead combined.

To put that into perspective, Toronto’s Fred VanVleet has only played in 21 games, logging 6.9 minutes per game for a total of 145 minutes. But he’s been good in those tiny chances and, extrapolated over 36 minutes, his numbers equate to 14.9 PPG, 4.7 RPG, and 4.5 APG.

Is Fred that good? Probably not; with more actual NBA minutes, you’d expect those numbers to drop (though not too badly; in 20 minutes against the Nets at the start of February he had 10/4/3 and 15/3/3 against Orlando the night before).

So, to contrast his per game totals, Whitehead’s per-36 minute numbers aren’t too bad: 11.9 points, 4.1 rebounds, and 4.9 assists… and he also has the best on-court +/-  of any Net — which isn’t saying much, but still.

Whitehead’s numbers aren’t insane-level great, but they’re more than passable… and here comes some more perspective. He was a second round pick not expected to do much of anything this year… and he’s young. With only two years of college at Seton Hall, Whitehead is just on the verge of turning 22-years-old.

Buddy Hield is 23; Yogi Ferrell is 23 (and 24 in May). Malcolm Brogdon is 24.

Get to the comparisons already…

Basically, all of this is trying to point out that Whitehead is having a better year than most of his rookie point guard counterparts… and more specifically, no. 5 overall pick Kris Dunn. Dunn turns 23 in three weeks and is currently averaging just 3.6 PPG, 2.2 RPG, and 2.5 APG. Dunn’s also only shooting 36.3% from the field and 26.5% from three-point land — which is definitively poor. And considering that’s coming in 16.6 minutes per game, his per-36 minute stats aren’t anything write home about either with a slash line of 7.8/4.7/5.5. Defensively, though, Dunn is showing some promise with a comparatively high steal and block rates per-36 of 1.9 and 1.0 respectively.

Andrew Harrison is well ahead of his teammate Wade Baldwin in the Grizzlies rotation, with a decent line of 6.2/1.9/2.9, while shooting horribly (31.6 FG%, 26 3-FG%). Baldwin, for his part, is putting up 3.4/1.4/2.0 in 12.9 minutes per game, so his per-36 numbers round out to 9.4/3.8/5.7… but he’s shooting even worse than Harrison, 31% from the field and — *gulp* — 11.1% from 3 (which is brutal for a guy who shot over 40% in college).

How about two young dudes getting not much run and putting up nearly identical numbers? Dejounte Murray is averaging 3.6/1/1 (on 44.3 FG% and 42.1 3-FG%), but as it’s coming in only 7.8 minutes per game, his per-36 numbers are a more impressive 16.6/4.6/4.6. Tyler Ulis is averaging only 9 minutes per game with Phoenix, and putting up 3.1/0.7/1.3 and his per-36 numbers are only 12.6/2.8/5.1. But he’s also got sticky hands: he has a steal percentage of 3%, nabbing only 7 less takeaways than Whitehead and Murray despite playing only a quarter of their minutes.

If we rule them all out, then, by far, the best two point guards in this rookie class have been Malcolm Brogdon and Yogi Ferrell. President Brogdon is out there with a season-long 13.8 PER and throwing down 9.4 points, 2.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game. Even better, he’s been doing it all in an efficient manner, shooting 43.7% from the field and an excellent 41.5% from 3 — while also putting up better numbers as the season wears on. Since the beginning of January, the Prez is averaging a slash of 11/3/5/ and 1.4 steals per game — hot damn.   

Meanwhile with Yogi, sure, the big story is that in his 12 games since being picked up by Dallas, the former Net is averaging 12.8 points, 3.2 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game, while shooting 42.5% from the field and 40.7% from downtown. In his past five games, however, Yogi has returned to Earth, averaging just 9.4 points, 3.6 rebounds, 5.2 assists, 42% from the field, and 33% from 3.

In the two games since Deron Williams’ buyout, he’s hit only 5 of his 18 shots from the field and is just 2-11 from deep — yikes.

So Whitehead’s numbers put him behind El Presidente Brogdon and former-Net-point-guard Yogi, but let’s talk about some non-number ‘eye-test’ metrics.

A.) Badassery

Whitehead has it in spades. That Brooklyn playground chutzpah informs everything he does on offense and defense; at no point this season has Whitehead looked scared or even remotely timid. From attacking the rim and dropping twisting layups to bodying up the best point guards in the NBA on defense, his badass attitude is one thing Nets fans can appreciate.   

B.) Bounce

Just watch this:

The dude has hops.

Aside from some brutal dunks, Whitehead’s legitimately a threat to drop at least one spectacular block on an unsuspecting big guy per game.

C.) Upside

Sure, his finishing around the rim is still not great but he has improved markedly from the start of the year and with a grown man’s body, his defense has been more than solid for a second-round rookie… Basically, the potential he’s shown and the growth evidenced already this year has been heartening.

So what the Nets have, so far, is probably the third-best rookie point guard in the NBA. Would they trade him in for Jamal Murray or Ben Simmons, yeah, probably — but they’ve unearthed a mini-diamond in the rough of their own. At just 21-years-old, Whitehead is right on track to fulfill his considerable upside.

The outline of springy, hard-nosed point guard with potential is there for all to see, and that’s something Nets fans can be thankful for.