As a rookie, the Brooklyn Nets asked a lot out of Isaiah Whitehead.
The homecoming kid out of Coney Island's Lincoln HS was a second-round draft pick after two years at Seton Hall who had tools and toughness that Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson liked. With veteran guards like Jeremy Lin acquired that same summer of 2016, there would be time for Whitehead to grow into his NBA game and benefit from Atkinson's player development expertise. Maybe see some time with the franchise's new G League team, the Long Island Nets, which would be sharing a practice space and home court with the parent club in Brooklyn for its first season.
It didn't work out that way. Injuries opened up a need, and Whitehead ended up playing 73 games for Brooklyn - starting 26 as a 21-year-old NBA rookie - and never playing a minute for the Long Island Nets.
The 2017-18 season probably bears a closer resemblance to the original plan. With Brooklyn sporting a deeper backcourt, Whitehead has been splitting time between the NBA and the G League. He's played 16 games for Brooklyn, averaging 11.2 minutes per game, and 24 games for Long Island.
"For anybody, it's hard to be in the NBA and then play significant time in the G League, especially for a young kid that's just learning," said Long Island coach Ronald Nored. "Isaiah was put in the situation he was in last year. To be honest with you, I think he's handled it well. Does it mean it's gone perfectly, no. Any player, I see it all the time in this league, when they play in the G League, you want to play in the NBA.
"What he's done though, is he's used this as an opportunity to improve. He has not played major minutes in Brooklyn, and he gets to play major minutes here, and it's great. Because all the things that he's going to need to be equipped with when he plays in the NBA, he can learn them here. The talent is good enough in this league. Our systems are the same. He's hearing the same terminology. He's getting coached hard."
In Long Island, Whitehead has averaged 20.4 points, 4.0 assists and 3.5 rebounds per game in 27.6 minutes per game. The Nets organization preaches consistency between Brooklyn and Long Island so that players like Whitehead, or two-way contract signees James Webb III and Milton Doyle, are up-to-date should they be called to play for Brooklyn.
And Whitehead has familiarity with his teammates in either direction. While Brooklyn's Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert played Summer League ball with Whitehead, so did Long Island teammates Doyle, JJ Moore, Prince Ibeh, Tahjere McCall, Jeremy Senglin, and Whitehead's old Lincoln HS teammate, Kamari Murphy.
"I think down here it's easier than some NBA team's affiliates," said Whitehead. "These guys have been here since Summer League. So I've known them. Coming down here is just coming to another team that I know that I've been on. Majority of them being on the Summer League team, we've bonded since then and in training camp. I think a lot of G League teams have players that just come in to play and they really don't have a relationship with the bigger team. That makes it much easier."
Whitehead has been with Long Island since Feb. 25, when he returned to the G League after three weeks, and tore through the Greensboro Swarm.
The 6-foot-4 guard dropped 52 points in Long Island's 125-122 win, shooting 19-for-29 overall and 4-for-8 from 3-point range in 39 minutes.
"I started off the game hot," said Whitehead. "I just continued to be aggressive. Ron told me, when you come back, just make the right plays. When you're open, shoot, and when you're not, pass the ball. I just tried to make as many right plays as possible. I just felt like I had the hot hand, so I stayed aggressive."
Before returning to the G League, Whitehead had been with the Brooklyn Nets for most of February but appeared in just four of seven games for a total of 18 minutes. With the Nets headed off on an extended road trip, Whitehead was assigned back to the G League for a stretch.
"That's what it's about," said Atkinson. "That's why we have Long Island. That's why we have the G League. Isaiah's worked his tail off when he's been with us and then he's gone with Long Island and fit in seamlessly. Isaiah to me, he's an NBA player. He's still learning the game. We're constantly having conversations about the difficulty of going back and forth. But the maturity with which he's handled the situation has been excellent. To see him have a great game like that, that's hard to do at any level. Score 52 points and lead your team to a win on the road, really proud of him."
Whitehead is shooting 35.9 percent from 3-point range for Long Island, and is shooting 38.9 percent from distance in his NBA action this season. Both numbers are a significant jump over his 29.5 3-point percentage with Brooklyn last season.
It's the first thing Nored brings up about Whitehead's performance this season.
"His shooting has really improved," said Nored. "His shot looks much better than it did at the beginning of the year. And he's worked on it. In the games, he's finding ways to take the right ones, which is great. The other thing offensively that he does, he's a strong, powerful kid and finishes at the rim. He can really see things before they happen. So making the right plays at the right time, so I think it's another area where he's really improved. He is strong. There's times he can get to the rim and finish around a couple guys. How can we continue to get him to just read the game? I beat my guy, the next guy comes, that means somebody's open, boom, kicking it out to the right guy. That's another thing. He's gotten so much better with that over the course of the year."