All-Star Brook Lopez stands in the tunnel at Barclays Center, signing autographs for young fans; former first-round pick Anthony Bennett stretches on a yoga mat alongside the baseline; Isaiah Whitehead is on the court during shoot around, perfecting him jump shot.
At one point, Whitehead misses three consecutive three-pointers; visibly frustrated, he asks for the ball and sinks the next three, and lets out a tiny smile.
The 21-year-old sits at his locker 20 minutes later, throws a few pieces of popcorn in his mouth and says he feels "no symptoms" from a concussion he recently suffered. Considering the opportunity in front of him, no injury is too severe to play through.
“No, of course not,” Whitehead said in an exclusive interview to GiveMeSport about whether or not he expected to start this quickly.
“It’s a great opportunity, I think I’ve done well in it, even in [the game I suffered the concussion], I feel I played well.”
With Jeremy Lin nursing an injured hamstring, the Nets have struggled to find a suitable replacement. Sean Kilpatrick, Randy Foye, Yogi Ferrell and Whitehead have auditioned for the role.
But Whitehead says "this is Jeremy's team" and that he's still trying to learn as much as possible. Learn from Lin himself, who once dominated the basketball lexicon in New York City during his unprecedented run of ‘Linsanity’ during the 2011-12 season. Lin led a Knicks team starving for success to the playoffs and Whitehead hopes to do the same for the Nets one day.
If head coach Scott Atkinson’s endorsement from before the season means anything, the Seton Hall product will be a fixture in Brooklyn for years to come.
“He’s a basketball player, and to me, he’s a point guard,” Atkinson said. “He passes well, he sees the court, he could defend the position, he could shoot the ball, and his size at that age. He’s not a talker, he’s just a quiet competitor, and I enjoy being around him.”
Whitehead, a second-round pick by the Utah Jazz (42nd overall pick) on draft night, was acquired by the Nets later that evening. He became the first Brooklyn-born player to play for the Nets since they moved to the borough in 2012.
Now, he's teammates with a man in Lin who has vocally and physically taken on a leadership role.
“Definitely, every chance I get, I go to him and ask what he thought of this play or what he thought of that play,” Whitehead said. "He's been here [in New York] and accomplished so much."
In his third game back on Sunday, Whitehead drew the start. He sank a wide open three in the first quarter but remained silent until the third quarter.
All told, he finished with a career-high 11 points, providing a slumping Nets team with a spark in an otherwise forgettable 129-109 loss -- the Nets’ fourth loss in a row.
He drew the unenviable assignment of guarding Damian Lillard, who entered the game with the NBAs fourth-best points per game total (28.7). In true student form, he used the assignment as another learning opportunity competing against someone he admires.
“I watched him [Lillard] a lot when I was in college and high school. He’s just a tremendous player,” Whitehead said.
Since being acquired by the Nets, Whitehead has become a fixture in Brooklyn at fundraisers, Thanksgiving turkey drives, autograph signings, and various team functions working with young kids as a representative of the Nets.
Some things he expected.
“Expectations was definitely support from my friends, family, and the fans of Brooklyn,” Whitehead,
Some he did not.
“Surprising is definitely starting this early,” Whitehead added.
Others he works toward every day.
“I want to learn the NBA style and get better every day,” he said.