Isaiah Whitehead galvanized Seton Hall before and after foot injury sidelined him midway through freshman season, and is now back at full strength to lead Pirates out of their tumultuous past. (Photo courtesy of the Asbury Park Press)
The atmosphere surrounding Seton Hall last season was anything but consistent, yet through all the turmoil, one constant was highly touted freshman Isaiah Whitehead.
The prodigy from Lincoln High School in Brooklyn arrived in South Orange with mounds of hype to match his well-documented potential, which began to take hold in the early months of the season, before a foot injury shelved him through the crucial first half of Big East play, an injury the Pirates had difficulty recovering from. Finally, there was the speculation that Whitehead's entourage may have contributed to the locker room turmoil that served as the final grisly reminder of a lost campaign for the Pirates, with the smoldering remains of a promising future representing fractured mementos.
But as the old cliché states, the past is indeed the past, and Whitehead has not only put his initial season behind him, but the phenom is now eager to turn the page.
"I've talked to a lot of coaches about how he was playing before he got hurt, and now that he's healthy, he's got a chance to be that player that he was before he got hurt," Pirates head coach Kevin Willard told a throng of media gathered inside Madison Square Garden Wednesday morning for Big East media day. "He went through a very tough year last year. He came in with a lot of hype, he struggled the first couple of games, and then really started playing at a high level. He led us in scoring, he was leading us in assists, and then he got hurt."
In fact, 72 percent of Seton Hall's offense went through Whitehead before a stress fracture in his right foot sidelined last season's Big East Preseason Rookie of the Year, a malady that cost him nine games in which the Pirates went 5-4 in his absence. When he did return against Xavier on January 31, the talent was still there, but the road to recovery was not as smooth as he envisioned. All told, the first-year standout concluded the season with averages of 12.0 points, 3.9 rebounds, and 3.5 assists per game, contributing to an impressive back of his first college basketball card, so to speak.
"It was very tough for him when he came back to play at the level he wanted to play at," Willard conceded, "and I think he's really grown as a player, he's grown as a person to understand what he has and what he has to do to play at a high level."
When asked if there would be an adjustment in Whitehead's migration from scorer to floor general, Willard reassured everyone that any such period would be minor.
"He had the ball in his hands a lot last year before he got hurt," he said. "I think the biggest difference is his understanding what a point guard's role is. It's just not having the ball in your hand, it's being a leader, it's getting the right guy the right shot at the right time. Him having the ball in his hands is natural, but it's very important for him to understand all the other things that go into it; transition defense, being the first guy back. There's so much more to being a point guard than having the ball in your hands, and that's where we have to be patient and let him evolve into the role."
The high level Whitehead desires could be easier to attain from a statistical perspective this season, as the graduation of Brandon Mobley and transfers of guards Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina provide him with an opportunity to be the anchor of the Seton Hall backcourt while classmate Angel Delgado protects the rim in his first encore following a season in which he captured Big East Freshman of the Year honors. Adding to the potential uptick in numbers is a move to the point guard position, one Whitehead's coach admits will take time to transition into, but remains confident in nonetheless.
"That's going to be a growing process for him," said Willard of his young pupil inheriting the keys to the Pirate offense. "He is doing a great job of understanding what his role is and what he needs to do, but we're going to be real patient with him. I think his biggest thing is him understanding he doesn't have to hit a home run every time, that a bunt, a single, every once in a while a double is good, and then try for the home run."
"That's his biggest thing about being a point guard, is that he's got the responsibility that we have to get a good shot every time, we've got to get into something every time. He's embracing that, and it's just going to be a work in progress."