What Lies Beneath: Isaiah Whitehead’s Passing Has Reinvigorated the Hall

Posted by Justin Kundrat on January 9th, 2016

Isaiah Whitehead has undergone a radical transformation over the last three weeks. The 6’4″ Brooklyn native arrived at Seton Hall as a shooting guard stuck in a point guard’s body, and it showed his freshman year. His talent was undeniable, but the fit felt unnatural alongside Sterling Gibbs and Jaren Sina, both of whom preferred to have the ball in their hands. As a result, last season’s guard-laden backcourt eventually collapsed amid locker room disputes and a struggle for roles. When all was said and done, Gibbs and Sina departed, leaving the team in the hands of the rising sophomore Whitehead.

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. ( Jim O'Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The emergence of a special Isaiah Whitehead has Seton Hall right in the mix. (Jim O’Connor/USA TODAY Sports)

The start to the newly-minted Whitehead era was a rocky one, as an early loss to Long Beach State was sandwiched between narrow victories over Wagner and Bradley. Now, just weeks later, the team has collected wins over Georgia, Wichita State and Marquette. Don’t look now, but the Pirates appear to be playing their way into the NCAA tournament. The development of the team’s sophomores is a big reason for the improved outlook, but the biggest transformation of all belongs to Whitehead, who has found the right balance within the scorer/distributor framework of a point guard. “After Rutgers he started playing at a good level. He’s letting the game come to him, he’s getting good shots. He knows when to be aggressive and when to pass the ball more now,” coach Kevin Willard said following his team’s win over DePaul. Make no mistake, too: This shift has not been gradual. It has been sudden and dramatic. Whitehead’s assist figures have exploded, and so too has the effectiveness of the team’s offense.

In the 11 games leading up to December 22, Whitehead had been averaging 3.5 assists per game. In his last four games — which includes a struggle against Villanova’s tenacious defense — that figure has ballooned to 7.0, and with a largely unchanged turnover rate. Most importantly though, Whitehead’s assists have been creating points for a team that oftentimes struggles to do so on its own. Whitehead boasts a 31 percent assist rate (assists/field goals made when that player is on the floor), a clip that no other Pirate can even approximate. This rate may not jump off the page initially (Whitehead is only 88th nationally), consider that it was closer to 22 percent in the Hall’s first 11 games this season. In the last four games alone, approximately 4o percent of Seton Hall field goals have come off a Whitehead assist. Moreover, 66% of his assists (on the season) are resulting in high expected value shots at the rim, where Seton Hall is converting at a 63% clip, per Hoop-Math. Seton Hall’s other two ball handlers, Khadeen Carrington and Derrick Gordon, derive just 45% of their assists on such shots. As is the case with most teams, field goal attempts at the rim for Seton Hall are far and away the most valuable variety:imgWhitehead’s assist creation is valuable because it is less predicated on the drive-and-dish, and more so on threading passes into the paint. For a team that plays its best basketball near the basket, Whitehead is adding tremendous value to the offense with his passing. Shots at the rim are the most efficient method of offense, yes, but even failed conversions provide Seton Hall with the best chance of grabbing an offensive rebound, a category in which they rank 30th nationally. Whitehead getting the ball inside and getting players involved (Ismael Sanogo, Mike Nzei, Veer Singh) that otherwise would be contributing little on offense. Below is a breakdown of Whitehead’s assists by player and shot type:img

In short, he is getting additional players involved in the offense, finding Angel Delgado near the rim, and providing spacing with his own ability to score. “I think everyone is doing a good job of figuring out where they need to be when he drives,” Willard said. Whitehead’s savvy play has put Seton Hall back on the map and in contention for an NCAA tournament appearance. After the tumult of a year ago, it appears the Hall is finally morphing around a singular leader.

Justin Kundrat (175 Posts)

Villanova grad, patiently waiting another 10 years for season tickets. Follow Justin on twitter @JustinKundrat or email him at justin.kundrat@gmail.com

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