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Hometown hero: Brooklyn native aims to inspire during rookie season with Nets

Part of the team: Coney Island native Isaiah Whitehead holds up his new Nets team jersey during a press conference on the Boardwalk on June 28.
Photo by Steve Schnibbe

Nets rookie Isaiah Whitehead doesn’t want to change the world — just Brooklyn.

The second-round draft pick, who grew up in Coney Island and made a name for himself at Lincoln High School, is a mix of nervous and excited for his first season as a pro, but most importantly, he’s determined to set an example for the community that gave him so much.

“I always say that I really want people in Brooklyn, and kids in Brooklyn, to get used to me,” Whitehead said. “When they see me, I want them to come up to me and ask me questions about what they need to do or what I did. They don’t need to be scared to talk, and I try to get around as much as possible just so kids can see me.”

The Nets open up the regular season on the road in Boston on Oct. 26, but the squad comes back to Brooklyn two days later, and Whitehead knows he’ll be a mess of emotions before he suits up at Barclays Center.

“I’m going to be the most nervous man in Brooklyn, I’ll tell you that,” Whitehead said. “It’s just really about taking it all in as much as possible. I’m just really looking forward to the game.”

Whitehead comes into his first pro season with sky-high expectations — both his own and from the rest of the basketball-watching world. He led Seton Hall to a Big East title last season, sparking his squad with the kind of on-court vision that got the Nets coaching staff’s attention.

Whitehead spent a good chunk of his summer working with the team’s first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson on his game — competing in a summer league with the Nets and fine-tuning his pass-first mentality. It hasn’t been easy, but the rookie knows it’s necessary.

“[Coach] really motivates you to get better — and get better at the things you can’t do,” Whitehead said. “So it’s great to be playing for him. I mean, you name it, he has me doing it.”

The expectations for Whitehead may be high across the borough, but the expectations for the Nets aren’t nearly as impressive. After all, this is a team that posted just 21 wins last year.

That doesn’t mean, however, that Whitehead lacks confidence in his squad. In fact, he’s never seen a team work harder in the offseason than the Nets — and that has made Whitehead more determined than ever to prove himself.

“I know they’re working their tails off, so I can’t slouch,” he said. “I’m the rookie, so whatever they’re doing, I’ve got to do 10 times more to show that I’m ready to contribute and work.”

Whitehead doesn’t want to get too far ahead of himself. He knows there will be plenty of first-year challenges ahead of him, but he’s also ready to face them. In fact, he’s looking forward to it. And, most importantly, he’s looking forward to playing for his city.

“When I’m on the court, play as hard as possible,” Whitehead said. “When they give me a shot, just go out there and do what I do and hopefully it’s what they like.”

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