Halted homecoming: Coney Island native sidelined in Nets home opener

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It wasn’t exactly the homecoming he hoped for.

Isaiah Whitehead didn’t step onto the court at Barclays Center in the Nets home opener against the Pacers on Oct. 28. Two games into his pro career, the former Lincoln star is determined to do his part for the team — even if that means sitting on the bench.

“It’s just to stay ready,” Whitehead said of his mindset. “That’s what I preach and that’s what [Jeremy Lin], Rondae [Hollis-Jefferson], and all these other guys preach to me. You have to stay ready, and when your number is called, just try to produce.”

Whitehead played a few-late game minutes in the Nets opener at Boston on Oct. 26 and hoped to see a bit of action in Brooklyn — particularly with a small army of friends and family in the stands.

“If I have a family member, then they’re here,” Whitehead said. “It means a lot. They’re here and, of course, they know I’m not going to start or get a ton of minutes and they’re still coming. So that’s a big, big support system that I have and I love it.”

Whitehead became the hometown face of the Nets during the preseason — after the team traded up to select him in the second round of the National Basketball Association draft earlier this year — and the former Railsplitters star had to admit to some pre-game nerves before heading to his first pro game at Barclays Center.

Whitehead did his best to follow a normal routine before he got to the arena — he got a hair cut, took a nap, went to shoot-around and, most importantly, texted his mom.

Ericka Rambert — always the inspiration behind Whitehead’s intensity on the court — wished her son good luck and told him to be himself and play has hard as he could whenever he got on the court.

It’s advice Whitehead has taken to heart in the first few months of his pro career. He picked the brains of some Nets veterans — including point guard Jeremy Lin and Brook Lopez — trying to model his schedule after them. He’s also gotten close to second-year forward Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, joking and laughing with the former Arizona standout in the locker before tip-off at Barclays.

“It’s been huge,” Whitehead said of those relationships. “I’m just trying to see what works for me, because they’ve been around for some time now. So I’ve really got a lot of guys that I can look up to.”

Whitehead played a combined four minutes in his first two games as Net, and he didn’t score a single point. But that doesn’t mean that he isn’t close to getting playing time. In fact, Brooklyn coach Kenny Atkinson said Whitehead and fellow New York native Chris McCullough have both impressed early this season.

“When they leave an impression, that’s the start of development,” Atkinson said. “And it leaves an impression in your mind as a coaching staff, and I think next time there’s a decision if we need to put them in or not, you think, ‘Hey, let’s try this again.’ ”

Whitehead is doing his best not to think about numbers or minutes, but the Brooklyn-bred star is also determined to make sure he’s ready to play at a moment’s notice. After all, he’s got a cheering section to impress.

“That’s what the nerves were, right there, not knowing what they’d need out of me,” Whitehead said. “But I know that now — get in and be active.

Updated 11:48 am, January 16, 2019
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