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Drop Coverage: What Have We Learned From the Early Season Play of Dariq Whitehead?
The Duke five-star guard has had a shaky start to his freshmen campaign. The NBA Draft Dude breaks down the ups and down why early investors may need diamond hands throughout the 2023 NBA Draft cycle.
The NBA Draft cycle never plays out in the ways in which we originally project it. It’s why I enjoy keeping track of a player’s draft stock throughout the year so intently. Returners will make major off-season leaps, and lower-ranked freshmen will outplay their more highly touted contemporaries. Consensus priors shatter almost immediately once the ball tips on opening night.
For those five-star freshmen who fail to perform, the hype fades fast. The online discourse can turn messy and over-reactionary as we collectively plummet prospects down our boards.
The Internet’s love for shitting on someone is a tradition unlike any other.
But there are reasons as to why these prospects were so highly touted in the first place. What this piece will aim to do is identify why a prospect is dropping, how they can recover their stock, and what their play may tell us about their NBA future.
The most highly-ranked prospect that has failed to meet expectations early on this season has been Duke’s Dariq Whitehead. Whitehead entered the 2023 Draft Cycle as the sixth-ranked prospect on the $DRFT IPO due to the three-level scoring potential he had shown at Montverde Academy. Thus far, however, Whitehead has yet to live up to the billing of one of the draft’s premier shot makers.
If you’re going to be a tough shot maker, one of the requirements is that the shots have to go in. That has yet to be the case for Dariq in Durham. Whitehead’s shot-making has been little more than sporadic flashes rather than anything consistent. The freshman wing will often play too much catch, hold, and overdribble before settling for an inefficient, highly contested look.
If you want to know why scouts and analysts are cooling on him, look no further than the 41.5% eFG.
It feels like the college game is moving too fast for Whitehead. Dariq is often predetermining his decisions instead of being patient and taking what the defense gives him. If he is looking to get downhill, he telegraphs his decision, driving with reckless abandon regardless of how the defense is set up.
The rhythm has just looked wonky.
The inefficient scoring and awkward rhythm may be the main reason for his drop, but it’s important to note that Whitehead is still trying to round into game shape after suffering a fractured right foot injury back in August that led to the New Jersey native missing Duke’s training camp and first two contests.
The context always matters when analyzing prospects, and a lower-body injury for a player like Whitehead can really affect one’s game. Whitehead has looked heavy and out of shape, lacking the necessary burst to consistently beat defenders off the bounce and the vertical pop to be effective at finishing at the rim.
The injury is clearly contributing to the slow start, but we can’t use it to fully excuse his play. Some of Dariq’s struggles were genuine areas of concern heading into the year that are playing out in real time.
At Montverde, Whitehead would likewise tend to settle for tough shots, have some clumsy rim drives, and could get stuck in awkward mid-air situations as he would try to avoid contact. Whitehead’s ghastly inefficiency at Duke can partly be attributed to that contact avoidance, as he has been allergic to getting to the charity stripe. The shooting percentages may come up, but if Whitehead is to be a high-usage scorer at the next level, he’ll have to do much better than averaging one free throw a game.
Even with some of the red flags, we should be patient. We’re only nine games into Dariq’s college career and have yet to enter conference play.
We need to go on, but let’s take a short journey with the Ghost of Christmas Past to remember back to just a season ago as AJ Griffin got off to a slow start after returning from his own pre-season injury. Griffin was able to slowly ease his way back into a high minutes role by buying in to playing without the ball, spacing the floor, and being an active cutter to pressure the rim as opposing defenses loaded up on Paolo Banchero. Griffin ended up shooting the cover off the ball, a skill that has translated seamlessly to the NBA as a rookie.
With hindsight, it’s clear that teams over-thought some of Griffin’s shortcomings in his lone college season as he’s outproduced his precipitous drop out of the lotto. Teams would be wise to show caution in making the same mistake with Dariq.
With that said, we’ll need to see a string of consistent play before teams will feel confident in Whitehead recovering his pre-season stock. Right now, Whitehead is playing more like a jumbo Dion Waiters than AJ Griffin. However, though few and far between, Dariq showed some flashes in his last contest that lends credence to believing in the shot-maker that we saw in high school. The ability to knock down an off-the-bounce step-back combo move with a hand in your face is as valuable a skill as any when projecting wings forward, and Dariq has the size and pedigree to buy into some of those flashes.
Perhaps the most encouraging flash of them all came from Dariq’s best attacking sequence of his season, coming off of a ball screen, attacking the switch, and putting the big on a poster. It was only one rock-solid rim drive, a sample that should only be read into so much, but if Dariq is starting to get some of his bounce back on a more consistent basis, it could do wonders in opening up the rest of his game.
Whitehead has clearly been pressing as he adapts to the intricacies of the college game. Adjusting to the speed of the game is trying enough for freshmen that had a full pre-season to acclimate. Whitehead missed out on that benefit and has a return from injury to overcome. The clock is ticking, but he needs more time before scouts write him off. If Whitehead can simplify his game by eliminating some of those inefficient off-the-bounce looks and just focus on defending, shooting off movement, and using his frame to draw contact and finish at the rim—playing more stylistically like the guy who grew up playing off the ball next to Cade Cunningham and Scottie Barnes—while mixing in that on the ball creation, we can start to see a clearer picture of what made Whitehead a potential Top 10 pick.
One of the benefits of scouting games across the country is getting the opportunity to experience cities for all that they are. My favorite part of experiencing new cities is the FOOD. I love to eat, and as I gracefully age, I have decided that I like to eat good food. So one of the things I’m looking to bring to this scouting cycle for No Ceilings is a look at some of the fine cuisine located near the venues in which the games take place.
Last Saturday, Nathan and I covered the CBS Sports Classic at Madison Square Garden. As a Pennsylvanian who suffers from a lack of quality local pizza spots, Nathan texted me inquiring about possibly getting a few slices after the games. This was a foolish request since it should go without saying that we’re going to get pizza after a game in New York City.
One of the spots that I’ve been meaning to attend for a while is Lions & Tigers & Squares, located about 10 blocks away from the Garden on West 23rd. The aptly named L&T&S serves Detroit-style deep dish pies, which you don’t see at every pizzeria but is one of my favorite styles when done right.
L&T&S is a small spot with no seating. When busy, it’s pretty cramped, but it’s everything I love about an old-school NY pizzeria. It has the old off-white menu signage with crooked red letters, dim lighting, and beautiful pizza options staring you in your soon-to-be greasy face.
I kept it simple and went with the classic Detroit-style pepperoni pie. The curled mini pepperonis were cooked to perfection as the slices extended to the edge of the crust in the rectangular pan. You could hear the crispy goodness with every bite. The outer crust had a perfect crunch, complimented by a fluffy center with a tasty marinara.
While Lions & Tigers & Squares is standing room only, I still had to have at least one piping hot slice at the establishment—which, to be honest, is perfectly sufficient as the thickness of the deep dish crust will fill you up more than a traditional slice. What that meant, however, is that I had the onerous task of carrying the remaining slices—which felt more like bricks—with me as I walked to my parking garage back towards the Garden. My arms felt like Jello after the walk, but it was a worthy sacrifice so that I could bring a couple of slices back to my loving wife as she recovers from surgery.
There are too many good pizza spots in New York to count, so selecting one is difficult. But if you’re looking for a great spot close to MSG, Lions & Tigers & Squares is a worthwhile choice.