I feel compelled by everything going on with the Phoenix Suns currently to take a moment to write about someone who I believe would make a great Sun themselves. I haven’t had a chance to write about this draft cycle much, and that’s been eating at me especially lately.
Duke wing Dariq Whitehead’s recent performance eats at me.
I saw him in person at the high school level a couple of times when he played for Montverde Academy (see: Joel Embiid, RJ Barrett, and Cade Cunningham as notable recent alumni). Whitehead helped lead the prestigious national program to national championships in each of his final two seasons.
Even that early, he astonished me with his feel and understanding for how to bend defenses into giving him exactly the look he wanted, whether for himself or teammates. The poise he displayed was beyond his years as well.
Whitehead already has pro athlete DNA in him; his brother, Tahir, played linebacker in the NFL from 2012-21, and his final stop was on the Arizona Cardinals’ practice squad.
However, upon arriving to Duke in Jon Scheyer’s inaugural season as head coach, Whitehead suffered a foot injury during the preseason that required surgery and kept him out of Duke’s first three games, leaving him behind the 8-ball, playing fewer than 20 minutes in each of his first seven contests.
Because of this, he’s gone from being a possible top 5 pick to someone teetering on the edge of the lottery, right where the Suns are floating around in the Tankathon standings.
Slowly but surely, the 6-foot-6 wing with a 6-10 wingspan is getting his sea legs under him in a recent stretch of five straight games with over 20 minutes, including a career-high 33 in a 65-64 win against Boston College on Saturday. He’s scored in double-figures in each of the last four, including a career-high 18 against BC.
Over that four-game stretch — which includes his only two starts on the season — Whitehead is averaging 15.3 points (47/42/100 shooting splits), 2.3 rebounds, 1.8 assists (2.3 turnovers), and 1.0 steals in 27.0 minutes per game. Duke is 3-1 in those games.
Obviously one of the first boxes any prospect needs to check for the Suns is the ability to shoot from distance. After starting the season 6-23 (26.1%) from three, he’s made 10 of his last 21 (47.6%). I’m inclined to believe in the latter being closer to what’s real, given a very clean form and shot prep, as well as elite touch from the free throw line — 12-13 (92.3%) on the season.
I also enjoy Whitehead’s diverse shot profile with a distinct balance between pull-ups and catch-and-shoot opportunities. He’s even shown plenty of examples of how he can break a defender down with his dribble before getting to his spot. Take a look at his shooting reel from the past four games:
Though he’s not as featured on-ball at Duke as he was at Montverde — Duke has returning point guards like Jeremy Roach and Jaylen Blakes as well as NBA prospect Tyrese Proctor out of Australia’s NBA Global Academy — Whitehead still finds spots where he can let his playmaking flair shine.
Especially adept at quick touch passes and entries into the paint — Duke features productive big men like Ryan Young and likely first-rounder Kyle Filipowski — he projects as a perfect connector for the 0.5 offense in Phoenix. In this passing reel, Whitehead showcases a lot of that elite feel for the game:
It’s hard to put together a full reel worth of defensive film from just four games since Scheyer and Duke like to lean on their zone defense, which doesn’t really allow for guys to flash their abilities as much. However, Whitehead makes it clear that he doesn’t ever break down within their scheme, and he disrupts more than he gives up.
I’ve noticed on several occasions his tendency to help in the post with digs at opposing bigs, and that’s especially important in the college ranks, given how much more prevalent post scoring is. Unfortunately, given that fact, it’s hard to see how his defense will translate to a more wide-open NBA game.
Despite all that, he still has a knack for leveraging his length, athleticism, and feel into highlight plays like this one:
Bottom line is this is just one four-game stretch that I’m putting a microscope on. Whitehead had the very reasonable excuse of the foot injury hindering him through the first third of the season, but he’s got a long ACC season ahead and a likely NCAA tournament berth afterwards.
However, these recent flashes are very real, and they’re more in line with his pre-college track record. If it becomes the norm, he could play himself into the top 10, which may be out of Phoenix’s reach.
He does represent proof that the middle of the first round in this class has a load of talent; it’s just a matter of being willing to dive in, find it, and be patient in developing it — something James Jones hasn’t shown much of a willingness to do, though that could be changing with the additions of folks like Mat Ishbia and Aditya Malhotra.