Months ago, as the offers were rolling in from a handful of EuroLeague teams, Columbia-native Greg Whittington decided to gamble on his basketball future by holding out for an opportunity with an NBA organization.
On Tuesday, the 2011 Oakland Mills High graduate and former Howard County Player of the Year was rewarded for his patience.
Whittington, 27, signed a two-way contract with the Denver Nuggets, officially keeping him stateside after spending the last four years playing internationally.
“It was a tough decision this year, leaving that money on the table and not going back [overseas], but I decided it was time to bet on myself and trust that my talent would get me this opportunity,” Whittington said. “I honestly don’t even know how to feel right now, just so many emotions. But I feel like tough people prevail.
“There have been so many times over the years where I wondered if I would ever actually get here … but I’ve always trusted that God had a plan and he’s blessed me with this chance.”
In the case of Whittington, the two-way deal — since Denver is one of two NBA teams without a G League affiliate — is a $449,150 contract that allows him to play up to 50 games. After that, he can be converted to another contract or be made a restricted free agent.
In the 2020-21 NBA schedule, there are slated to be 72 games played in the regular season.
“We turned down NBA offers and EuroLeague offers because of the fit and unmatched opportunity to play for a NBA championship caliber team,” said Jerry Dianis, who has been Whittington’s agent the last two years. “In free agency [Denver] lost Jerami Grant to Detroit, Torrey Craig to Milwaukee and Bates Kieta Diop [San Antonio], and they all play the same position as Greg. Now he has a very unique clear path to an opportunity for playing time.”
Whittington says it’s an opportunity he’s been working toward for quite awhile and that his road to this point has taught him a lot.
“I’m not going to lie, there are a lot of things about overseas life that is really tough. It’s a grind. But I got to see so many different parts of the world that I wouldn’t have seen otherwise, and I’ve grown so much as not just a player, but as a person,” he said. “All those experiences have prepared me for this moment. I’ve matured.
“I’m a completely different Greg Whittington.”
Those in Whittington’s hometown of Columbia, where he has been living and training since March, shared similar emotions following the announcement.
“For me, for the program, for all the alumni … this is something that is unbelievably special. During these tough times, you look at it and say thank God for things like this,” said longtime Oakland Mills basketball coach Jon Browne. “To think about the enormity of the accomplishment, I can’t even put it into words. He had to learn a lot of things the hard way, both during high school and after high school, and it’s taken him a long time to get here. But that’s the pathway that was laid out and he’s persevered. I couldn’t be more proud.”
After graduating from Oakland Mills in 2011, Whittington played at Georgetown for a season-and-a-half before academic deficiencies and a torn ACL cut his college career short.
He spent nearly two years rehabbing before getting his first real professional opportunity — reaching an agreement with the Miami Heat in September 2015 after playing that summer with the organization in both the Orlando and Las Vegas summer leagues. Whittington appeared in four preseason games but did not make the regular season roster. He joined the Sioux Falls Skyforce of the NBA Development League.
During the 2015-16 season, Whittington averaged 13.5 points and 7.6 rebounds a game while helping the Skyforce claim the D-League championship. He was named to the NBA D-League All-Rookie Team.
The following offseason, however, Whittington changed course and decided to sign with the Sydney Kings of the National Basketball League in Australia.
“That was a real difficult decision because I felt like I was so close [to the NBA], but there was also a lot going on for me outside of just basketball,” he said. “My dad died that year, and I knew it was time for me to start providing for my family … which just wasn’t going to happen with what they pay in the D League. So I tried to make the most of it … that’s all you can do.”
Whittington continued his pursuit overseas the last three years. He played for Levange Hokkaido in the Japanese B League in 2017-18, the Hapoel Gilboa Galil of the Israeli Premier League in 2018-19 and then was with Galatasaray Doga Sigorta of Turkey’s Basketball Super Ligi in 2019-20. In each of those seasons he averaged at least 11 points and six rebounds per game.
This past season, he was named the Turkish League Forward of the Year while shooting 52.8% from 3-point range.
Despite the success internationally, though, Whittington and his agent Dianis felt the time was right for another run at the NBA.
“From the moment I first laid eyes on Greg a couple years ago, I knew he belonged on a NBA roster … and I don’t mean sitting on the bench. He’s got the game to be a NBA rotational player. So it’s really just been about finding him the right opportunity,” Dianis said. “And this year, with everything I was hearing while talking with teams, it just felt like the time was now. He’s 27, so that window is only open for so long. It’s almost like a now or never kind of thing.”
Whittington has the opportunity to be the second graduate from a Howard County public school to play in a NBA game. Perry Young, a 1981 graduate from Mt. Hebron, was the first, having played nine games in the NBA during the 1986-87 season — five with Chicago and four with Portland.
Terry Dozier, who attended Hammond High and helped the program to a state title in 1983 before transferring to Dunbar, also played in the league. Dozier appeared in nine games with the Charlotte Hornets in 1989.
Whittington is quick to point out, however, that even after signing, he’s not taking anything for granted.
“The grind doesn’t stop. If anything I’ve got to work even harder now,” Whittington said. “I’m ready, though. I’ve gone through a preseason before, seen what it takes to compete at that level and earn time. Nothing gets handed to you … believe me, I know that as well as anyone.”