Dating back all the way to his early days at Oakland Mills High School, Greg Whittington has never shied away from a challenge.
The lanky forward, who began on the Junior Varsity squad as a freshman, spent his high school years helping lead the Scorpions' basketball team back to prominence on his way to earning Howard County Player of the Year honors as a senior in 2011.
At Georgetown University, he worked his way into a key role for the nationally-ranked Hoyas before academic issues and injuries in 2013 threatened to derail his career. Yet, even as his college days were cut short and he underwent a pair of ACL surgeries, Whittington never lost focus.
Instead, he battled back and kept chasing his basketball dreams.
This past spring, as a first-year player for the Sioux Falls Skyforce in the NBA D-League, Whittington was a regular contributor for a squad that set a regular-season wins record on the way to a championship. His averages of 13.8 points, 8.0 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.1 steals a game earned him a spot on the D-League All-Rookie Team.
Now the 23-year-old Columbia-native is determined to continue putting in the work necessary to one day take the next step — earning a spot on an NBA roster.
In between mini-camps this June with a handful of NBA teams — Houston, Detroit and Portland — Whittington took some time out of his busy schedule to sit down and talk about his journey to this point, his roots in Columbia, along with what the future might hold for him.
It sounds like you are on a whirlwind tour around the country this month. How are you holding up?
It's been a whole lot of traveling and working out … I haven't actually really had any breaks. I've been grinding, but I enjoy it because it's basketball and it's what I do. It's what I love and it's what God blessed me with the ability to do, so I'm trying to make the most of it. Honestly, I would play every day if I could, but I also have to work in some rest.
What kind of feedback have you been getting at these mini-camps?
For the most part they say they like what they are seeing and that I have to just keep going. The biggest thing is they want me to be a little more aggressive, so I'm definitely working on that every workout.
Personally, after a year in the D-League, what part of your game have you been working on the most?
My ball handling. Definitely being able to handle the ball more fluently will make things easier and allow me to do more things on the court. Since most teams have me playing the 3/4, that can make a huge difference. My versatility is probably my biggest strength, so the more things I can do well — dribbling, shooting, rebounding, defense — the better. Other than that, it's just trying to add a little strength and keeping myself fresh.
How much did you benefit from your year with Sioux Falls and the opportunity to play with such a high-level team?
I had played in the summer league with the Miami Heat and then went and did training camp with them, which ended up with them inviting me to preseason. That's how I ended up there (with Sioux Falls), because it's their D-League team. And it ended up being a great experience. It allowed me to get my feet back on the court in some consistent game action and we had a great group of guys. We all came together, we worked hard and we pulled it out this year. And a lot of credit to our coaches … they were great too.
For as good as the season ended up being individually for you, I know you still had to battle through an injury in the middle of the year. How frustrating was that?
I broke my wrist on a weird play; low contact really. I was trying to catch myself as I was going to the ground and it just broke. I was out for like six weeks, but during the injury I just tried to stay positive. I had been through two ACL surgeries, so I know how it is to have to keep on working hard and battle back. I kept thinking if God keeps giving me the opportunity, I'm going to rehab and do what it takes to come back stronger and better.
Do you ever feel snake-bit by the injuries?
Yes and no. It's frustrating, but you can't look at it that way. It's just another journey for me and the path I need to take. I try to use it to make me stronger, more humble.
Did it make it any sweeter then that you were able to come back and still make the All-Rookie team despite missing that time?
Yeah it definitely meant a lot, because you know there are a lot of doubters out there. People who have counted me out at different points along the way. But I think I've shown that I can bounce back from anything and that hard work goes a long way.
I know you are back in Columbia at the moment. How much time do you spend around here and, when you are in the area, where do you get your work in?
This is still home, so I'm back here a lot. When I hurt my wrist last winter, I was back here and went to some Oakland Mills (basketball) games. In terms of basketball, either I work out with Team Takeover guys — Victor Oladipo, Mikael Hopkins, Darion Atkins, Jerami Grant and Jerian Grant — or I go up to Supreme (Sports Club) sometimes to play. Or I also go down to Georgetown to play pick up. I've got a ball in my hands basically like six days a week usually.
You mention coming back and going to Oakland Mills games, what do you think about the team finally winning a state title in 2015 (the first since 1990)?
That was great and definitely congrats to those Oakland Mills guys for winning that state championship. But, that said, we all still know who the real team is. Let's just leave it at that.
Do you still keep in touch with any of the guys from those Oakland Mills teams when you were in high school?
Funny enough, I was just with Joe (Kiely) the other day and I see James Peters and Davon Allen a lot — I see all of them a good bit to be honest when I'm home. Those guys will always be my bros. We play ball, video games … the same old stuff we used to do back in high school. Nothing really has changed.
So what's the next step for you?
I'm a free agent so my options are wide open. I'm actually taking a break for a few weeks … not going to play summer league and going to rest up. My agent (Joel Bell from Bell Management International) is looking into overseas teams and if that doesn't work out then I'll probably play D-League again. The biggest thing, wherever I'm at, is just getting that high-level competition. I just want to play ball and anything is on the table right now.
Definitely playing in the NBA is the ultimate goal, but I also know that I've got to take it one day at a time and see where God takes me. There are lots of different paths to get where I'm trying to go … I feel like I'm already an example of that when you look at the obstacles I've faced. Hard work and faith, I feel like those are the most important things. We all have to go through stuff to make us a better person in this life, so it's all about how you handle what's put in front of you. For me, I feel like I've accepted the challenge and I'm taking it on.