A day before the Miami Heat left town for the Orlando Summer League tournament, head coach Erik Spoelstra spoke after practice about how the upcoming games would be a great way to get the assembled players accustomed to the team's culture and fast track their development, as well as having his new draft picks and second-year players face some tougher competition to get them ready for the season. He also mentioned how it was also an opportunity to "uncover somebody".
Spoelstra then spoke of Tyler Johnson and how he was a revelation last year, even though he was originally meant to be "filler" on the roster.
"Stories like that, we're always open to finding someone like that," Spoelstra said at the time. "It obviously has to be the right circumstance."
It just might be Greg Whittington's chance this time around after two years out of the game due to a torn ACL injury while playing in Georgetown that cut his collegiate career short. He was dismissed from the team during the 2012-13 season due to his injury and for academic reasons. A planned transfer to Rutgers afterwards never materialized. Unsurprisingly, Whittington went undrafted in the 2015 NBA draft and became a free agent.
Determined to make his lifelong goal of reaching the NBA a reality, Whittington has been fighting for every rebound that has come his way, contesting shots in the paint and even showing some range with his shot in Summer League.
"He's been great for us," said Summer League coach Dan Craig. "He's an athletic player. He can mix in rolling and flaring. He's been great at getting us into second situations and then defensively, you can do a lot with him. You can switch him on the perimeters, he can rebound, protect the rim for you, and he can bust out and create breaks so he adds a nice dimension."
Just as impressively, he's doing all of this playing almost daily for the Heat while trying to get re-adjusted not only to playing competitive basketball again but in a brand new environment against drafted players and fellow NBA hopefuls.
"It was two years coming back from the ACL," said Whittington after the Heat's game against the Atlanta Hawks on Wednesday, where he delivered yet another impressive all-around performance. "I got to go up there to Westchester with the Knicks (D-League affiliate team) for their past season so I was up there for like a good month or two, working out with them and practicing. So I was getting into kind of a flow of the game speed for the NBA level but I was just working out other than that."
The Orlando tournament was Whittington's first baby steps back and he participated in four games, averaging 4.25 points and 3.75 rebounds in 17.3 minutes while shooting 30 percent from the field (7-23) and 17 percent from the 3-point line (1-6). Turns out, the 22-year-old was just getting started.
"First in Orlando, it was my first game back in two years so the game speed had me moving a little faster and thinking a little faster," he said. "But as I settled in and relaxed, it got easier so I just keep working hard and got here (in Las Vegas) and still working hard so it's helped me get my game speed back up."
After Summer League revelation Willie Reed signed on with the Brooklyn Nets during the Orlando tournament, there was a golden opportunity for Whittington — along with Greg Olaseni — to make their mark in Las Vegas.
Through the first four games here, all starts, Whittington leads all Heat players in minutes played (30 per game, an increase of 12.6 from Orlando) and rebounds (7.8 per game). He's second on the team in scoring behind Shabazz Napier with 13.3 points per game and has increased his shooting percentages to 51.4 percent overall (18-35), an impressive 50 percent in 3-pointers (6-12) and a perfect 11-11 from the free throw line.
"That just comes with confidence," he said. "Every game I just got more confident and coaches got more confident in me and that made me want to play harder. Every day I just got better.
"Just getting my wind back a lot more and having my legs under me, working on my in-game jump shot and getting my rhythm back. It's been two years so coming back and shooting in a game is just different than just working out. So that's what I got to work on that and everything else will follow."
His fondness for the Heat franchise has also helped him with his game as he gets more and more acclimated to the pro game.
"The whole organization and Pat Riley, they're good guys and they're a defensive-minded team first," he said. "Coming from Georgetown that is also defensive-minded, so I already have that instinct to just got out there and play D before I score. They made me want to work hard for them so it's the same as being at Georgetown."
Though precious few roster spots may or may not be up for grabs in Miami — largely dependent on future trades and whether or not the front office wants to keep those without fully guaranteed contracts — Whittington fits the mold of players they have said they're looking for. Not only does his length and wingspan allow him to be a strong defensive player, he has shown solid ball handling and passing skills while getting more and more comfortable with his shot.
"I can definitely provide (a lot) with my versatility," he said. "I can defend 1 through 4, possibly 5 as long as he's not too big, but I'll still guard him anyway. I can bring the ball up, shoot, pass, defend, rebound from anywhere. So yeah, my versatility definitely shows up a lot."
With each game, Whittington is making more and more of a compelling case he deserves to at least be invited for training camp, provided another team doesn't snatch him up as they did with Reed. According to Real GM, the 6-foot-8 forward is reportedly already receiving partially guaranteed offers. For now, he only concentrates on the present and how fortunate he is to have bounced back so quickly this summer from his devastating injury.
"It's been good, still being able to do the things I used to do," he said. "It's like really, really a lot of confidence because you go out there and you're like, ‘Dang, it's been two years, torn ACL, I don't know how it's going to respond.'
"Then you get out there and you're doing the same things you used to do. (I) worked hard to get back so I'm blessed and you've got to thank the man upstairs and keep working."