By Josh Barr
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 27, 2011; 11:35 PM
Nearly all of the nation's top high school basketball prospects spend their summers criss-crossing the country, playing in travel-team tournaments often sponsored by shoe companies. Most work out with trainers. Some even have nutritionists or other specialized consultants. They are used to being scouted by college coaches and often are recruited for several years, many making their decisions well before their final year of high school.
Reed-thin, tall and lanky, the teenager usually preferred hanging out with friends in his Columbia neighborhood. He still does not believe tales of peers getting in the gym early in the morning or late at night for extra practice. He did not hit the summer tournament trail until after his junior year and even then it was with a group of fellow players from Howard County, not known as a hotbed for major-college basketball recruits.
Yet now, somewhat suddenly, the 6-foot-9, 195-pound Whittington is perhaps the Washington area's most sought-after recruit.
Maryland wants him. Georgetown several weeks ago joined the pursuit with Coach John Thompson III driving to Columbia for a recent game. Texas last week sent an assistant coach to watch Whittington play and plans to host him for an official visit soon. Clemson and DePaul are the other schools Whittington is considering.
It is quite a turn of events for Whittington, who spent his first two years of high school thinking that he might be a standout wide receiver in football.
"I was surprised because I really don't think of myself being that good," said Whittington, adding that he thinks he might still be growing because his knees occasionally bother him. "I just come out to play every night. I was very excited when I heard that all these colleges were calling. It's a dream come true to go play Division I basketball."
Until last summer, Whittington was a virtual unknown among most college coaches. A member of the Oakland Mills varsity since late in his freshman year, he always played for the Scorpions' team in local summer leagues and never hit the travel-team circuit. The only schools recruiting him were La Salle and Robert Morris.
Finally, though, Bill Napolitano convinced Whittington to play for his Howard County Youth Program Elite squad. The team had success in tournaments throughout the Mid-Atlantic region, but Whittington did not stand out, Napolitano said.
However, after winning the Amateur Athletic Union state title, the team traveled to Orlando for the AAU National Championship and Whittington had a breakout week as the team finished third. Coaches from top programs, many of whom saw Whittington for the first time when they went to scout a player on an HCYP Elite opponent, started calling Oakland Mills Coach Jon Browne to learn more about Whittington.
"He has really good hands and all the instincts and because he really hasn't played that much basketball, they see the potential too," Napolitano said. "He can handle the basketball and he can shoot threes. He's not selfish. He really sees the floor and gets it. It's not like he's just athletic and makes mistakes. . . . The things people hit the ceiling on, he doesn't have those things. He's not a 6-6 or 6-7 guy who posts up in high school but won't do that in college."
Most recruiters and scouts believe Whittington has barely scratched the surface of his abilities. Dave Telep, an analyst for ESPN, said that Whittington could be like many other taller players, who take time to develop and "are the slowest to become comfortable with their own bodies."
Once those taller players start to realize their potential, the thought is, they usually benefit from possessing the skill set of a player a few inches shorter while also being taller.
"If this was a 6-foot-1 guard, he's not getting this type of interest, you know?" said one college coach who has seen Whittington play, speaking on the condition of anonymity because NCAA rules prohibit him from commenting publicly on a potential recruit. "But because of his size, I think that's what brings all these guys out."
Whittington leads Oakland Mills in a myriad of statistical categories, including scoring (24.4 points per game), rebounding (11.3), blocks (4.2), three-pointers (1.3) and shooting percentage (61). He also is second on the team in steals and assists, leading the Scorpions to an undefeated regular season as they prepare for the Maryland 2A South Region playoffs.
Still, despite the success and trail of recruiters flocking to see him play, there is some question whether Whittington is ready to become the first player from Howard County to play major college basketball since Barry Young graduated from Mount Hebron in 1987 and went to UNLV. Whittington, whose parents both played high school basketball, with his father, also Greg, going on to play at Central State University, needs to add some muscle to his wiry frame and is working to meet the NCAA's minimum standards for freshman eligibility.
"If he goes to a team that is any good, I can't see him being a contributor next year," the college coach said. "Let's face it, Howard County basketball, getting 25 a game there is not getting 25 a game in the [Washington Catholic Athletic Conference] or even in [Prince George's] County for that matter.
"He needs to get stronger. He needs to understand what it takes to work hard and defend, all the things that most freshmen have to deal with. But guys like [him] can turn out to be really good because they grow into their bodies and have a knack already for scoring and they're athletic and long and a little bit tougher than their frame gives them. Or, they never get it because they can never handle the physicality."
Whittington, though, is confident he will adjust wherever he winds up.
"It's shouldn't be hard," he said. "I should be able to fit in. I'm not scared to play with anybody."