DEVELOPING TALENT: Former Grier, Ashbrook star seeks to expand game for “hometown” Hornets

By Richard Walker

For much of Isaiah Whaley’s basketball life, he’s been the tallest and most effective defensive player on the court.

Isaiah Whaley at the Charlotte Hornets’ Sept. 26 media day

After a five-year college career at Connecticut, the 6-foot-9, 225-pound Whaley is being asked to make changes in his game in hopes he can one day make an impact for the Charlotte Hornets.

“This is the place I wanted to be and a place that talked to me about developing my game,” said Whaley, who is in Hornets training camp but projected to play for team’s G-League Greensboro Swarm. “I think that’s what I’ve really shown them, that I’m constantly getting better and staying in the gym.”

Though Whaley has gained attention his whole career for shot-blocking, it’ll be shot-making that’ll determine his professional future – as in developing a long-range shot.

Whaley can’t recall ever taking a 3-point shot at Gastonia’s Grier Middle School and Ashbrook High School and he didn’t take a 3-pointer until the fourth year of his UConn career.

Whaley made 24 of 78 3-pointers in his last two seasons – and he’s being pushed to show more and make more by the Hornets, who first signed him to their Las Vegas Summer League roster before retaining him for training camp that began on Tuesday.

“They think I bring a lot to the defensive end and want me to develop on the offensive end and stretch the floor by shooting outside shots,” Whaley said. “When you look around the NBA, almost every position shoots the 3. So it’s just me trying to change with the times and how the game is played today.
“I’ve put in a lot of work. It’s never been about the mechanics. It was just the mentality of taking the shot and having the confidence to shoot it. I just have to build that confidence that I can hit that shot. So it’s an adjustment but it’s something I need to add to my game.”

So far in the gymnasium, Whaley regular works with his future G-League head coach Jordan Surenkamp.

With Charlotte, Whaley is part of a crowded frontcourt but for a franchise that fired previous head coach James Borrego and brought back Steve Clifford as head coach for his attention to defensive detail.

It’s the kind of head coach Whaley thinks will benefit him and his game.

“I didn’t know a ton about him until I did my research,” Whaley said. “But talking to him, he’s definitely an old school, defensive-minded, hard-working coach. And that’s the kind of coach that I gravitate towards.
“He reminds me a lot of coaches I’ve had over the years.”

Whaley first emerged as a basketball standout as a 6-foot-4 eighth grader at Grier. There, he recorded three triple-doubles of points, rebounds and blocked shots as an eighth-grader in 2012 as he helped the Knights to a Gaston County Conference regular season title and runner-up finish in the playoffs.

At Ashbrook, Whaley grew to 6-9, 190 pounds and helped the Green Wave to a 41-15 record in two seasons that were highlighted by the 2015 Big South Conference title and a 2015 N.C. 3A runner-up finish. He averaged 13.7 points, 9.1 rebounds and 4.5 blocks as a sophomore in 2014 and 18.0 points, 8.9 rebounds and 4.6 blocks as a junior in 2015.

Whaley would eventually transfer and play for Charlotte’s Evelyn Mack Academy in 2016 and Mount Zion Prep in Baltimore in 2017 before embarking on a five-year career at UConn.

In his five seasons – the NCAA granted an extra year due to the COVID-19 pandemic – Whaley averaged of 6.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 1.5 blocked shots in 138 games (72 starts).

Whaley was invited to individual workouts with the Los Angeles Lakers, Memphis Grizzlies, Washington Wizards and the Hornets twice.

“I think the perfect year for me would be maximizing the opportunity I’ve got,” Whaley said. “Really, I’m going to take whatever chance I’m given. I want to finish this year knowing I’ve gotten a lot better and preparing myself to contribute to the NBA team.”

The Hornets begin a five-game preseason schedule on Sunday at 1 p.m. at Boston that includes three home games – Oct. 5 against Indiana, Oct. 7 in Greensboro against Boston and Oct. 10 against Washington.