And one thing that helped the Bradford Dragons standout was playing an entirely different facet of the sport.
Before last summer’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, Whelan was selected for England’s 3x3 training camp, where he competed and trained with eventual gold medallists Orlan Jackman, Myles Hesson, Kayne Henry and Jamell Anderson.
The experience, Whelan says, was enjoyable but different, a venture outside the comfort zone into a form of the game that could become the norm in years to come.
"It was definitely a fun experience, but it’s obviously not the same as five-v-five,” Whelan said.
“It’s a lot more physical, the ball itself is different, it’s smaller and you’ve not got the spaces that you usually would, and it’s harder to beat your defender.
“So through training camp, you were looking at different options, and for me, it certainly made me think on my feet a lot more, and I’ve adapted it to this season too.”
But with Whelan in full flow in NBL1 with the traditional five-on-five format, he looks back fondly with the 3x3 version, a sport that he grew up playing and with the rising popularity of the exciting half-court game, Whelan’s message is simple: “Get involved.”
He added: “For me, I grew up playing three-on-three, and I’m guessing a lot of players in any league in the country did the same on outdoor courts, and that’s the inspiring thing for me, getting the community involved, getting people outside, giving them exercise and making the best of the spaces that we have.
“I understand that the weather isn’t the best here, but it’s just making use of the spaces that we have and for Basketball England allowing us to put up nets as part of #ProjectSwish and creating new courts, revamping them, and it’s great for young kids to access them and enjoy this sport.”
For Whelan, though, enjoying basketball was a focal point of this season, so much so that he makes the 100-mile trip from his home in Warrington across to Bradford twice a week.
But the reward is paying dividends, as after five seasons in the British Basketball League, Whelan – who played for the Manchester Giants last season – is now enjoying life with the Dragons.
“Yeah, I am constantly on the go, and just talking about it is knackering, but I’m good; I’m in a routine,” Whelan said.
“I work in central Manchester, so I travel back and forth every day, and on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I get home, have a bite to eat, and I’m on the road again to Bradford, which is about an hour's drive, sometimes longer if there’s traffic.
“I get to training, and I’m usually home at 11pm. So if training was every day, then it would have got the best of me, but I’m getting used to it now, and it’s okay.
“I have a routine going, and at the end of the day, I’m at Bradford, and I want to enjoy my basketball again, be creative, and be around a great group of guys. Even if it were a hobby, I would still be enjoying it.”
However, playing in NBL1, Whelan admits, is different—the pace, the physicality, the grittiness that is a highly competitive and thoroughly exciting league.
It might have been an adjustment to start, but Whelan is certainly making his mark, averaging 23.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.9 assists in 18 games on 45 percent shooting, making him one of the league’s hottest offensive weapons.
“It’s been an adjustment, but I love it,” he said.
“Rather than have the patience, the spacing of the BBL, I feel like I’ve had to get back down to my roots by slashing to the basket, getting up and down the court, trying to make guys around me better.
“I’m enjoying the process with Bradford, and it’s a lot of fun.”
And with explosive guard Justin Williams, who is also averaging 23 points a game by his side, along with veterans Ricky Fetske and Rihards Sulcs, Whelan and Bradford will go all in for a spot in the NBL1 post-season.
Words: John Hobbs
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