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Illinois-Chicago recruit Lance Whitaker has been the driving force behind Bartlett's 14-4 start to the season. | John Konstantaras~For Sun-Times Media
Bartlett senior Lance Whitaker is proving every time he steps on the court this season that one gigantic bump in the road wasn’t enough to knock him off course.
Big things appeared to be in store for Whitaker the summer before his junior year, but then disaster struck when he tore an ACL in late July 2011 near the end of his AAU season. The injury forced Whitaker to miss his entire junior campaign as he recovered from knee surgery, but now he’s back and fulfilling all the promise he showed as a freshman and sophomore with the Hawks.
The road to recovery ended last spring when Whitaker was given the all-clear by doctors to begin playing with his AAU team at full speed. In September his perseverance was rewarded when he accepted a scholarship offer from Illinois-Chicago, and now he is making up for lost time by leading Bartlett to the top of the Upstate Eight Valley standings.
“Not playing last year really did make me appreciate the game as well as make me take a step back and observe it from a different perspective,” Whitaker said. “This season has been a lot of fun for me and I’m just going to enjoy every minute of it.”
Whitaker’s teammates are also enjoying it because the 6-foot-5 standout is averaging 18.3 points, 7.1 rebounds and 2.3 assists for the Hawks, who own a 14-4 record.
Last week Whitaker became the fifth player in Bartlett’s program history to reach the 1,000-point milestone, and to hear Hawks coach Jim Wolfsmith explain it, Whitaker’s triumphant return should come as no surprise.
“Lance is exactly what you want to see in an athlete,” Wolfsmith said. “He’s blessed with God-given ability, and you don’t see that with every kid that comes into your building, but he’s one who gets it that hard work makes his God-given ability better.
“That hard work extends to the classroom where he’s in multiple honors and AP-level classes and still maintains a very healthy GPA. It extended to his rehab when he was coming back from the injury. It wasn’t just about getting healthy for Lance, but also about coming back as a better basketball player, a better shooter and a better ball handler.”
Playing the waiting game
The timing of Whitaker’s knee injury was particularly cruel considering he was coming off a sophomore season during which he averaged a team-best 16.5 points. Bartlett had several talented upperclassmen back in the fold last year, and Whitaker had it planned out in his mind he’d be back to help the team by the end of the season.
Those plans, however, didn’t come to fruition.
“With the ACL it really is a time thing as much as anything,” Whitaker said. “You can’t rush back. You can work as hard as you want, but at the end of the day it’s still going to take time.”
The injury didn’t keep Whitaker from being a mainstay at Bartlett’s games and practices. While his teammates were at one end of the court preparing for opponents, Whitaker was often at the other end trying to sharpen his skills.
“I think the positive is that Lance got a tremendous amount of time to work on things that had been identified as weaknesses,” Wolfsmith said. “Those were things he could work on even with the bad leg. The shooting, the free-throw shooting and the ball handling didn’t require him to even be able to stand effectively.”
The work is paying off as Whitaker is showing better range on his perimeter jumper this year. He is making 47.3 percent of his field-goal attempts and has been held to fewer than 14 points only twice.
“His statistics this year are all-state quality,” Wolfsmith said. “He’s playing a full-package game and he’s getting everybody’s best defensive effort every single night. That’s not always easy when you know the other team is doing everything they can to stop you from scoring your points.”
Whitaker said he was able to grow as a player simply by observing games last year, but he will always wonder what might have been.
The Hawks managed to post a 14-15 record last season without their star player, who said the helpless feeling of being on the bench in street clothes was the hardest part of the ordeal.
“Just watching my team when they struggled and not necessarily being able to help them as much as I’d like was tough,” Whitaker said. “I could say things, but at the end of the day I couldn’t really help them all that much.”
Family helps keep focus on future
Whitaker credits support from his parents Larry and Lena Whitaker for helping him through the injury rehab, just like they’ve helped him every step of the way during his basketball career.
“My parents have been there to support me through literally everything,” Whitaker said. “They go to every summer league game. Even the things that don’t seem to mean as much, my parents are there in the front row supporting me.”
Whitaker also counts older brother Larry Whitaker Jr. as a big influence. Whitaker Jr. now plays college ball at Washington & Lee in Lexington, Va., but three years ago the brothers were teammates at Bartlett when Lance was a freshman.
The Hawks won the only sectional title in program history in 2010 with the Whitaker brothers serving as two key catalysts. Bartlett went on to lose to Waukegan in the supersectional that year, but the memory of playing on such a big stage remains a driving force for Lance Whitaker.
“That experience was unbelievable and I think about it all the time,” Whitaker said. “It was something that I’ll never forget, especially playing with my brother and everything.
“That’s the goal for now. I want my teammates to be able to experience the same thing. That’s what we’re working toward and that’s what we’re going to shoot for.”