FRANKENMUTH — Mario Whitley has been busy this summer.
Not only is the Frankenmuth student keeping up with all of his school-related basketball activities, but the junior-to-be is also playing in one of the nation’s most prominent AAU circuits.
“He’s a had a busy summer of hooping,” said Frankenmuth basketball coach Andy Donovan. “We played at Michigan State team camp, we play in a Flint city league, we played at the Oakland (University) team camp, we play at the Cage (in Swartz Creek) a little bit, we played at Northwood and we have some other scrimmages. He was in all that stuff along with AAU.”
Whitley has done some serious traveling with his Eagles’ teammates, but it’s nothing compared to where his AAU team — The Family — has taken him this summer.
“That team plays in the Nike EYBL (Elite Youth Basketball League), the circuits are affiliated with brands, so Adidas has their version and Under Armour has theirs,” Donovan said. “You travel around and play in these tournaments and a good chunk of them are played during the NCAA live period (when colleges coaches are permitted to talk to recruits).”
The Family is based in Detroit, Whitley plays for the U16 team. One of the most distinguished teams in the U.S., several alumni of The Family played in the NBA, including: Draymond Green, Zach Randolph and Morris Peterson. With The Family, the 6-foot-4 shooting guard has played in tournaments in New York City, Orlando, Indiana and South Carolina this summer.
“Mario’s been averaging in double figures and playing really well on the circuit,” Donovan said. “He’s receiving a lot of attention from a lot of schools, lots of letters and things.”
And he’s collected his first scholarship offer.
“Oakland did offer him on the last day of our team camp,” Donovan said. “He had great camp and (Oakland) coach Greg Campe offered him a scholarship at the conclusion of camp. So that was really exciting, the first one is always the cool one, the one you remember.”
Whitley was thrilled to get the offer, but says he still has a a lot of work to do before making a decision on college.
“It felt good, but like, I’m not satisfied,” Whitley said. “That day I went back to the lab, back to the gym. I want more and more and more.”
Although Oakland is the only Division 1 scholarship offer he’s received thus far, coaches are taking notice, and more are likely to come.
“I’ve gotten tons of interest, tons,” Whitley said. “Cleveland State invited me to an elite camp on August 6 — Akron, Toledo, Butler, CMU, Iowa, Iowa St, Michigan, Michigan State (have shown interest). Central Florida has sent me a couple of letters.”
Although basketball is his sport, Whitley won’t be spending much time on the court this fall. The junior plans on playing football for the first time in years.
“I played when I was little,” Whitley said. “I should be pretty good at football with my strength and cardio, plus a lot of college coaches like athletes that play multiple sports.”
Whitley said he plans to play wide receiver, where he should be a natural fit with his size (he weighs about 190 pounds) and hand-eye coordination.
Whitley played on the Frankenmuth varsity basketball team is a freshman, than took a big step forward as a sophomore, earning first-team Class B all-state, and putting his name out there with the best basketball recruits in the state.
And Donovan says he’s upped his game another notch this summer.
“I think the thing you saw the most improvement on is the ball-handling,” Donovan said. “He’s really come a long way with being able to handle the ball, creating his own shot and get in the open floor versus more of a guy that plays off the ball and gets most of his shots coming off screens. So I think he’s getting more comfortable with the ball in his hands.”
Whitley is a high-energy player who can score inside and from beyond the arc.
“He’s been always been a pretty consistent jumpshooter, the thing that always helps him is his ability to run the floor and rebound the ball,” Donovan said. “Even in AAU, against that elite competition, you consistently hear the biggest thing is that he plays with a motor — he gets put-backs, runs the floor, gets easy buckets, stuff that other guys don’t do as well.”
Whitley averaged team highs of 15.3 points and eight rebounds per game last year. And with the Eagles graduating their next three highest scorers — Grant Reene, Brady Wood and Zac Janson — Whitley will be counted on to bear even more of the scoring and rebounding load next basketball season. Early indications are that he will also be in charge of guarding the opposing team’s best player.
“I think the second biggest difference in his game that we saw this summer is a tremendous improvement defensively,” Donovan said. “He’s been a guy that you can put on another team’s best player. At Oakland, we matched up with New Haven and Romeo Weems (the No. 13 2019 recruit nationally according to ESPN rankings). I had Mario on Romeo and Romeo didn’t score in the second half, he’s really grown defensively.
“That was something he was not capable of the last two years.”
In a time when an athlete is more likely to be noticed by a coach playing AAU sports than during the high school season, Whitley is honing his skills against the best teams, and some of the best players, in the country.
“I’ve been working on my defense, most definitely,” he said. “I need to learn how to guard top players, and I’ve also been working on my dribbling because I’ll have to be able to blow past people.”
Last year Frankenmuth spent most of the year in the Class B top 10, won the Tri-Valley Conference East championship and went 20-3. The Eagles’ season was cut short by Flint Northwestern in the district tournament.
Whitley figures the Eagles will be stronger this winter.
“It’s going to be hard to beat Frankenmuth, because we’ve got one of the best players in the state,” he said. “I’m hungry for whoever I play.”