By Sam Perley
When the NBA 2K League hosted its first-ever qualifying combine back in 2017, then 18-year-old Alex “Expose” Whelan knew he was a long-shot for selection.
“Honestly, I don’t remember if I applied Year 1, but I didn’t take the combine seriously at all that first year,” he recalled. “I hadn’t really made a name for myself at that point, so I don’t remember if I really tried out. Realistically, I didn’t have a chance. That offseason, I grinded the game and last year was my first year going super in on the combine and trying to make it.”
Whelan failed to qualify for the league the second time around, but surged to the top of the Pro-Am scene last year, entering the draft as a potential top-3 pick. Hornets Venom grabbed him with the sixth overall selection in the 2020 NBA 2K League Draft, making him the first such pick in franchise history.
Two weeks later, the Stratford, Connecticut native arrived in Charlotte. Shortly after the start of the team’s preseason scrimmage play, Head Coach Lawrence “BiggWest” West shifted Whelan to shooting guard and moved fellow rookie Justin “Snubby” Stemerman to the point guard spot.
“To be honest, it wasn’t a crazy adjustment because I’m still handling the ball a good amount,” said Whelan. “Snubby’s playstyle was just a better fit for the point guard position and I would play off the ball in the shooting guard. I think it meshed well and it was a good adjustment that we made early on.”
There were some growing pains here and there for Whelan throughout the team’s first four best-of-three remote play series. He averaged just under 13 points on 58 percent shooting over the 10-game stretch, knocking down just 6-of-13 three-point attempts (46 percent).
“The [2K League] game is very paint-oriented and you can’t dribble a ton because you’ll get ripped quickly,” said Whelan when asked about his adjustments to the league. “There’s a lot more mashing with the centers. Even if there’s a really bad shot [attempt], sometimes you just have to shoot it if your center has position and just go up for a free rebound. That’s something I wouldn’t do a ton in Pro-Am.”
Over his past four games, Whelan has erupted for just under 24 points per outing, while shooting 67 percent and knocking down all but one of his 11 three-point attempts (91 percent). Each of his two season-high single-game scoring totals (27 and 26 points) came in a 2-0 sweep over Knicks Gaming on May 26.
When you pull up from the 3-point line like this, you KNOW you're feeling it… 😯@ExposeHim__ scored 27 and 26 PTS last night, good for his two-highest scoring games of the @NBA2KLeague season so far 🔥 pic.twitter.com/soKTRIKYHD
— Hornets Venom GT (@HornetsVenomGT) May 27, 2020
“I definitely feel like I’ve been shooting the ball a lot better. I haven’t been turning the ball over a ton, managing well and playing smart. I’ve definitely been getting more comfortable in scrimmages and in the games. We’ve been running more off-ball sets for me and Snubby is always looking for me and everyone else. He’s a really great facilitator. I just have to get open and Snubby will find me where I’m open and I’ll hit my shots.”
Perhaps the most memorable moment of the NBA 2K League season thus far was Whelan’s buzzer-beating three-pointer to beat a still undefeated Raptors Uprising GC squad in Game 2 of the team’s best-of-three series loss on May 14.
— NBA2KLeague (@NBA2KLeague) May 15, 2020
“For him to hit that shot, it was just crazy,” said center Xavier “Type” Vescovi. “Expose hitting that shot has been my favorite moment. It’s funny because we were mad at the time after Raptors Uprising came back and we were like, ‘Man, this has got to go in!’ It just drops and it was a cool moment. I’ve never been a part of a game-winner in my whole 2K League career.”
Aside from the opportunity to play professionally, Whelan has discovered another hugely redeeming quality about living in Charlotte – his apartment’s (relative) proximity to Duck Donuts. Multiple times a week, he and some teammates make the three-and-a-half-mile round-trip walk to the shop: “We pretty much go straight for the maple bacon donuts. Order as many as we can and just clean the place out,” he said with a smile.
Hornets Venom’s next appearance will be on Wednesday, June 10 against Celtics Crossover Gaming before a showdown two nights later with Jazz Gaming, a roster that includes Whelan’s identical twin brother Freddie “GetOnMyLevel” Whelan. While there’s still plenty of games to play, Whelan is steadfastly confident not only in his individual abilities, but the team’s as well.
“We have another game coming up that we need to win. I feel like it’s a solid start, being 4-2. I think that’s like seventh or eighth in the league, and overall, I think we’re around a top-five team. I always knew I belonged. I’ve played against all these guys in the offseason and been competing, winning tournaments. I knew I was capable skill-wise and I’m happy to see that I’m performing well and getting results in the league as well.”