As he blossomed into one of Division III’s premier defensive big men last season, Freddie Gillespie couldn’t shake the nagging suspicion he was capable of more.
Gillespie only played organized basketball for the first time in eighth grade, years after most of his peers. The long-armed 6-foot-9 forward also suffered a pair of ill-timed injuries during high school that short-circuited his development and kept him from showcasing himself in front of college coaches.
“There were a whole bunch of what-ifs,” Gillespie said. “Where would I be if I started playing earlier? Where would I be if I didn’t get hurt in high school? All the time, I would think about that.”
After breaking into Carleton College’s starting lineup in December, averaging 11.7 points and 9.1 rebounds during the second half of the season and leading the Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference in blocked shots, Gillespie met with his parents in March to discuss his options.
Staying at Carleton was the safe choice because it ensured Gillespie a starring role on the basketball team and the chance to earn a degree from a prestigious school ranked seventh among liberal arts colleges by U.S. News & World Report. Leaving meant giving all that up for the opportunity to seek out tougher competition and explore how good a basketball player he could be.
In the end, Gillespie decided he owed it to himself to pursue his basketball ambitions, no matter the risk.
“I wanted to shoot for the stars and see if I could get to a D-I school,” he said. “The worst thing they could do is say no.”
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Making the leap from the lower levels of college basketball to Division I is extremely difficult because not too many players can adjust to the increased size, speed, strength and skill level. The few who have recently made the transition successfully were usually more dominant than Gillespie at their previous school.
Sharpshooting forward Duncan Robinson earned Division III freshman of the year honors at Williams College in 2014 before transferring to Michigan and becoming a rotation player for the Wolverines. Versatile combo guard Derrick White became a Division II All-American at the University of Colorado-Colorado Springs before emerging as an NBA prospect this past season at Colorado. Standout wing Max Strus was a Division II All-American at Lewis College before transferring to DePaul, where he is expected to compete for a starting job next season.
But while Gillespie isn’t as accomplished as those three players were when they transferred, his decision to try to follow in their footsteps is far from delusional.
At 6-foot-9 with decent bounce and a 7-foot-4 wingspan, Gillespie already possesses some of the physical tools necessary to compete at the Division I level. He’s also a hard worker who picks up new concepts quickly, two big reasons he has improved rapidly the past few years.
Primarily a football player until a middle-school growth spurt, Gillespie only began playing organized basketball when his school’s eighth-grade coach persuaded him to give the sport a chance. He missed his entire freshman season at East Ridge High School after suffering an ankle injury during tryouts, played junior varsity as a sophomore and came off the bench for the varsity team as a junior.
An ACL tear late in Gillespie’s junior year prevented him from playing on the AAU circuit in front of college coaches the following summer. After finally emerging as a key contributor for East Ridge as a senior, he received interest from a handful of in-state Division II and III programs, eventually choosing Carleton because of its academic prowess.
“We were hoping that when he got his feet under him after a year or two, he was really going to be a weapon,” Carleton coach Guy Kalland said. “Had he been healthy and not had the ACL tear, I don’t believe this is where he would have matriculated. I think he would have been at a higher level.”
In his debut season at Carleton, Gilliespie was too raw to contribute, a hard-to-swallow reality check that served as instant motivation. He devoted himself to addressing his shortcomings, developing a couple go-to low-post moves, learning how to pass out of a double team and taking a crash course in defensive positioning and timing as a shot blocker.
By the start of his sophomore season, Gillespie had blossomed into a capable scorer and feared shot blocker. He forced his way into Carleton’s starting lineup after five games and swatted away 2.6 shots per game, helping his team rebound from a 1-6 start to league play to reel off 13 consecutive victories.
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“He might have been from a fundamental standpoint as modest of a player as we’ve had come into our program, but he was so receptive to coaching,” Kalland said. “He had his nose to the grindstone and he picked up things really quickly. The last two-thirds of the season, he was just outstanding.”
So outstanding, in fact, that Gillespie began to wonder if he should explore the possibility of playing at a higher level.
“I had a strong desire for higher competition,” he said. “I thought, ‘There’s got to be a way. I’ve got to at least try to play against the best.'”
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To get himself on the radar of Division I coaches, Gillespie enlisted the help of a well-connected friend of his mom. Al Nuness, a former standout player and assistant coach at the University of Minnesota, had tracked Gillespie’s development the previous few years and viewed him as a Division I-caliber prospect.
“Fred is a late bloomer,” Nuness said. “I see a kid who seems like he fell in love with the game late. He had some success at Carleton and now I think he really wants to see how good he is.”
Targeting Division I schools with good academic reputations, Nuness reached out to a handful of coaches he knew on behalf of Gillespie. Among the first to show interest was Baylor, where Nuness’ eldest son Jared serves as the basketball program’s director of player development.
Baylor coach Scott Drew invited Gillespie to visit campus in late April. During their meeting, Drew told Gillespie there were no scholarships available but offered him a spot on the team as a preferred walk-on.
“It was very exciting,” Gillespie said. “A few months ago, I was watching Baylor play in the NCAA tournament and now I’m sitting down with Scott Drew. That was kind of surreal.”
Baylor cannot publicly comment on Gillespie until he formally enrolls later this summer, but the Bears staff views Gillespie as a project with an opportunity to help down the road. He’ll redshirt next season, which will serve as a chance to add muscle, diversify his skill set and acclimate himself to facing high-major Division I competition.
The big question of course is whether Gillespie can contribute once he becomes eligible in 2018. Will he fulfill his ambitions of proving himself at the Division I level and perhaps even earning a scholarship? Or did he leave Carleton just to ride the bench at Baylor and serve as a big body on the scout team in practice?
Gillespie is not naive to the challenge but he said, “If I didn’t believe I could do it, there would be no point in going.” His former coach at Carleton has confidence in him too.
“I don’t want to sound like a weirdo D-III coach with his head in the clouds, but knowing what I know about Freddie, I wouldn’t be stunned if he got himself into position to contribute,” Kalland said. “I don’t think his goal is just to be on the team and have the highest GPA. His goal is to play some significant minutes.”
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