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‘I had no idea I’d end up being here’: Freddie Gillespie’s path from Division III to Baylor starter

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KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Freddie Gillespie sat gazing at the TV in the winter of 2017, seeing not just the team that would go on to win the national championship, but his future. 

Despite only having played a handful of years of organized basketball, suffering two broken ankles, a busted foot and a torn ACL and currently operating as a role player at a small Division III program in rural Minnesota, Gillespie looked at those All-Americans, highly-touted recruits and future first-round NBA draft picks and was undaunted by a sudden dream.

“I had an epiphany,” he told NBCSports.com. “I was watching a UNC game, and I saw the size and length that they had and athleticism, and I thought, ‘I’m comparable to that. With a little bit of coaching, I can do pretty well.’”

It would be a laughable thought for almost every player grinding away at the non-scholarship Division III level. Gillespie had hardly registered as a blip on recruiters’ radars while in high school. He was his college team’s fourth-leading scorer and second-leading rebounder. 

The basketball world, though, is sometimes surprisingly small, and Gillespie’s connections – and the fact that he was 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-6 wingspan – helped get the word out he was looking to move up.

Eventually, that landed upon ears in Waco, Texas, where Baylor was willing to take on a player with Division III pedigree and an injury history as a walk-on and project.

“Usually the way it works is if they’re a 6-9 or 6-10 walk-on and they can walk and chew gum, you’re like, ‘Yeah,’” Baylor coach Scott Drew said. “We’ve had players like Taurean Prince who was going to Long Island University, ranked 25th in the state, and ended up being drafted 12th in the world. You had Royce O’Neal who was a zero-star recruit and has a chance to be starting for the Jazz this year. We had a walk-on, Mark Shepherd, who started for us and helped lead us to the NCAA tournament. 

“We’ve had guys be successful, but no one came in as raw as he did.”

Two years later, Gillespie enters his senior year with the Bears not only as a scholarship player, but as a starter and key piece to Baylor’s 2020 Big 12 title hopes.

“He put in the hard work to get to where he’s gotten,” Drew said. “It’s a great story for anyone out there that maybe was overlooked early on.”

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Gillespie didn’t start playing basketball until he was an eighth grader. He didn’t even play during his freshman year at East Ridge High School in the Minneapolis/St. Paul suburbs. 

“At that point, the 10th grade coaches said, ‘Hey, it would be cool if you could play for us,’” Gillespie recalled. “I was pretty tall at that point. So I said OK. At that point, I’m just doing this to have something to do.”

Gillespie’s height may have drawn those coaches to him and him to the game, but that height also contributed to keeping him off the court.

“I was growing really fast,” he said, “so your bones aren’t really strong enough because I was growing two, three inches a year.”

Gillespie said he broke both his ankles, suffered a Jones fracture in his foot and tore his ACL during his prep career.

“He played high school ball completely immobile, and that’s if he played at all,” Ryan James, a Minnesota-based recruiting analyst for the Prep Hoops Network, said. “He was also a strong, well-skilled post with good footwork, but all the injuries took away all his mobility.”

Gillespie saw the floor enough, though, for some college recruiters to pay attention – just not at the Division I level. Ultimately, he landed 40 miles south of the Twin Cities in Northfield, Minn., at Carleton College, known more for its rigorous academic standards than its basketball tradition.

“A lot of D3 schools recruited me. I was big into academics so they tried to sell me on the academics of the school,” Gillespie said. “That’s what sold me.”

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Gillespie apparently wasn’t able to sell himself initially to the coaching staff at Carleton. As a freshman, he played just 16 minutes.

“I was the most athletic, biggest guy in that whole conference,” Gillespie said. “So that was tough.”

His sophomore year brought considerably more success.

Gillespie started 23 games for the Knights, averaging 10 points, 8.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game while shooting 53.2 percent from the floor. He was a second-team all-conference selection.

“My second year, it was tough too because I didn’t explore and grow,” Gillespie said. “I knew I had a lot of potential, but didn’t grow it like I wanted to. So it was tough. I tried to make the best of what I had there.”

That was the feeling that led Gillespie, after watching the likes of Justin Jackson, Joel Berry and Tony Bradley on TV for North Carolina, to aim higher.

“I was with my friend, we were just sitting there,” Gillespie said, “and I was like, ‘I’ve got what they have. I can do what they do. With a little bit of training and help, I can do what they do.’”

Once the connection to Baylor was made, Gillespie sat down with Drew, who was in Minnesota recruiting future-Duke star Tre Jones.

“He just asked my story, basically,” Gillespie said. “How was it at high school, at D3. He asked questions about my character, my academics. 

“He just asked about everything.”

Baylor wanted to due some due diligence on Gillespie before taking him in, even as a walk-on

“One of our coaches on our staff is from Minnesota, and we knew that (Gillespie) was looking at walking on,” Drew said, “because we knew his goal was to earn a scholarship, we wanted to make sure he had potential.”

Eventually, both sides decided to take the leap. Gillespie would head to Waco without a scholarship, but with a chance to prove he was right about that hunch he had while he sat parked in front of a television.

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“When he first got in the gym,” Drew said of Gillespie’s arrival on campus, “he struggled to score by himself in the gym.”

Despite having the physical profile of a Big 12 player, Gillespie was miles behind from a skill standpoint, and it was apparent.

“Freddie, he didn’t seem like he was going to be any option for us,” Baylor senior Obim Okeke said. “Luckily for Freddie, Freddie was 6-9.”

Not only was it clear to his coaches and teammates that Gillespie wasn’t ready to contribute, he knew it himself.

“I didn’t feel like I belonged for a long time,” he said. “The athleticism was different. The physicality, the size of the players, the competitive level. The mentality, the way they play. 

“Everyone there was convinced that they’re the best, they’re unbeatable. It’s that competitive mindset. They’ve played against dudes in the NBA. One and dones. Played with them in high school. 

“I felt out of place.”

The only remedy was to stay in one place – the gym.

“It took him awhile,” Drew said. “He didn’t come in as a finished product. He came in as somebody that needed to get better and had potential. People are going to go to practice. People are going to do what’s required of them. It’s those people that do two or three times more that get better and reach their potential.

“That’s what he did.”

Gillespie sat out the 2017-18 season as a redshirt, but continued to work on his game. By the start of last season, Baylor began to believe that Gillespie, now on scholarship, might be able to contribute.

“In the second year, just seeing how far he progressed and seeing what he was able to do on the defensive end and rebounding, and to see how far his touch had come, you’re like, he’s got a chance,” Drew said. “And he plays so hard. You definitely have to see something in practice before you put people in a game, so as a coach, though, you’re never 100 percent convinced until you see him do it in a game.”

Initially, it didn’t translate into the game.

Gillespie played 18 minutes in Baylor’s opener against Texas Southern and then 22 the next game against Southern, but then saw his minutes diminish for the next three games before he didn’t even play in eight of the Bears’ next nine games. The only reprieve was 4 minutes in a 40-point blowout against New Orleans in late December.

“He didn’t have the confidence in himself,” Okeke said. “He felt like he was a D3 player.”

Gillespie, though, got a second chance in Big 12 play. He saw 13 minutes against Kansas in the conference opener. A week later, he played 20 minutes against Texas Tech. He had eight points and seven rebounds against Oklahoma to end January. He followed that with 11 points, seven rebounds and three blocks against TCU.

“He finally got his opportunity to show what he’d been working on every day,” Okeke said. “He probably has the best work ethic on our team. It ended up being shown to light when he started getting his time, the minutes he deserved.”

By Feb. 9, Gillespie was in the Bears’ starting lineup.

“He’s somebody that showed he’d made strides, was successful in practice,” Drew said, “and in the game, to his credit, he didn’t flinch. He got better and better with the minutes he got. That’s why  he got more minutes.”

Gillespie finished Big 12 play with the conference’s best in offensive rebounding percentage and third in 2-point shooting percentage at 64.7. In the Bears’ opener this season, he had 14 points on 6-of-7 shooting with seven rebounds, two assists and a block in 26 minutes.

He’s not only a contributor for the team picked by the league’s coaches to be Kansas’ top threat in the Big 12 this year, but a key component. 

“He lived in the gym, and ended up coming from a Division III player to someone starting in the Big 12,” Drew said. “Sometimes things turn out better than you expected, and I’ll be honest, I don’t think anybody would have seen – maybe besides him – him progressing as quickly as he did.”

Through major injuries and serious detours, Gillespie proved himself. A game he didn’t start seriously playing until high school, followed to Division III and then became convinced he could play at the highest levels. 

It became his dream. One he’s now living.

“I fell in love with it,” he said, “and I thought I started too late so I wouldn’t have a chance. 

“I had no idea I would end up being here.”

(Photo by Boyd Ivey/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

John Petty Jr. returns to Alabama for senior season

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TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Alabama guard John Petty Jr. is staying in school instead of entering the NBA draft.

The Crimson Tide junior announced his decision to return for his senior season Monday on Twitter, proclaiming: “I’m back.”

Petty, the Tide’s top 3-point shooter, averaged 14.5 points and a team-high 6.6 rebounds rebounds last season. He was second on the team in assists.

Petty made 85 3-pointers in 29 games, shooting at a 44% clip.

Alabama coach Nate Oats called him “one of the best, if not the best, shooters in the country.”

“He’s made it clear that it’s his goal to become a first round pick in the 2021 NBA Draft and we’re going to work with him to make sure he’s in the best position to reach that goal,” Oats said.

Fellow Tide guard Kira Lewis Jr. is regarded as a likely first-round draft pick.

McKinley Wright IV returns to Colorado

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McKinley Wright IV will be back for season No. 4 with the Colorado Buffaloes.

The point guard tested the NBA draft process before announcing a return for his senior year. It’s a big boost for a Buffaloes team that’s coming off a 21-11 mark in 2019-20 and was potentially looking at an NCAA Tournament bid before the season was halted due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Wright was an All-Pac-12 first team selection a season ago, along with an all-defensive team pick. He and athletic forward Tyler Bey declared for the draft in late March. Bey remains in the draft.

“We’ve got unfinished business,” said Wright, who averaged 14.4 points and 5.0 assists per game last season.

Midway through the season, the Buffaloes were looking like a lock for their first NCAA Tournament appearance since ’15-16. Then, the team hit a five-game skid, including a loss to Washington State in the Pac-12 tournament. Simply put, they hit a defensive rut they just couldn’t shake out of, Wright said. It drove him to work that much harder in the offseason.

“This is my last go-around and I’ve got big dreams,” the 6-footer from Minnesota said. “I want to take CU to a place they haven’t been in a while. We want to go back to the tournament and win high-level games.”

The feedback from NBA scouts was reaffirming for Wright. He said they appreciated his transition game, movement away from the ball and his defensive intangibles. They also gave Wright areas he needed to shore up such as assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting the 3-pointer with more consistency.

He took it to heart while training in Arizona during the pandemic. He recently returned to Boulder, Colorado, where he’s going through quarantine before joining his teammates for workouts.

“The work I put in and the time I spent in the gym compared to all my other offseasons, it’s a big gap,” Wright said. “Last offseason, I thought I worked hard. But it was nothing compared to the time and different type of mindset I put myself in this year.”

Another motivating factor for his return was this: a chance to be the first in his family to earn his college degree. He’s majoring in ethnic studies with a minor in communications.

“My grandparents are excited about that. My parents are excited about that,” Wright said. “I’m excited about that as well.”

Wright also has an opportunity to take over the top spot on the school’s all-time assists list. His 501 career assists trail only Jay Humphries, who had 562 from 1980-84. Wright also ranks 13th all-time with 1,370 career points.

NOTES: Colorado announced the death of 95-year-old fan Betty Hoover, who along with her twin sister, Peggy Coppom, became fixtures at Buffs sporting events and were season ticket holders since 1958. Wright used to run into them not only on the court, but at the local bank. “I’ve never met anyone as loving and supporting and caring as those two,” Wright said. “They hold a special place in my heart. It sucks that Betty won’t be at any games this year. Maybe we can do something, put her name on our jersey. They’re two of the biggest fans in CU history.”

Jared Butler returns to Baylor

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Baylor got some huge news on Monday as potential All-American Jared Butler announced that he will be returning to school for his junior season, joining MaCio Teague is pulling his name out of the 2020 NBA Draft to get the band back together.

Butler was Baylor’s leading scorer a season ago, averaging 16.0 points and 3.1 assists for a team that went 26-4, spent a portion of the season as the No. 1 team in the country and was in line to receive a 1-seed had the 2020 NCAA Tournament taken place.

With Butler and Teague coming back to school, the Bears will return four starters from last season’s squad. Starting center Freddie Gillespie is gone, as is backup guard Devonte Bandoo, but those are holes that can be filled. Tristan Clark, who was Baylor’s best player during the 2018-19 season before suffering a knee injury that lingered through last year, will be back, and there is more than enough talent in the program to replace the scoring pop of Bandoo. Matthew Mayer will be in line for more minutes, while transfer Adam Flagler will be eligible this season.

Baylor will enter this season as a consensus top three team in the country. They will receive plenty of votes as the No. 1 team in the sport, making them not only a very real contender for the Big 12 regular season crown but one of the favorites to win the national title.

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As MaCio Teague returns, Baylor now awaits Jared Butler’s NBA draft decision

Butler is the key.

Baylor was one of college basketball’s best defensive teams last year. They finished fourth nationally in KenPom’s defensive efficiency metric, a ranking that dropped after they Bears lost two of their last three games to TCU and West Virginia. Where they struggled was on the offensive end of the floor. The Bears would go through droughts were points were at a premium and their best offense was a missed shot. Butler’s intrigue for NBA teams was his ability to shoot and to create space in isolation. He’s the one guy on the roster that can create something out of nothing for himself.

And now he is back to try and lead Baylor to a Final Four.

Arizona State’s Martin to return for senior season

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TEMPE, Ariz. (–Arizona State guard Remy Martin is withdrawing from the NBA draft and will return for his senior season in the desert.

“I’m blessed to have the opportunity to coach Remy Martin for one more season,” Sun Devils coach Bobby Hurley said in a statement Sunday. “Remy will be one of the best players in college basketball this year and will be on a mission to lead Arizona State basketball in its pursuit of championships.”

A 6-foot guard, Martin is the Pac-12’s leading returning scorer after averaging 19.1 points in 2019-20. He also averaged 4.1 assists per game and helped put the Sun Devils in position to reach the NCAA Tournament for the third straight year before the season was cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Martin’s return should put Arizona State among the favorites to win the Pac-12 next season.

Martin joins fellow guard Alonzo Verge Jr. in returning to the Sun Devils after testing the NBA waters. Big man Romello White declared for the draft and later entered the transfer portal.

Hurley has signed one of the program’s best recruiting classes for next season, headed by five-star guard Josh Christopher.

Michigan State forward Xavier Tillman will remain in the 2020 NBA Draft

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In the end, Xavier Tillman Sr.’s decision whether or not to return to remain in the 2020 NBA Draft for his senior season came down to security.

A 6-foot-8 forward that averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 boards, 3.0 assists and 2.1 blocks this past season, Tillman was an NBC Sports third-team All-American a season ago. He’s projected as the No. 23 pick in the latest NBC Sports mock draft. He was the best NBA prospect that had yet to make a decision on his future until Sunday.

That’s when Tillman announced that he will be foregoing his final season of college eligibility to head to the NBA.

In the end, it’s probably the right decision, but it’s not one that the big fella made easily.

Tillman is unlike most college basketball players forced to make a decision on their basketball future. He is married. He has two kids, a three-year old daughter and a six-month old son. This is not a situation where he can bet on himself, head to the pro ranks and figure it out later on.

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He needs something stable, particularly given the fact that we are living in the midst of a pandemic that has put the future of sports in doubt, at least for the short term.

He needs security.

He needed to know that there would be a job for him in the NBA. Not a two-way contract. Not a spot on a camp roster or a chance to develop in the G League. Hell, there might not even be a G League next season. That was an option at Michigan State. He was living in an apartment with his family that was covered by his scholarship and stipend. He had meals paid for. He was able to take food from the training room home and have dinner with his family. He was able to get to class, to the gym, to practice and back home in time to do the dishes at night. He told NBC Sports in March that the school was able to provide him with $1,200-a-month to help pay for things like diapers high chairs. That was all going to be there if he returned to school. It was a great situation, one that lacked the uncertainty that comes with the professional level.

Because as much as I love Tillman as a role player at the next level, NBA teams do not all feel the same. The tricky thing about the draft is that it makes sense to swing for the fences on the guys that can be locked into salaries for the first four years of a contract. The Toronto Raptors took Pascal Siakam with the 27th pick and have paid less than $7 million in total salary in his first four years for a player that made an all-star team. Kyle Kuzma is averaging 16.0 points through three seasons and is on the books for $3.5 million in year four.

Tillman’s ability to defend, his basketball IQ, his play-making and his professional demeanor means that he can step into the modern NBA and do a job as a rotation player for just about any team in the league. But he doesn’t have the upside that other bigs in the same projected range have — Jalen Smith, Daniel Oturu, Jaden McDaniels, Zeke Nnaji — so there are teams that are scared off.

I don’t get it.

But Tillman’s decision to head to the professional ranks indicates that he does, indeed, feel confident in the fact that he will have gainful and steady employment next season. Since he would have walked at Michigan State’s graduation in May had it been held, that doesn’t leave much to return to school for.

The Spartans will now be left in a tough spot. There are quite a few pieces to like on this roster. Rocket Watts had promising moments as a freshman, as did Malik Hall. Gabe Brown and Marcus Bingham are both talented players. Joey Hauser had a good season at Marquette, and the early returns on freshman Mady Sissoko are promising. But this is going to be a young and unproven group.

Izzo has had less at his disposal before, but this is certainly not an ideal situation for Michigan State.