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.”
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.”
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.
“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.”