There’s a brand new Fred on the scene in Toronto sports, and he would like a minute of your time.
Freddie Gillespie is the second-latest member to join the Toronto Raptors, and while he comes in as a relative unknown, there is much more than meets the eye with the 23 year-old kid from St. Paul, Minnesota. Gillespie has been a lot of places on his journey to the NBA, mostly brief stops, but he continues to do what he needs to in order to survive and thrive.
Gillespie can only be described as nomadic, in this sense; he wasn’t heavily recruited out of high school due to a rash of injuries in his junior year, but managed to secure a scholarship with Division III Carleton College. After two years, he transferred to Baylor University, where he broke out and nearly averaged a double-double in his senior year for the Bears.
After declaring for the 2020 NBA Draft, Gillespie went undrafted, but secured a training camp invite with the Dallas Mavericks. After they opted out of the 2021 G League season, Gillespie then entered the G League Draft, where he was selected second overall by the Memphis Hustle, affiliate of the Grizzlies. This is where Gillespie truly got a chance to shine in an expanded role, averaging 13.6 points, 13.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, 1.6 steals, and a jaw-dropping 2.9 blocks per game.
This is the type of bruising, hustling, Swiss army knife, do-it-all big the Toronto Raptors were hoping to see when they inked Freddie Gillespie to a ten-day contract on April 8th. Lots of players that are signed to these very short-term contracts try and go all out to pad their stats and showcase their individual abilities to try and stick with a team, because they feel asserting themselves is the only way they can prove themselves to a team.
Gillespie has taken a different approach, and has instead stuck to his strengths and what’s gotten him this far; working hard and doing what’s asked of him to help the team succeed. In the four games he’s played with the Raptors, he has excelled in this role, and it’s precisely why the Raptors should keep him not only past the contract deadline of April 18th, but the rest of the season, and potentially beyond.
While the raw stats don’t jump off the charts – just 4.8 points and 3.5 rebounds per game – his advanced stats have been remarkable, and the team has been much better with him on the court than without. In fact, through four games, Gillespie’s on-court rating is plus-6.8 per 100 possessions with him on the floor.
He had his best game to date against the San Antonio Spurs, posting nine points, eight rebounds, and three blocks. Of those eight boards, five of them were on the offensive glass, and by extending the possessions, he managed to get to the free throw line four times. He posed a serious physical presence against Drew Eubanks, and was able to ignite the Raptors with his energy and hustle en route to a win.
Simply from an eye test perspective, Gillespie seems to always be doing the right thing on the court. He rotates well, he sets good screens, he rolls hard to the rim, and he gets to the spots he needs to be at. What is most impressive is the fact that he’s able to have an impact without demanding the ball or playing outside himself. He’s turned the ball over only twice in the four games, which means that he’s not going to hurt you with his limited touches either.
Gillespie is an intelligent player, and there is no better example of what he can bring to the table than this highlight from Tuesday’s matchup with the Atlanta Hawks:
When Pascal Siakam cheats off Nathan Knight to double team Kevin Huerter, Knight is left with a clean backdoor cut to the rim and nobody in sight. Gillespie is on the other side of the paint, trying to make sure Clint Capela doesn’t sneak in under the hoop (with good reason – he had 21 rebounds). He catches Knight out of the corner of his eye and rotates over to protect the paint, and makes a good recovery and contest to get the block.
The play doesn’t just end there, though; rather than flexing after a massive poster block, Gillespie simply runs back down the other end and continues the play. As he’s coming back up the court, he keeps Knight close to him, but also offers an ever-so-subtle brush screen on Skylar Mays that pulls him into the paint a little bit. That brush screen creates just enough separation, and a split second that Mays is off balance, for Rodney Hood to take a three pointer. Splash.
Even a simple screen assist like that, which is barely noticeable on the court, is just a smart play that helps the team get an easy bucket. These are the intangibles that Gillespie is providing on the court, and by using those defensive smarts as a foundation (and if other parts can be refined) there is absolutely more development to be had with him.
With the Raptors wearing as thin at the center position as they have been all year, seeing a big man actually box out, rotate, and generally make smart decisions is a sight for sore eyes. Now, with the additions of Gillespie and Khem Birch, the Raptors have something to build upon for the rest of the season, and looking ahead to next year, they will need cheap and reliable options to round out the rotation.
Gillespie’s strong play has warranted an extended look beyond these ten days. Having someone who is smart, efficient, and reliable coming off the bench can only help the Raptors, or any team for that matter. Building depth on the margins is how great teams remain great, and at just 23 years old, if Gillespie can prove he’s worth the time and investment, which he has to this point, it is worthwhile for the Raptors to do the same.
The Raptors are notorious for mining diamonds in the rough, and it’s certainly possible they may have done it again.