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The Freddie Gillespie Interview: The Gameplay of College Basketball’s Best Story

A profile of Baylor’s star big man

NCAA Basketball: Maryland - E. Shore at Baylor Ray Carlin-USA TODAY Sports

The best story on the best team in college basketball is Freddie Gillespie. But deciding which of his stories is the best isn’t easy.

Maybe it’s the one almost everyone knows. Gillespie played Division III basketball for two seasons in Minnesota, then elected to walk-on at Baylor. He played well enough to earn a scholarship. It’s also a story that’s so fantastic, every Baylor game features it. But Gillespie is like a touring comedian, happy to revisit the story everyone loves. Gillespie says, “It’s such an interesting story and real for me, so I don’t really mind.”

Or maybe it’s that Gillespie entered Baylor’s rotation last year. After not playing in 7-of-8 games in December and January, Gillespie finally entered the rotation because of an injury to Tristan Clark early in Big 12 play. Gillespie says, “When I was on the bench, I was confident I could contribute. I think it was frustrating for me because I knew I could make a difference on the floor one way or another, but I had to bide my time. But a door opened and I ran through it.”

Gillespie certainly ran through the door last year. During conference play, he led the Big 12 in offensive rebounding rate and ranked fifth and sixth in steal percentage and block percentage. He developed a repertoire with Jared Butler on long passes. Gillespie says, “The first time we did it was in a game. It was Kansas at home last year. It the first game I was back in the rotation. He threw that and I wasn’t really expecting that. He just told me, ‘expect that, it’s a pass I can throw. Be ready for it.’ When Jared has it I’m ready.”

Gillespie’s best story might be how he’s become one of the Big 12’s best players. That’s happened because he’s a complete player on both ends of the floor.

Baylor’s path to defensive dominance required switching their defense. Before this season, Baylor had never ranked in the top 20 in adjusted defensive efficiency. To try and get much better on that side of the floor, Baylor has switched their defensive principles. The Bears are almost exclusively a man-to-man team, after playing so many seasons of either zone defense or a combination of the two. They now run a variation of the no-middle defenses that have taken over the sport. Baylor wants to keep the ball on one side of the court; they’re confident they can switch ball screens, which limits opportunities for open shooters and driving lanes.

That defensive path—like Gillespie’s—hasn’t been easy. When I ask if there were some tough times trying to switch to this new defense, Gillespie says, “So many days. The first time I got switched on guards, I got cooked by Davion (Mitchell) or Jared....We’d get frustrated with the coaches and say this is impossible. This is too hard. They knew it’d be a learning experience. Coach Drew, Coach Tang, Coach Brooks and Coach Jakus were really patient. They said give us your best effort. We can’t coach effort, but we’ll coach scheme.”

Gillespie makes that scheme work. He can help and block shots like a madman. He ranks 40th nationally in block rate and third during Big 12 play in that statistic. With a 7-foot-4 wingspan, he’ll end anyone’s dream:

The defense also works because Gillespie and Mark Vital can switch and defend guards. Gillespie says he started working on that after, “Talking with Coach Drew and the was a lot of watching film on what players do. Learning from other defenders. I think I watched Kobe on Detail on ESPN+ on Scottie Pippen. I worked on lateral quickness with the strength coach. Lateral quickness so I could guard that perimeter.”

Gillespie’s defensive work is multi-faceted. He’s comfortable if he’s switched onto guards—as evidenced by him drawing an offensive foul on Tyrese Haliburton, a future top 10 pick in the NBA Draft. And he can intercept passes:

With high preseason expectations—Baylor was picked second in the league and received a first place vote from Oklahoma State’s Mike Boynton—the Bears suffered a tough loss to Washington in the second game of the season. Baylor led by 13 with 8:41 to play and had a 97% chance to win; they didn’t. Gillespie says, “We were of course upset. We realized, one, it was early in the season. Two, it was a game we could have won. We didn’t get blown out...I think MaCio said it’s a good loss we had to take to get that spark and motivation to go on that win streak we’re on right now.”

Teague was right. The Bears own the country’s second longest win streak, and they’re a universal selection as a No. 1 seed. One big reason is how well Gillespie is playing on offense. Let’s take offensive rating. That stat calculates how many points a player produces per 100 possessions. If you take just the top 10 players in the Big 12, Gillespie’s offensive rating is 2.5 standard deviations above the mean. That’s a nerdy way of saying—and this next part is still fairly nerdy too—that Gillespie is an insane outlier:

No matter the year, Baylor seems dominant on the offensive glass. The Bears have ranked in the top 10 in offensive rebounding rate the last seven seasons. Gillespie has stepped into that role. He says, “When I first started playing basketball, I didn’t shoot, score or finish. One thing I could do is, if I want to play on the offense, I can offensive rebound. I can get my team extra possessions. That mentality carries across me as a basketball player. That started as a necessity so I’ve kind of embraced it. Doing it with guys like Mark who inspire you.” Even when Gillespie’s getting fouled and has one arm to grab the ball, he’s secured offensive rebounds:

After mainly kicking the ball out last season, Gillespie’s been dangerous on putbacks and dunks after offensive rebounds. Gillespie says, “Before I had the on-court awareness, I’d kick it out every time. I sat down with some of the coaches, and they said, here, you could have gone up with it. That’s something I needed to work on, when to go up with it, and when to kick it out. It was a focus of the offseason.

There’s a weird take that Baylor doesn’t call plays for Gillespie. But fact-checking for some folks is an anachronism today. In the Arizona game, Baylor ran their rip-action set for Gillespie. I often refer to it as “the awesome play.” In the play, a Baylor wing catches the ball on the right side above the 3-point line and then looks to hit the big man coming off a rip screen. That play is incredibly difficult to time and requires a quick strike, or as King McClure told me last season, “That play wasn’t the same (in 2018) without Ish Wainright making that pass.” Late in the Arizona game, Gillespie’s timing was perfect:

That finished product took a while. Gillespie says that it was a, “Two year process, I think. For the longest time, it’s a play Drew loves to run. For the longest time, I couldn’t get the timing down. When to stop. When to seal. When to come off the screen. He couldn’t run it for me. He tried, but I couldn’t get it done. It just clicked, and I got it, and I understood. Since then, it’s been a pretty reliable play for us.”

The awesome play was reliable for Baylor against Kansas. Facing the Jayhawks—a team Baylor had never beaten in Allen Fieldhouse—Drew called the play on back-to-back possessions. Gillespie says, “I think what they saw was that Udoka (Azubuike) was guarding me. It was towards the end of the game, and he was exhausted...He was looking tired and I think when people get tired, they start to get tired on defense. The first time I caught it, I was under the rim.” It led to a big bucket for the Bears:

On the next possession, Gillespie says, “The second time, I was seeing him on my back. If he’s really tight on me, I try to stop and get under and seal him. With Udoka, he’s a 7-footer and pretty tall. I had to take a step and get a hook over him. Not a sky hook, but a hook because he’s such a good shot blocker.”

In the 3-point era, it’s rare to see someone dominate from the midrange. But Gillespie says, “When i first got here, one of the things that the coaches and different mentors in my field told me is just watch them. See what the good players above you are doing...When I was here, T.J. Maston was the best offensive post player. He was instant offense and an instant bucket. That midrange, if I learn that, it will open my offensive game.” He’s done that, hitting 52.2% of his 2-point jumpers:

Gillespie’s a good 2-point shooter because of his work ethic and how he can keep the ball high—preventing easy opponent steals. He rarely brings the ball down. Gillespie says that’s, “Something that the coaches have hammered into me. If I ever drop the ball in practice, the guards slap it. They foul me and they’re like, ‘we’re not going to call it.’ I’d bring it down and they’d slap me and say, ‘no fouls, you shouldn’t have even brought it down in the first place.’ So I don’t even think about bringing it down in the first place.”

Against Oklahoma State, Gillespie’s 2-point shooting and ability to keep the ball high wrecked their zone. Gillespie says, “Another player I saw back then (in 2018) when we were running zone, I saw Dean Wade. He was at K-State. He just hit 2-point jumpers wherever the zone was open. He just bombed it every time.” Gillespie’s right about Wade hurting Baylor’s zone, and now Gillespie is ruining zones too:

Take all these skills, and Gillespie has a legitimate case for All-Big 12. He leads the league in win shares per 40 minutes. During Big 12 play he ranks third in effective field shooting, first in offensive rebounding rate, ninth in defensive rebounding rate, third in block percentage and 10th in free throw rate. Gillespie has been KenPom’s game MVP in six of Baylor’s game, which is more than anyone else on the team.

With how many acts Gillespie’s story has, it seems crazy to think he might have one more. But there’s a real chance he could play in the NBA. There aren’t many guys with 7-foot-4 wingspans that can defend five positions. Maybe he plays in the NBA. Or maybe it will be the first time he can’t make it at the next level in basketball. Regardless, Gillespie has the right mindset to confront whatever comes next. He ends the interview with these words about possibly playing in the NBA, “It’s something I definitely want to do. Basketball isn’t like being a lawyer or accountant that you can do until the day you die. Everyone has an expiration date that plays the game. I love the game and have a passion for it. It’s something that I want to do. It didn’t seem outlandish when I got here, but getting closer and closer every year, it’s something special.”