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Collin Gillespie’s journey to Villanova senior leader is filled with proving doubters wrong | Mike Jensen

The Wildcats' star point guard had zero offers from Division I recruiters going into his senior year at Archbishop Wood. Fast forward four years, and he could be an NBA prospect.

Collin Gillespie had Division II interest after his junior year in high school. Then his stock rose quickly.
Collin Gillespie had Division II interest after his junior year in high school. Then his stock rose quickly.Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff Photographer

The question for Villanova coach Jay Wright about his point guard was a basic one: If Collin Gillespie has more upside to show, how can we spot that?

“Creativity, offensively,” was the first thing that came to Wright’s mind. “Being really crafty about finding more ways to score. Defensively, I think he is what he is — he’s a tough, really good defender. Great rebounder for a guard. I don’t know if he can get that much better in those areas.”

Wright went back to offense, and made a point about the point guard who mentored Gillespie when he first got to Villanova.

“Kind of like Jalen Brunson was,” Wright said. “All those pivot moves, isolation moves. I think that’s his final piece of development.”

Opening Wednesday against Boston College, Villanova starts this season third in the Associated Press poll because it has all sorts of ways to beat you, and all sorts of ways to play. This season always seemed like a target date for when the parts could come together again and it wouldn’t seem outlandish to think again about the Final Four.

In college ball, such thoughts typically start with a veteran guard. If you look back to Villanova’s 2016 NCAA title team, you think of all sorts of things, but much of it started with Ryan Arcidiacono. In 2018, it began with Brunson, that season’s consensus national player of the year.

Here we are with Gillespie, a unanimous pick for preseason all-Big East first team, a respected national figure, after averaging 15.1 points and 4.5 assists as a junior.

Let’s pause to also remind ourselves … this is one of the best tales in the sport. The guard who left the summer before his senior year of high school with zero Division I offers despite playing for a top Archbishop Wood program.

It’s fun now to look back at how Gillespie already had many of the same ingredients in his game. The questions were about the next level. Or more like, which level?

Go back to June of 2016, the City of Basketball Love College Exposure Camp.

“I was telling the D-II coaches there, ‘Be on this kid, he’s really good,’ “ said Josh Verlin, who ran the camp. “He killed it. He had like 30 points in all three of the games. He was so clearly the best player in that gym — I wasn’t prepared for how much better he would be. Part of what makes him so good: He was awesome in drills, locked in in practice — all that comes out when you see him for a whole day. He picked up multiple high-level Division II offers.”

The Gillespie write-up from that day still exists on the City of Basketball Love website: “Gillespie showed exactly how the point guard position is to be played today. Gillespie got all of his teammates involved and was fantastic in transition finding his man for an easy bucket. Gillespie was also in a groove from downtown, converting on several from downtown on the day. Gillespie showed a lot of effort on the defensive end, making it difficult for his opponent to do much offensively. Division II schools flocked to see him play, and with one D-II offer already in his pocket [Holy Family] it’s hard to see him not picking up a few more.”

The dunk

So there it all was, Gillespie’s game. Verlin reminds that Gillespie got hurt that summer, so really wasn’t able to show himself to a wider recruiting audience. Open-gym runs in the fall turned some heads. Rider, for instance, made an offer. I was in the gym at Arcadia early in the 2016-17 season, when all sorts of talent were there for a doubleheader, Wood/Abington in the opener, Imhotep/Neumann-Goretti after — about 20 future Division I players on the court at the Jeremy Treatman event.

Big play in the opening game … a guard drives and dunks over an opposing big man.

“Was that Gillespie?” I said to the guy next to me.

La Salle coach Ashley Howard, then a Villanova assistant, was in the gym. Gillespie already was on his radar, since Quade Green had committed to Kentucky and Lonnie Walker to Miami and Eli Brooks had just committed to Michigan. Villanova needed another guard going into 2017-18. That dunk didn’t go unnoticed. Those skills Gillespie had always shown … there also was plenty of necessary athleticism on his 6-foot-3 frame, translating to D-I. Hofstra, an assistant in the gym, offered a scholarship, told Gillespie’s coach, John Mosco, the dunk sold it.

“There’s a guy at Archbishop Wood, and I just like this kid, man. I think he’s worth it,’ " Wright remembers Howard telling him.

“Who’s recruiting him?”

Like, Division II schools.

“I was like, ‘Wow.’ We didn’t get Quade, and I went to see Collin play Quade,” Wright said last month. “The assistants didn’t come with me. I went by myself. I was coming back after the game. It was a great game, up at Archbishop Ryan High School because Archbishop Wood’s wall fell down in the gym. I said to the assistants, ‘You know what? I really love this kid. I think he had, like, 25 points.’ And I said, ‘Quade was great. Quade probably had 40, but Collin was great. I love him, and we’re going to offer him a scholarship.’ And I hung up.

“The assistants were calling me back two minutes later. They said, ‘Hey, I don’t know what game you were watching, but Collin had 41. Quade had 25.’ But it was how quietly Collin gets things done. He’s been that way his entire career. He does so many things that don’t stand out, but he’s so effective. He’s really developed into a big-time player.”

Is the NBA next?

Gillespie ended up as Philadelphia Catholic League MVP after Wood won league and state titles. By the end of his senior season, nobody questioned whether he could play at the next level. But here we are again: What about the next level? I’ve tended to think the NBA is too big a leap of athleticism. But I was wrong about whether Arcidiacono could play in the NBA, wrong about whether Langston Galloway could take his game from St. Joseph’s to the NBA. Let’s check in with some proven NBA scouts. Can Gillespie play in the NBA?

“His path, if he has one, will be like the others,” one veteran personnel chief noted, referring to Arcidiacono and Galloway both beginning in the G League. “G League, 10-day [contract], Europe, partial. Etc.”

Can he play in your league?

“Yes, he can,” said another scout, not predicting him being drafted and moving right onto a roster. “Slower [path]. But one never knows based on the season they have.”

A year ago, a third scout said, he would have said no. “However, with team success, his development, and intel feedback I have gathered, I think he has a legit chance.”

This scout made another point: “Note that with two-way contracts, the entry point to the NBA is much greater than what it was some years ago.”

All that says a lot about the respect Villanova players now have at the next level, but it says more about Gillespie. NBA teams will take someone from the University of Mars if it helps win games. You still need the goods.

Will Gillespie be the best player on the floor as a college senior, like he so often was as a high school senior? A reminder: Arcidiacono and Brunson didn’t always have to be. But we’re about to see if local hoops history rhymes a bit. No pressure.