Masai Ujiri said it was one of his biggest failures this season. The Toronto Raptors started the 2020-21 campaign without the centre talent needed to compete at a high level — and it cost them.
“I think on my part, I failed to see what we were looking for,” said Ujiri in his season wrap-up press conference. “Maybe the type of bigs we were looking for should have maybe been a different type of player. That’s on me.”
Starting the season 12-15 with a big man rotation of Aron Baynes and Alex Len, the numbers speak to just how harshly Toronto was getting beat on the glass with those two tasked to finish possessions. The Raptors were last in the league in defensive rebounding percentage (28.1 percent) in those 27 games to start the season. After Len was waived, the situation didn’t improve. Baynes couldn’t hang in extended minutes and between a COVID-19 outbreak and various injuries, a small “best five” lineup never materialized during the most important part of Toronto’s schedule.
Luckily, a couple of guys came along to save the day, though it ended up being too little too late. Freddie Gillespie was one of those. Initially signed to a pair of ten-day contracts, Gillespie ended up signing a two-year deal with the Raptors, averaging 5.6 points and 4.9 rebounds in 20 games, starting two. The Baylor Bears product was raw, but an instant spark plug on the glass and improved his skills over time. Most importantly, alongside the Khem Birch signing, Gillespie’s addition marked a clear turnaround in Toronto’s success on the glass. Once 28th in defensive rebounding percentage, they improved to 18th before the end of the regular season.
Seeing both sides of the coin in one season, Raptors fans are well aware that snagging boards is a learned talent, not an inherent ability. Let’s take a look at how GIllespie’s game — which has hustle at the core of its success — could make him an everyday NBA rotation player in the near future.
Nose for the Ball
Besides impromptu dancing to Miley Cyrus songs from over ten years ago, Gillespie’s strongest skill is his ability to use his body to its full ability. Though he’s just 6’9”, Gillespie’s 7’3” wingspan gives him a wide swath of space to take up on the inside. Immediately with the Raptors, he showed the ability to use that to anticipate the ball and swallow up possessions. This freed up other Raptors stars to leak out and keep Toronto’s deadly transition attack as one of their strongest weapons.
In this matchup with the Brooklyn Nets, that skill was on full display, as Gillespie ably manoeuvred around DeAndre Jordan for offensive and defensive rebounds, just by finding open space and anticipating where the ball would be. Despite giving up five inches to his opponent, Gillespie thrived all the same.
These plays don’t make much impact in the box score, but they’re the intangible five or six possessions the Raptors didn’t have where they lost so many games in the first half of the season. Remember how many of those games were close? Gillespie’s ability to win 50/50 balls would’ve been even more important had the team stayed healthy.
What may really entice teams to keep Gillespie around long-term, though, is his blocking ability. Even though the Raptors were short on energetic, rebound-first bigs, that doesn’t mean it’s not a common commodity in today’s NBA — what separates Gillespie is his shot deterrence at the rim.
Yes, fearlessness like this did result in some posters. On the other hand, though, it also shows that Gillespie understands taking the risk of challenging a dunk is what he’s asked to do on the basketball court. He fills that role and gives back much more than he gives up.
Though all this adds up to an NBA player, it’s difficult to say whether Gillespie is in the long-term plans for this Raptors team. There’s a chance that Ujiri and Bobby Webster go out and right their wrongs on the centre rotation this off-season and Birch is the more polished guy to keep around as a backup in 2021-22. Chris Boucher is also still floating as another centre possibility (though he looked most comfortable at the four this year). The Raptors can very quickly go from rags to riches with their big men, especially if they have Kyle Lowry’s salary come off the books. Gillespie and the Raptors may not have interest in keeping their young man as the 14th or 15th man on that theoretical roster, and his trade value as a throw-in is very high.
There’ll be a question mark this summer about whether Gillespie will be back with Toronto. What isn’t a question mark is whether we’ll see him for years to come in an NBA uniform.