Soon after signing his first 10-day contract with the Toronto Raptors, Freddie Gillespie quickly proved he belonged with his tough rebounding and energetic play.
There was, however, one more rite of passage to overcome before he truly earned his stripes with the NBA club.
It's a Raptors tradition for rookies to belt out a song karaoke-style at a practice. Last Friday, Gillespie and first-year guard Malachi Flynn were given the unenviable task of performing Miley Cyrus's pop standard "Party in the U.S.A." in front of the rest of the team.
In a video that went viral, and caught the attention of Canadian rap superstar Drake, Gillespie not only accepts the challenge, he goes a step further by adding a repertoire of dance moves to the routine.
"Everyone is saying ‘you’re a great singer’, ‘we didn’t know you could move like that,'" Gillespie said Thursday, before the Raptors were scheduled to take on the Nuggets in Denver. "So a lot of laughs, some funny comments here and there.
"When we did it I didn’t think it would go as big as it did. It is cool, though. What I like about the video is that it really shows a little snippet of what this organization is kind of about. So I think that was cool."
Gillespie's likeable personality has endeared himself to Raptors fans, and his production on court has turned a pair of 10-day deals into a full-time contract, reportedly for two years.
"It’s always good to get signed," said Gillespie, whose deal was announced Wednesday. "It’s always a good feeling.
"This is one of the most esteemed fraternities in the world. There are 450 players that get to do this, so to be able to be one of them at this moment and to be able to get this opportunity is amazing."
The six-foot-nine, 245-pound native of Saint Paul, Minn., is averaging 5.3 points, 3.6 rebounds, 1.0 blocks and 16.0 minutes in 10 games with the Raptors.
Crucially, Gillespie has helped stabilize the Raptors' shaky situation at centre -- along with Montreal native and fellow newcomer Khem Birch -- and has provided some much-needed rebounding toughness at both ends of the court.
The payoff is the result of a lot of hard work and grinding from Gillespie, who started his varsity career at NCAA Division III school Carleton College in 2015 after receiving no scholarship offers from schools in higher divisions out of high school.
After two seasons at Carleton he joined Division I school Baylor as a walk-on. After redshirting the 2017-18 season he played two campaigns with the Bears, winning Big 12 most improved player and being named to the conference's all-defensive team in his final year.
He went unselected in the 2020 NBA draft, then signed a training-camp contract with Dallas that didn't pan out.
The Raptors signed him to a first 10-day contract on April 8 after he impressed with the Memphis Hustle in the G League bubble. Twenty days later, he signed a full deal with the club.
"One thing I always say is 'faith of a mustard seed.' You need to have a whole bunch of faith, but have you ever seen a mustard seed? It’s like really small," Gillespie said of his improbable journey to the NBA.
"So sometimes that’s all I had, I had this really small inkling and I thought if I just work off of that then maybe I can get there. But did I think this is what it would look like or was I crazy confident and boasting around about it? No, but I had a little bit of faith."\
Gillespie wants to make sure he sticks with the Raptors, and plans to soak up lessons from the team's veterans to increase the chances.
"Me as a player and as a person, I’m always trying to grow and get better and improve myself, and I want to be around people that can help me do that," he said.
"And even just being here between games, looking at the way Kyle Lowry conducts himself and how he works on himself and how seriously he takes his craft. And Fred VanVleet and Pascal Siakam and OG, just watching those guys and how they carry themselves and the work that they put in to improve themselves, even seeing that has been beneficial."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 29, 2021.
The Canadian Press