Villanova’s Collin Gillespie is thankful the NBA champion Nuggets stuck with him

When you watched, you saw the joy. Collin Gillespie looked as happy as any of his Denver Nuggets teammates on the podium, the NBA champions. The rookie was in the middle of the celebration Monday night, just as he had been in college, celebrating Villanova’s 2018 NCAA title in San Antonio.

“It was different,” Gillespie said of 2018, coming off the bench as a freshman at Villanova. “Because I actually played. Now you’re part of it, but you’re not playing, so you have to do other things.”

Gillespie answered his phone about 18 hours after Denver took out the Miami Heat in Game 5 and clinched the franchise’s first NBA title.

Had he slept?

“A little bit,” Gillespie said.

The fact that the Archbishop Wood High graduate — also the 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League champion — was on the podium gives insight into how Denver put this team together. A franchise that has tried to see the long perspective, estimating the value years down the road, without counting on any quick fix. Besides the Nuggets having the best player on the court in Nikola Jokić, it may be the little things that help explain a championship culture. Like how they literally treat the last player on the bench.

“That says a lot,” Gillespie said.

Apparently, Gillespie was someone Denver wanted even after he suffered a season-ending injury under circumstances that couldn’t have thrilled the franchise that had signed him to a free-agent contract as soon as he went undrafted in 2022.

»READ MORE: NCAA transfer portal gave and took away locally in men’s hoops

Gillespie was on a two-way contract, which essentially means you get paid at one level for the time you’re on an NBA roster and a smaller amount for the days you play in the G League.

“Two-way is not guaranteed,” Gillespie said, which he knew when he broke his left leg just above the ankle last July while playing with Villanova in a practice.

“The first thing when I got hurt I was really nervous,” he said. “I thought maybe I was spoiled here. It wasn’t like I was in Denver [when he got hurt]. I did nothing for their organization. … They kind of kept their word. They said they would help me with rehab, they wouldn’t let me go. I was just extremely grateful.”

He had already impressed during the NBA Summer League. (One report: “Gillespie showed the ability to create a shot for himself and others.”) But now there was surgery, months off the field.

“I mean, it was hard,” Gillespie said. “This is probably the worst injury I’ve been through, coming back and trying to feel healthy again. I was told I’d start to feel better after half a year…”

After six months, there was still a “tiny little break.”

“It was a long process, a long journey, to feel like myself,” Gillespie said, using the word annoying repeatedly. “When you come through to the other side of it, it’s a really good feeling, breathe a little bit, tick boxes.”

Just over a month ago, he was given permission to practice fully. Even before then, Gillespie was trying to do his part. He was part of the scout team process. In that role, “I know all the plays” for other teams, “if I know what they’re about to run, call it. … Anybody who plays, see what you see, give them what you see.”

Was it fine to do it as a beginner?

“Sometimes these guys are in the heat of the game — obviously they’re not going to hear everything,” Gillespie said. “I think our team, we had such an authentic team. Everybody had good relationships. If somebody saw something that could help — they wanted that advice. Mike Porter, he always asked guys on the bench, ‘What are you looking at my shots? Am I taking bad shots? Am I balanced?'”

A Villanova comparison for Gillespie would be Donte DiVincenzo in 2016, redshirting with an injury during that NCAA title run, eventually a key scout team contributor before DiVincenzo was named outstanding player in the 2018 Final Four.

Collin Gillespie left of Jalen Brunson during Villanova’s 2018 NCAA title celebration..Read moreCHARLES FOX / Staff photographer

This season, perhaps the only time Gillespie was noticed on Denver’s bench came in January, when Gillespie was clapping for something on the court, Nuggets vet Jeff Green told him, “Move me out of my seat.” Gillespie moved and said, “Sorry, Dad.”

“It was fun,” Gillespie said. “I didn’t know he had a mic. He claims he told people he had a mic. I didn’t hear it. We all call him Unc or something, he’s the old guy on our team. I mess around with him because he’s a Georgetown guy. It wasn’t serious.”

The vet didn’t demand submission from the rookie?

“No, no,” said Gillespie. “We were just playing.”

From his perch, Gillespie took it all in.

»READ MORE: Villanova’s strength and conditioning guru leaves a legacy

“One of the best teammates I’ve ever had,” Gillespie said of Jokić. “One of the most humble superstars you’ll ever have. He literally just wants to win. Everything you’ve heard about him is true. He doesn’t care about his own personal success. He cares about his family and his horses. Treats everyone the same. It’s cool to be around and see him, see how he interacts with everyone, with respect.”

Jamal Murray, of course, was the other Nuggets star.

“Jamal was really cool to be around,” Gillespie said. Last summer, Murray also rehabbed from a knee injury, so they talked a lot and shared games – “just watching his work ethic. It’s weird. He’s two years older, but he’s been in the league for seven years. I’m really close to Jamal. He’s been really cool.”

He’s obviously close to Christian Braun, another rookie, a big contributor to this title run. They were talking in the locker room the other day, Gillespie said, about how different the playoffs are from college, in the sense that if you lose one time in college, you’re done — like in 2022, when Braun’s Kansas Jayhawks beat Villanova at Final Four before beating North Carolina to win the NCAA title.

Collin Gillespie (center) is mobbed by students after Archbishop Wood won the 2017 Philadelphia Catholic League title..Read morePhotographer: CHARLES FOX

“The journey of it, going through it, it’s not easy,” Gillespie said of the NBA playoffs. “To go through the season, you have to win 16 games. Win four series, win four games in each. Really different. The team just got so much closer over the course of the season, grew so much.”

Gillespie, who is completely free, returns to the summer league. Trying to find his way to the roster and the field. No guarantees.

Safe to say he won’t jump into practice back at Villanova?

“Um, I’m not coming back to Villanova, like playing,” Gillespie said. “I still want to join and work out there individually. If Jalen [Brunson] is back, I love working with him. Guys I played with, Jermaine [Samuels.] I don’t want to step foot in to play five-on-five until my career is over.”

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