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Perception vs Production: What to expect from Collin Gillespie

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He wasn’t supposed to be Villanova’s answer at point guard, but he might be exactly what this team needs.

Villanova v Purdue Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Collin Gillespie has a perception problem. That problem isn’t so much about what he is, but rather what he isn’t. He isn’t a natural point guard. He isn’t the most athletic player on his team. He isn’t Ryan Arcidiacono. He isn’t considered one of the best guards in his conference. He isn’t an NBA prospect. He isn’t the player that was supposed to lead Villanova into the 2020 season.

And yet, here we are. Collin Gillespie is the lone captain returning from last year’s team in which he helped lead Villanova to two Big East Titles as the starting point guard. Many will be quick to give that leadership credit to departing seniors Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, and without question they are deserving of that distinction. They were the team’s go to players for both leadership and production, no one’s arguing that point. But if you asked anyone who the third most important player on last year’s team was, the answer was almost always Gillespie.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-First Round- Villanova vs Saint Mary’s David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Jay Wright put the ball in Collin Gillespie’s hands as the team’s point guard, not Phil Booth. Jay Wright named sophomore Collin Gillespie as the team’s third captain, not one of the other three seniors on the team. This is a guy that was supposed to red shirt his first season on campus, but ended up playing over 10 minutes per game and added 19 points in the team’s Championship run to the 2018 NCAA Tournament. It’s fair to say that in just two seasons at Villanova, Gillespie has gained the trust of the coaching staff with his work ethic in practice and his results on the court.

If you’re feeling like I just described a completely different person from the opening paragraph, you’re not alone. The perception of Villanova’s point guard even among fans of the team doesn’t seem to match what he’s accomplished in his first two seasons. But the real question isn’t what Gillespie is or has been, it’s what he will be. That’s going to be an especially intriguing question as Nova enters next season with a roster full of talent but lacking experience.

There are a couple of ways to look at future performance, and not surprisingly none of them are especially accurate or guaranteed. Spoiler Alert: we still can’t predict the future. But for this exercise I figured it would be a good idea to look at three indicators that may help paint a picture of what we can expect from Gillespie next season. Today we’ll look at how comparable players did in their junior years, how Gillespie matches up with the progression trends of former Jay Wright guards, and how history has influenced fan expectations. Let’s start with who Gillespie’s sophomore season compares to statistically.

Collin Gillespie was Ryan Arcidiacono

Wait, what!?!? I said very clearly already that Gillespie is not the elder Arch brother, despite a number of perceived similarities. Outside of the “long lost brother” appearance, there are plenty of distinct differences physically, skill set wise, and even in performance. They’re absolutely not the same player... right?

It’s true that Gillespie has a while to go before he’s the Final Four MOP that Arcidiacono was in his senior season. However, it turns out that sophomore year Arcidiacono was a pretty close statistical match to Gillespie’s 2019 season. Every year KenPom.com rates how closely a statistical match a player’s season is to players in similar situations and grade levels from previous years. Gillespie’s sophomore season was most similar to 2006 Daniel Gibson of Texas (946), 2014 Ryan Arcidiacono of Villanova (943), and 2013 Kevin Pangos of Gonzaga (943). All three of those comp ratings are higher than any other player returning to the team next season, the next closest being 2019 Jermaine Samuels and 2010 Carleton Scott of Notre Dame (932).

There’s a lot that goes into these Player Comparisons, and they’re by no means perfect. But for our purposes in this exercise there are some parameters that make a lot of sense though, like only comparing sophomores to sophomores. And when you look at which factors were weighted the highest you can start to see how a Gillespie to Arcidiacono comparison rated so highly. On a scale of 0-4, 4 being the most, here’s a quick list of factors that got either a 4 or 3 weight in KenPom’s comparison:

  • Weight of 4: Height, Minutes Per Game
  • Weight of 3: Three-Point Attempt %, Two-Point %, Usage, Assist %

These are of course only six of nineteen factors KenPom included in the comparison, but they are the ones he put the most emphasis on. It makes sense that if the goal is to find comparable players they should generally fit the same body type, shot selection, and role in the offense. And if you think back to Arcidiacono’s sophomore season, despite being a captain he was still a few spots back in the offense behind the team’s leading scorers of James Bell, JayVaughn Pinkston, and Darrun Hilliard.

So now that we know how the comparison scores came about, let’s look at how close the statistics actually landed with the four players Gillespie was matched to. Below are the per game stats for both the sophomore and junior years for each of these players, along with a percent change from their sophomore to junior season.

You may need to use your zoom function on some of those numbers, but honestly the data itself isn’t as important as the story it tells. First, only Arcidiacono and Pangos are represented for their junior seasons because Gillespie hasn’t played his yet and Gibson left for the NBA after his sophomore year. But for the two juniors we do have as statistical comps for with Gillespie, the progressions were very similar.

In both cases, the guards improved as play makers and scoring threats inside the arc. When I say play makers, that doesn’t exclusively mean their assist numbers went up (although they did). More to the point, both players became more aggressive in penetrating the defense and then making decisions based on how their opponents adjusted. They both increased 2pt attempts by more than 24%, and both took more trips to the free throw line which indicates they were forcing defenders to react to them as opposed to just moving the ball around the arc. This focus on facilitating the offense also speaks to the relatively flat progression of their contributions behind the 3pt line. And of course there are the natural progressions with experienced players of committing fewer fouls and shooting better from the free throw line.

NCAA Basketball: Marquette at Villanova Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports

Arcidiacono’s ability to impact the game outside of the box score is quickly apparent when reviewing the progression from his sophomore to junior seasons. Despite his FG% and FGAs going down, a drop in rebounding, taking and making fewer threes, and playing fewer minutes, he still impacted the game so much he was named Co-Big East POY. That’s simply unreal, and despite the title of this section it’s unrealistic for us to expect Gillespie to suddenly become the most impactful player in the conference. Quick note, I’ll happily eat those words if he does!

However, the Pangos progression may be a legitimate model for Villanova’s rising junior. 2014 Pangos shot about the same number of threes per game as Gillespie’s sophomore season, just at a better efficiency. He got much more aggressive pushing the offense and forcing contact which created more scoring opportunities at the rim and at the free throw line. Yes, that increased aggression came with a slight uptick in turnovers, but it also led to more points and assists. And to be clear, a more aggressive Gillespie doesn’t necessarily mean a faster tempo. The 2014 Gonzaga team Pangos was a part of actually played (gulp) SLOWER than Villanova just did in 2019. Obviously we’d like to see a quicker tempo with the number of pure athletes Nova has this year, but it’s good to know that tempo isn’t a determining factor for Gillespie to make this kind of step forward.

Even if Gillespie doesn’t follow one of these two exact statistical paths, the storyline fits the narrative for next year’s team. Villanova is going to need a floor general with confidence to attack defenses and make the right decisions based on how they react. To his credit, Gillespie certainly improved in that area throughout his sophomore season, and I’d expect to see that improvement continue. Remember, he’s not just a captain, but THE leader for Villanova.

Villanova Guards and the Junior Year Jump

Ok, so statistically Gillespie probably won’t duplicate Ryan Arcidiacono’s junior season. But should we really compare him to a guy that played most of his competition in the WCC? Why aren’t we comparing Gillespie to the guys that have actually played in a Jay Wright system? Can Gillespie join some of the great Villanova guards of all-time? All good questions, me. Let’s address them.

Before we get into how Nova guards have progressed in their 3rd season, let’s take a look at where Gillespie’s sophomore season ranks among the Jay Wright guards. Since Wright took over in 2001, he’s recruited 12 guards who played a sophomore season as either a primary or backup point guard. I took all of their sophomore season stats, and ranked them by category against each other. Here are the results:

If some of these rankings look off to you, remember that they only include the sophomore season for each of these players. Most of these greats have their best years burned into our brains, and we tend to forget some of the shortcomings they had earlier in their career. For example, no one remembers that Ryan Arcidiacono used to shoot a putrid 70% at the free throw line in 2014, we remember his nearly 84% free throw shooting that helped Villanova win a Championship in 2016. The take away for Gillespie is that he has plenty of time and room to improve on his numbers.

Speaking of Gillespie, he lands squarely in the middle of these rankings with a few clearly defined strengths and weaknesses. Unsurprisingly he ranks as one of the best three point shooters among the group, landing in the top third for made threes, attempted threes, and 3PFG%. He’s at the bottom of the pack when it comes to two point attempts, even though his 2PFG% is Top 5. The far more concerning stat that falls into the bottom third is Gillespie’s 2.8 assists per game last season, ranked 9th among sophomore Jay Wright guards. With all of those in mind, let’s now look at how these guards progressed in their junior seasons. Below are the per game stats for Villanova point guards and backup point guards in their junior seasons, along with the percent change in those stats from the previous year:

Obviously Collin’s not on the list yet as he enters his junior season, while Kyle Lowry and Donte DiVincenzo both left for the NBA after their sophomore seasons. And as we saw in the previous examples, the raw data doesn’t give an exact prediction as much as show us trends and patterns that Gillespie could follow.

As was the case with his player comps, the junior season for a Nova point guard seems to bring about more confidence when attacking the defense inside the arc. The only player to score fewer baskets inside the arc in their junior season was Mike Nardi. That makes sense as it was the year of the 4 guard lineup and Nardi moved to more of a shooting role while Lowry took over as the guy who would penetrate and kick out. That increase in aggression is also indicated by the fact that all but three of these guards picked up more fouls as juniors than they had the previous year.

But the most obvious improvements for Villanova point guards in their junior seasons were in assists and points, which matches the theme of improvement in facilitating the offense. All of the guards increased their assists per game with the exceptions of Foye and Nardi. Again that’s easily explained when considering that Nardi took over the lead role in Foye’s junior year, and Lowry took over the lead point guard role in Nardi’s junior year. As for points the increase in points it was only Scottie Reynolds, who was already scoring over 15 points per game, that saw a slight decline in scoring. Everyone else took a step up. With Phil Booth gone Gillespie is in line to replace a lot of his scoring and assist numbers, and the trends in Jay Wright’s system support those expectations.

Expectations are a Double-Edged Sword

There are members of the Nova Nation that don’t need this article to be convinced that Collin Gillespie can have a great season as the facilitator of next seasons offense. I’m not saying they don’t have concerns, but those lie more with the depth at guard or the team’s youth rather than on Gillespie’s shoulders. A few of you may be more optimistic about Gillespie’s role now that I’ve poured a bucket of stats on your head, I know that’s usually how I get turned around on these things. But there’s still a group out there that is skeptical about whether Gillespie has another level he can reach in his abilities as a point guard.

I’ve heard the arguments before: he doesn’t have the physical tools, we’ve seen the flaws in his game, he was just a three star recruit. It would be easy for me to be dismissive of these concerns simply because there are examples of Villanova players overcoming those obstacles under Jay Wright, but that wouldn’t really address the core issue those arguments stem from. The argument isn’t that Gillespie can’t become a great point guard, it’s that because he has more obstacles to overcome it’s less likely to happen.

For every Villanova player that has proved his critics wrong, there are several that show why people were critical in the first place. Sure we can all point to Donte DiVincenzo, Darrun Hilliard, and Dante Cunningham as underrated gems that Jay Wright polished into NBA players. But that doesn’t take into consideration the whole picture. According to 247 Sports, Jay Wright has signed seventeen 2 and 3 star players to scholarships since 2005. Of those seventeen, only seven ever earned the kind of minutes Gillespie now has. Those include the three NBA players I mentioned, Gillespie himself, and the additional trio of Saddiq Bey, Darryl Reynolds, and Dwayne Anderson. Another distinction from this group, Gillespie and DiVincenzo are the closest thing to a point guard.

So the skepticism doesn’t necessarily lie with Gillespie, but more around the fact that we haven’t seen someone with his background be able to become the type of facilitator Villanova fans are hoping for in 2020. Compounding that is the “eyeball test” of last season. If you’re a glass half full type of person, you saw the progress Gillespie made both on offense and defense in the second half of last season. If you’re glass half empty, you just remember watching him getting burned on defense or having trouble penetrating early in the season. Then despite the fact that he showed improvement, every time he struggled it would trigger a negative response form these fans. It’s a classic case of locking into expectations, and the proof of it is how fans reacted to his mid-season shooting slump.

NCAA Basketball: NCAA Tournament-Second Round- Villanova vs Purdue David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

Gillespie came out on fire in 2019. In his first five games he was 10 for 20, shooting a blistering 50% from behind the arc. It was a little overshadowed by the performances of Phil Booth and Eric Paschall, but the sense that Gillespie was a locked and loaded shooter was set in stone. And so no one really said much over the next five games when he went 6 for 20, a not so great 30%. And even when he started the first three Big East games by going 2 for 13 (15%), everyone assumed he would bounce back. Of course he did, ending the season with a team best 3FG% of 37.9% on the season. But the point is that because he looked good early, the expectation was that he was going to stay good regardless of how he was trending throughout the season.

This is the double-edged sword of expectations. If you’re expected to be good at something, you’ll have the benefit of the doubt. If you’re expected not to be good at something, you need to be great at it to overcome those expectations. Gillespie came to Villanova with the expectation that he could be a solid role player off the bench as a backup shooting guard in most people’s eyes, mine included. Then we spent all of last year and this offseason arguing over the fact that Villanova doesn’t have a true point guard. While that may be true, that argument morphed into CAN Gillespie be a point guard. And to that, I think I’m convinced that he can be.

It’s not going to be easy, and it’s certainly not going to be perfect. But I do believe Collin Gillespie can be a great Villanova point guard. Forget about what his measurements say he can or can’t do athletically. Forget about what his recruiting ranking says he can or can’t be at the college level. Forget about what NBA scouts say he can or can’t be after college. Forget about the perception that’s been regurgitated for the past two years and focus on his production. His stats are trending in the right direction. He’s a National Champion, a two time Big East Champion, and a two time Big East Tournament Champion. He’s the returning captain of an NCAA Tournament team that will likely enter the season highly ranked.

Collin Gillespie isn’t the point guard Villanova fans expected to have in 2020, but he can meet the expectations fans have for Villanova’s starting point guard.