There’s something unique about Troy Gillenwater. Not his 6’9″ (205 c.m.) 230 lbs. (104 kg) frame, or the fact that he can shoot from long range, punish you in the post, or make the extra pass on offense setting up his teammates for an easy bucket. What’s unique about Gillenwater is the fact that he’s played basketball in every part of the United States, he’s played pro basketball in Europe, and finally his current season in South Korea completes his quest of playing basketball across the globe at the young age of 26. But there’s no stopping Gillenwater yet. He’s still growing and establishing himself as a solid pro everywhere he goes. “Man it’s been a ride,” he says as we sit courtside on new years eve prior to one of his Korean Basketball League (KBL) games against the defending champions Ulsan Mobis Phoebus.
He was drafted second overall in the 2014 KBL draft and has been a force from opening night. He leads all scorers with 22 points per game and led his team, the Goyang Orions, to a fascinating 8-0 start to open up the 2014-2015 KBL season. The KBL fans quickly noticed the impact Gillenwater had on the league. He would be voted in to start in the 2015 KBL All-Star game (the only foreign player to receive starting honors from the fans). Not coincidentally, he’s been the biggest surprise of this year’s KBL season. But for Gillenwater, catching foreign leagues by surprise is becoming all too routine.
When people describe your game the word versatile is often the first word to come out. How did your game become and stay so versatile at 6’9” 230 lbs?
“Honestly in high school I got tired of point guards not passing me the ball in the post so I decided to start bringing up the ball on my own. I would just get the rebound and dribble up the court. I turned the ball over a lot but I fixed that problem over time. In college, I started working on my jumpshot. That’s the real story behind my versatility.”
You are from Boston but ended up playing high school basketball in California, how did that happen?
“I had an opportunity to play AAU basketball in California. I played for a team called H-Squad and a team called the Southern California All-Stars. That worked out really well for me so then I stayed out there for high school. Actually, I was on the same high school team as Klay Thompson’s (Golden State Warriors) brother Mychel Thompson. So I got to meet their father Mychel Thompson Sr. (retired NBA player), he’s a really good guy.”
From New Mexico State University to Europe and now Asia. Can you take me through your timeline and how exactly you got here?
“I decided to opt out of my senior year at New Mexico State University to declare for the 2012 NBA draft. But I ended up withdrawing my name from the draft and took a pro contract in Cyprus. So the following year I came back for the NBA draft and worked out for six teams. I got good feedback and the Boston Celtics were one of the teams who were really interested in me. I had two workouts for them. That year, the Celtics had three picks, two in the first round and one in the second round. So I felt like my chances were good – being from Boston and they needed help at that position – but you know how the draft goes. Anyway it didn’t work out. So I ended up going to Russia. I had a really good year there. Last year I was in Turkey and that was a really, really good year for me individually. And now, well, I’m here in Korea.”
That must have hurt being snubbed by the Celtics, the team who you grew up cheering for.
“Yeah, a little bit. But they are still my team. It hurt but they are still my team.”
When Goyang drafted you into the KBL this year, not many basketball fans here in Korea knew anything about you. Was that an awkward feeling?
“A little bit. Anytime I play in a new place I always feel like I need to prove myself anyway. So it’s the same anywhere in the sense that I need to prove who I am as a basketball player. I remember my first game here, the team tried to hype up the matchup between Leo Lyons and me because he was the number one pick in the KBL draft and I was the second. It was a home game too so I was motivated to show the fans what I got.”
Usually when a player wears number 0 it’s because they have something to prove. Can you relate to that?
“Yeah you’re right. I wanted to look at this as a new beginning. But you’re right. It does represent the fact that I’m relatively unknown here and I have something to prove.”
What was your reaction when the KBL fans voted you in as the only foreigner to be starting in the upcoming KBL All-Star Game?
“I was a little surprised. If you look at guys like Ricardo Ratliff, he’s been here two years and has won two championships in a row. So from the start I thought guys like that would be voted in because they are more established. But I’m happy that the fans voted me into the all-star game in my first season here in Korea.”
You guys (Goyang) got off to an 8-0 start to the season. It was incredible. But the momentum has fallen off a little bit. I guess the most important thing for a team is to stay consistent. What’s the key to consistency?
“It’s about building a strong foundation and staying confident. It’s a long 54-game season, so there are going to be times where you hit that bump in the road you know. But I think we’ve been getting better in the last four/five games so we are getting back on track.”
What’s the difference between pro ball in Europe and pro ball in Asia?
“The biggest difference here is that there is only one foreigner playing on the floor at a time. In Europe, for the most part it’s three foreigners playing with two local players. I think that is the biggest adjustment for me. When you are the only foreigner out there on the floor you have to pretty much carry the team.”
You said patience was the most important characteristic for a pro basketball player playing abroad. How much patience did it take to adapt to the Korean training methods?
“Well the preseason here was the hardest preseason I’ve ever had in my life because it was all running. When I first got here we were practicing three times a day. We would start at 9 a.m. and weren’t getting home until like 10:30 p.m. It was just brutal. But when the season starts, things calmed down a lot. So when I got here it took a lot of patience to adapt.”
Would you say you were surprised about the size of Seoul when you first got here?
“Yeah, I was, I really was, it’s huge. But it’s nice; Seoul is a really nice city. There are a lot of good places to eat and some really good shopping. It’s nice, it’s really nice.”
Is there something that the average fan might not know about you?
“I have a Sony PlayStation 4 here in Korea and I’m very good at NBA 2K15. A lot of times I just play against the computer. Sometimes I put the level of difficulty on hall-of-fame, which is the highest level. So that’s probably something fans don’t know about me.”
Who is the best basketball player you have ever played against?
“I played against Michael Beasley twice in high school. I remember we went at it the second time we played against each other; it was a battle for sure. Another really good player I played against was that guy who used to play in the NBA, Krstic, Nenad Krstic. He was definitely one of the best players I’ve ever played against.”
If you had the power to change anything about the KBL, what change would you make?
“I think I would allow two foreigners to play on the floor at the same time. I don’t think it would have to be the whole game but at least for a quarter or something. So yeah that’s definitely the change I would make.”