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Xavier Tillman was the most consistent player for Michigan State this year. While the other stars of the team had ups and downs and dealt with problems off the court, Tillman was a rock for the team that kept them competitive in nearly every game. After Cassius Winston’s brother passed away in November, Tillman was a voice that helped pull the team together and refocus on basketball when it felt like the world was crashing down around them.
He was a leader for the team throughout the year despite having his own off the court distractions, such as a wife that had a second child and a toddler that needed attention from her father. Tillman had to balance the stress from being a father, a full-time student in their final year of school, and the stress of leading a Tom Izzo team. Tillman showed that he can handle anything that is thrown at him and still play basketball at the highest level. Tillman was the best defensive player in the Big 10 all year and a top 5 defender in the entire country during College Basketball last year. He is fast enough to stay in front of guards off the dribble with ease and strong enough to hold his own against any big man down low.
In the NBA, Tillman is in a precarious position. He declared for the draft, but did sign with an agent, meaning that he can make a decision to return to Michigan State by August 25. Tillman is definitely good enough to make it in the NBA immediately because of his defensive ability, but does not have the strongest offensive game and could benefit greatly from playing another year of college ball. As of right now, Tillman will be selected in the first round after the lottery and I can comfortably say that he will not slip out of the first round. His maturity and defensive ability, as well as his versatility to play multiple positions, is invaluable in the NBA and will be a great asset for a bench unit at the next level.
I have no way of telling how Tillman is feeling about the draft. He is only a year older than me but has a wife and two children. We lead completely different lives to say the least and I am not sure what he is valuing as most important going forward. I am not sure if he wants the money to support his family or stay with his wife while she finishes her last year at MSU. He can provide immediately if he’s with an NBA team but could spend much more time with them in East Lansing. Also, Tillman would be an All-American if he stays healthy in his senior year at State, and could improve his draft stock if he stays for a fourth year. For the sake of this blog, however, we will assume that Tillman is going to remain in the NBA draft.
When we talk about the strengths of Xavier Tillman, you have to start on defense even though his game is so well-rounded. Tillman is an amazing leader of the defense and is always in the right position. He is a vocal leader who directs the guards on how to rotate and play with each other inside of MSU’s defense. In the game against Michigan this year, Tillman used his athleticism and length to stifle Michigan for the entire game.
**By my count, Michigan scored 24 points on the 29 possess. (0.83 PPP) Michigan State switched with its '5' man. Xavier Tillman's ability to effectively switch unlocked this gameplan for MSU. His defense was *superb,* stifling Michigan guards all night: pic.twitter.com/9hc1AYGkNE
— Eric Shapiro (@eric_shap) March 11, 2019
Spectacular help defense from Xavier Tillman pic.twitter.com/Jo7am1lcCN
— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) February 17, 2020
In the clip, Tillman switches onto smaller guards and wings on the pick and roll frequently. He is quick enough to stay in front of the players on the dribble and uses his length to make them take difficult contested shots. Once the shot is up, Tillman hunts for a player to box out, and attacks the ball out of the air for the board. His on-ball defense was among the best in the country, even though he was playing center most nights, and still recovered to box out and get the defensive board.
Tillman’s passing in the halfcourt, as well as his outlet passes, are another reason he is one of the most tantalizing big men in the draft this year. Tillman was blessed to play with the best passer in college basketball, Cassius Winston, but he was no slouch with the ball in his hands either. Tillman was effective at getting the ball at the wing or top of the key, and attacking the paint with one or two dribbles, and hitting a shooter perfectly for three.
I know I've posted about Xavier Tillman's passing multiple times already, in addition to making a video showcasing his passing, but I can't get enough of his short roll passing – it's special pic.twitter.com/fwS7wfNke0
— Spencer (@SKPearlman) May 28, 2020
Xavier Tillman 4-on-3 advantage passing: pic.twitter.com/HK7HZZJKZb
— Jordan Sperber (@hoopvision68) January 5, 2020
In the two clips above, Tillman gets the ball from Winston after both defenders collapse on him on the pick and roll. Tillman gets the ball with a considerable amount of room and makes the smartest decision with the ball. Tillman is not a strong shooter from outside and does not play passively or scared with the ball in his hands, so he attacks towards the rim off the dribble. This forces the wings or other big men to collapse towards him to protect the rim. This is where Tillman’s comfort with the ball pays off; once the defender collapses in on him,
Tillman kicks it immediately to the shooter to hit the open 3.
This play was a key part of MSU’s offense once the defense began to hunt Winston on pick and rolls. Tillman could punish the defense for leaving him and put pressure on other defenders to play perfectly. In the NBA, his crisp outlet passes could be more beneficial, however. Tillman is strong with the ball after defensive rebounds, keeping the ball high and passing from above the head to the outlet man. This prevents easy steals from big men if he brings the ball down, and he can keep his eyes on the court. Every once in a while, Tillman pulls it down and brings it up the court, pushing the pace and allowing the shooters to space the court. Tillman is good enough off the dribble to run point guard but often defers it to the actual guards on the team.
I never want to talk about the negative parts of my favorite players’ games, but I must be fair to all prospects during evaluations. Tillman is a great prospect but does not come without flaws, that is certain. Tillman shines in the short roll off the pick and roll, and that is in large part to the threat of him attacking the rim and his passing ability, but it is also due to his inability to consistently shoot from deep. Tillman is capable of hitting mid-range jumpers and even 3s but has not shown that he can be a consistent threat from deep.
In his sophomore campaign, Tillman began shooting the ball consistently from 15 feet and beyond, averaging just over 3 jumpers a game. However, Tillman struggled from 3 and shot just below average from midrange. He added a wrinkle into his game and made the defense play tighter to him, but could not become a lethal mid-range guy.
In his junior year, the average from mid-range and 3 both dropped a small amount. The biggest reason for this was because of Tillman’s increased role within the offense. Izzo had confidence in Tillman to knock down the open jumper, and Tillman ended up taking a lot more jump shots as a result. His 3-point FG% fell to 26% from 30% and his mid-range fell to 37% from 40% as he took 2 more shots a game. These averages suggest that Tillman has room to grow as a shooter, but is not a good shooter quite yet.
Another potential weakness of Tillman is that he is slightly undersized at the center position. Standing at 6’10, Tillman was one of the shorter starting centers in the Big 10 this year and will be undersized in the NBA at the 5. Tillman showed that length was no issue for him as he led the Big 10 in blocks and was by far the best defensive player in the league. As the game becomes more and more spaced offensively, I think that NBA teams value quickness over the absurd length in centers now, and so Tillman will be more of an asset than a liability as an undersized center. We have seen players like Draymond Green, P.J. Tucker, Robert Covington, and Bam Adebayo thrive as small-ball centers in the NBA, and there is no reason why Tillman cannot do the same.
All of those players use their quickness to beat defenders to the rim and switch onto guards and wings. They can fluster them with their length, and have the quickness to stay in front of them off the dribble. Tillman showed that he is on par with those players defensively on the college level, and he can have those abilities translate to the NBA.
I just talked about some similar players in the part above, but I do think that Tillman’s game mirrors Adebayo’s for the Miami Heat. Bam can play alongside another big man such as Kelly Olynyk or Meyers Leonard because he is fast enough to play against smaller players and is comfortable with the ball in his hands on the wing. Adebayo is more athletic than Tillman and can play around the rim more effectively, but Tillman can make up for that difference with his strength around the rim and his intelligence.
Just like Adebayo, Tillman is aware of everyone’s position on the floor and knows where he needs to be the most effective defensively. Tillman roams around the court, covering guards on pick and rolls, recovering to the rim, and boxing out and chasing the rebound like a madman. His effort on defense is there on every possession, and you do not need to worry about him taking possessions off on either end because he is in amazing shape 24/7.
Adebayo is unique in his ability to grab a defensive board and push the pace as the ballhandler for the team. He often runs as the de facto point guard for the team and that is because he is a great passer who is comfortable with the ball in his hands. Tillman has shown the same level of comfort with the ball on offense. He can make passes to cutting players from the post, as well as make critical swing passes with ease to shooters. In the short roll off of a pick, Tillman attacks the defense and makes them make a mistake, which he can capitalize off of. Adebayo is just as lethal in the short roll but has an effective mid-range jumper to keep defenses honest and make them rotate more aggressively, opening up passing lanes for Adebayo.
If Tillman can continue to get more athletic as he matures and develop a consistent mid-range jumper, there is no reason why he cannot develop into a great center at the next level, just like Adebayo.
As of right now, Tillman is projected to be selected in the 20-30 range by a team that was in the playoffs this year. Tillman would be drafted as a bench piece that could help a team compete immediately. For Tillman to be the most effective immediately, he will need to join a team that has shooting in their second unit. Tillman is a great passer who can play with practically any combination of players, but he needs shooting around him to be successful.
In the East, there are a lot of playoff teams that could use another big man to solidify their frontcourt rotation. The Boston Celtics could use another player to pair with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams. Both players are strong defensively but are not as quick or the passer that Tillman is. For the Celtics, Tillman could help create in their second unit and take the pressure off of some of the other bench players like Grant Williams or Gordon Hayward. The offense was a problem for Boston’s second unit this year, and the lack of good passers was a big reason. Tillman may not provide the shooting to help stop their slump, but he can open the floor up with his passing and be an anchor for the second unit. The Celtics have 3 first-round picks between 20 and 30 as of right now and could use any to scoop up Tillman.
In the West, I think that Denver would be a perfect landing spot for Tillman. They have an offensive philosophy that fits Tillman’s strengths and needs his defense for the second unit. No offense to Mason Plumlee and Noah Vonleh, but Tillman is much better on defense and has the potential to be better than them on offense. They seem to be a few pieces away from being the best in the NBA, and a strong backup center behind Jokic that has similar talents could be useful. Also, if Tillman can improve his jumper, he could play along with Jokic as the 4 and form the best passing frontcourt in the NBA. The only thing holding him back is his jumper, but he can improve it easily because of his great jumper form.
As I said above, Tillman has been projected as a first-round pick consistently by most scouts. The only question at this point is whether or not Tillman stays in the draft or returns to Michigan State for his senior year. He has a lot to consider and I have no clue what his thought process is, but I do know he will be welcomed by the NBA if he decides to stay in the draft. I think the earliest he will go in the draft right now is to the Boston Celtics at the 16th pick and could go anywhere between 16 and 30.
Whatever playoff team ends up with Tillman will walk away from the draft with a considerably stronger bench unit and a center prospect that can grow into one of the best defensive anchors in the NBA. If Tillman can improve his jumper and continue to get stronger, he will be great at the next level. I think any team with a need in the frontcourt should strongly consider Tillman this year, as he has one of the highest floors of any frontcourt prospect in the draft.