After some indecision on whether or not to declare for the 2020 NBA Draft, Xavier Tillman has decided to keep his name in the draft pool and forgo his senior year at Michigan State. Coming off of a season in which he was named to the All-Big Ten second team and awarded Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Tillman’s stock rose to the point where he’s firmly entrenched as a top-40 prospect, thanks in part to Spartans head coach Tom Izzo.
Tillman says he came to MSU as a "chubby 18-year-old" and everyone expected him to be a nice four-year player. Then: "Coach Izzo turned me into a monster"— Kyle Austin (@kylebaustin) August 12, 2020
Height: 6’ 8”
Wingspan: 7’ 1” (estimated)
Weight: 245 pounds
Strengths: playmaking, interior/help defense, touch/feel around the rim
Tillman is an exemplary passing big. Whether it’s an outlet pass off of a rebound, a low-post skip pass to the corner, a short-roll read, or a drive-and-kick from the free throw line, Tillman can make the pass. He makes quick decisions with the ball in his hands and has elite court vision for his size. The first clip below is a great example of Tillman downloading the floor quickly and finding the shooter before he even gets to his spot, and the second demonstrates his ability to make reads off of a live dribble from above the break.
Live dribble no-look bullet to a cutter. Normal big man stuff pic.twitter.com/NKnUYpVymH— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) June 20, 2020
Almost as impressive as Tillman’s passing is his defense. He’s 6’ 8” with a 7’ 1” wingspan, which is “undersized” for an NBA center, but he’s a sturdy 245 pounds and was probably forged from iron. He has solid positioning as a low-post defender, using his exceptional full-body strength to hold his ground against players that are much taller or longer than he is. A lack of verticality and speed will cause bigger problems against NBA athletes than it did at Michigan State, but his rotations are usually correct and on-time, which should mask that a bit.
Due to the quality of other aspects of his game, it seems like Tillman’s interior scoring ability has been a tad underrated. He’s an equal threat to finish with touch at either side of the rim or make a play for a shooter, which keeps defenses on their toes, even if he can’t stretch the floor. His true shooting percentage went down proportionate to the rise in his usage percentage, a good indicator that he’s a consistent finisher regardless of workload.
The following clips are of Tillman absolutely feasting on Daniel Oturu, another center prospect that’s projected to go in the late-first/early-second round:
Legitimately feel kinda bad for Oturu pic.twitter.com/YuxaL0YfaX— Max Carlin (@maxacarlin) August 24, 2020
I’m not an Oturu fan, though I recognize his appeal, but his shortcomings were exposed at the highest level because of Tillman’s strength and positioning. Luka Garza, runner-up for Naismith Player of the Year, shot 8-21 from the field and had four fouls when Iowa played the Spartans. Kofi Cockburn, another NBA prospect, went 3-6 from the floor and turned it over three times in 29 minutes in the Illinois-Michigan State game. The point I’m getting at is; Tillman routinely bullied talented Big Ten prospects with “NBA size” while he was in college, so it’s fair to surmise he can hold his own in the league despite being a bit short and having little verticality or quickness. He he makes sound decisions on when/when not to jump passing lanes or chase blocks and like our fearless leader Jon DeLong always says, NBA teams are going to pick skill and IQ over size and athleticism any day of the week.
Question marks: floor-spacing, athleticism
Tillman is good at a lot of things, but shooting jumpers is not one of them at this stage. He’s a career 21-77 shooter from long-range, hitting just 26.0 percent of his 2.0 3PA per-40 minutes as a junior. Synergy data still evades me (and my wallet), but I’m fairly confident that his mid-range jump shot numbers aren’t horrible. He’s a career 69.5 percent shooter from the free throw line; not inspiring for growth as a shooter, but not discouraging, either. With how much he’s expanded his game at Michigan State, it wouldn’t be crazy to bet on Tillman developing at least a semblance of a jumper. Players like Tillman that add so much to other aspects of a team don’t need to be prolific shooters — just respectable.
It’s evident on film that Tillman isn’t mobile or athletic, and that will hurt him when his high IQ and feel for the game can’t make up for it, which is inevitable in the best basketball league in the world. His lack of athleticism will cap his ceiling near a rotation-level/backup center, but smart bigs that can work through an offense and anchor a defense typically find their way. He is super strong, too — his physical attributes aren't that bad.
I feel pretty comfortable saying that Xavier Tillman will be a successful NBA player. As many pundits have pointed out, we are seeing during the bubble playoffs how crucial it is for teams to have big men that can make plays on offense and contribute to fluid ball movement. A modern NBA center needs to be connective tissue in an offense and has to be able to make quick reads out of pick and roll sets, or else teams are just going to play drop coverage and force the big man to make decisions. Tillman may not be as talented as players like Nikola Jokic, Marc Gasol, or Daniel Theis that are exemplifying these traits on live television, but he is more than able, and he works his ass off. That counts for something.