Grit of my Grit, Grind of my Grind!
The Memphis Grizzlies entered the NBA Draft with the 40th pick in the draft and left with two highly touted non-lottery prospects that fit in with their team vision. The vision of a team that plays efficient, high IQ basketball with players that are capable of making plays on the defensive end. With that vision in mind, who better to add than the 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year Xavier Tillman Sr. The Grizzlies were so confident that Tillman Sr. fit the team’s vision that they swapped picks in this year’s draft, as well as a 2022 2nd round pick, with the Sacramento Kings to select Jaren Jackson Jr.’s former Michigan State teammate with the 35th pick.
The Grizzlies got their man, but now the question is how much will he contribute in his rookie season? The Memphis Grizzlies currently house seven power forwards/centers with two other players having the capability to slide to the power forward position. This is a plus for Xavier Tillman Sr. as he will have time to grow and learn without having the immediate pressure of being thrown into the fire of NBA level basketball. That doesn’t mean the 2020 2nd round pick will be glued to the bench either as his ability to be a playmaker on both sides of the floor may make it impossible for Taylor Jenkins not to deploy “Weapon X.”
Coming off a sophomore season that saw him named the 2019 Big Ten Sixth Man of the Year, the 2019-20 season saw Xavier Tillman Sr. make a leap as an NBA prospect in his first year as a full-time starter for the Michigan State Spartans. This leap would lead to Tillman Sr. adding more honors to his collegiate resume by earning 2nd team All-Big Ten honors to go along with the previously mentioned Defensive Player of the Year award. The 6’8” forward was a stat stuffer for the Spartans on both sides of the floor finishing the season finishing top 5 in the conference in rebounds (10.3) and blocks (2.1) while finishing in the top 15 in points (13.7), assists (3.0), & steals (1.2) per sports-reference. These numbers are great for a first year starter but the numbers that certainly caught the eye of the Grizzlies front office were the 12.6 box plus/minus & 5.8 win shares that also placed him in the top five of the Big Ten.
The 6’8” forward asserted himself in a variety of ways using his near 250 pound frame to impact the game on both ends. Offensively, Tillman Sr. played with a high motor and raw power to play above the rim and clean the glass. He also showed the ability to be a playmaker from the post who can impact the game without scoring. Defensively, he was a high IQ player seemingly always in the right spot and cleaning the glass and, if presented the opportunity, making opposing playmakers pay by shooting into passing lanes and stripping ball handlers. Tillman Sr.’s defensive impact was solidified last season by becoming Michigan State’s all-time blocks leader in just three seasons.
As impactful as Tillman Sr. was on the floor last season, an element of his game may have gone untapped is his ability to stretch the floor. This development will benefit the Grizzlies and improve his long term value as an NBA player. The 2019-20 season saw him shoot 26% from behind the arc on 50 attempts yet throughout the draft process it was his shooting prowess that caught scout’s eyes. Per Draft Express, Xavier Tillman Sr. finished 2nd in the star drill amongst NBA prospects that participated in the NBA Draft combine making 75 % of his attempts. If this translates, Tillman Sr. could be due for an expanded role with the team as he works towards the Draymond Green comparison placed upon him by his college coach Tom Izzo.
What do the Grizzlies really want from Xavier Tillman Sr.?
To start the season, the Grizzlies have six bigs on main roster contracts plus Killian Tillie on a two-way contract. As high as the Grizzlies staff and front office have been of him, expect Tillman Sr. to be in competition with Gorgui Dieng for the backup Center position as well as in line for power forward minutes with Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson in the mix for minutes at the position with Jaren Jackson Jr. on the mend to begin the season. With the absence of his renewed teammate, Tillman has a chance to prove himself early on in the 2nd unit.
It may not be immediate as Tillman Sr. learns how to play at the professional level but I would expect him to swiftly eat into minutes that were previously allotted to Gorgui Dieng as he diminishes from rotation player to trade asset. If Tillman Sr. is able to show that he can stretch the floor consistently this change will come sooner rather than later.
Season Best Case Scenario
The best case scenario is simple – Xavier Tillman Sr. becomes “Weapon X.” If he can connect his already high basketball IQ with a basketball skill set that is trending in the right direction he would add a multi-dimensional player to an already stellar second unit. Tillman Sr. was an intriguing prospect for his motor and ability to stuff the stat sheet with his frame but if that player can have the shooting prowess that appeared in combine drills cross over into games the Memphis Grizzlies would have one of the better 4 man big rotations that would be catered to the current NBA’s style of play upon Jaren Jackson Jr.’s return.
Tillman Sr., at his best, would present a more than capable defender alongside Brandon Clarke that is versatile enough to switch on to smaller players, much like Clarke as well as another player that can cut to the basket in Pick-and-roll situations with Tyus Jones or space the floor allowing others to cut to the basket while having the capability to score on the perimeter himself. This level of play would equate to a second consecutive post-draft lottery steal for the Memphis Grizzlies and an extremely successful season for Tillman Sr.
Season Worst Case Scenario
The worst case scenario is the unlikely scenario that Xavier Tillman Sr. gets passed by & lost in the shuffle.
In the absence of Jaren Jackson Jr., Tillman Sr. and other bigs will get a chance to prove themselves worthy of being a member of Taylor Jenkins’ 10-man rotation. While Gorgui Dieng is the most expendable as a future trade asset, there is a chance that if Tillman Sr.’s jump shot doesn’t transfer in the minutes given to him that he could be surpassed the veteran Dieng and potentially other young players such as Jontay Porter and even two-way player Killian Tillie, who could use most of his set amount of two-way games in Jackson Jr.’s absence if he outplays Tillman Sr. early. The Memphis Grizzlies would rather that not happen. The Memphis Grizzlies would prefer that he shows up early and often proving a worthy replacement for Dieng and potentially Jonas Valanciunas down the line as a player that can slide between the four and five alongside Brandon Clarke. If that’s the case, they can move on from Gorgui Dieng for future draft capital or more young assets but if it’s not and Jontay Porter nor Killian Tillie aren’t NBA ready either that would throw a wrench in the Grizzlies future plans and potentially keeping Dieng and his expiring contract around longer than expected.
With three years under his belt with Tom Izzo at Michigan State, the learning curve could be substantially smaller than most rookies. The Memphis Grizzlies roster is also bolstered by a lot of bigs so there isn’t immediate pressure for Tillman Sr. to be good from day one. That being said, if Xavier Tillman Sr. can come in and be as impactful as he was at Michigan State by using his high basketball IQ to be in the right spots defensively while making plays with and without the basketball offensively he will quickly work his way into the rotation - potentially as the 2nd big off the bench alongside Brandon Clarke.
The goal for the beginning of the season should be prioritizing Xavier Tillman Sr. over Gorgui Dieng and Jontay Porter to get him comfortable on the NBA level and see if he can be a key part of the Grizzlies future. Throughout early media sessions, the playoffs have been a goal discussed as a goal by players and coaches alike. If Xavier Tillman Sr. can develop ahead of schedule as a big who can defend and stretch the floor at the NBA level during Jaren Jackson Jr.’s absence, those aspirations become a lot more viable because that level of play keeps the Grizzlies as a competitive team without their 2nd best player.
In Year one, expect a good role player that fits the Grizzlies mold of playing with a high basketball IQ but hope for the emergence of “Weapon X” - an unstoppable force with a constant motor that Taylor Jenkins, in the role of Professor Charles Xavier, has no choice but to deploy on the Grizzlies mission to return to playoff contention in the 2020-21 season.