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2020 NBA Draft Profiles: Xavier Tillman

The tale of a defensive playmaking bruiser

Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Xavier Tillman, Center, Michigan State

• 6’8 (7’1 wingspan) 245lbs, from Grand Rapids Michigan

• 2019-20 Season: 31 games played, 32 minutes per game, 13.7 points per game, 10.3 rebounds per game, 3.0 assists per game, 2 Blocks per game, 1 steal per game, 55% Field Goal percentage, (26% from three) 66.7% Free Throw Shooter

• ACCOLADES: 2019-2020 NCAA All-Region, 2019-20 All Big Ten, Big Ten All-Defense, 2019-2020 Big Ten Defensive Player Of The Year

• ADVANCED STAT STRENGTHS: (per Tankathon): 3 Point Attempt Rate: .167, Assists Usage: 0.86, Assists to Turnover Ratio: 1.52, Defensive Win Shares: .109, Win Shares per 40 minutes: .233, Defensive Rating 86.5, Offensive Box Plus Minus: 6.3, Box Plus Minus: 12.6

• ADVANCED AREAS TO GROW: Free throw attempt rare: .410, Projected Three-point percentage: 31.8%

•CURRENT BIG BOARD RANKINGS: 34th (Tankathon), 21st (CBS Sports), 49th (ESPN), 41 (Ringer)

Continuing with GBB looking for prospects to stack the cupboard at potential near future needs, we’d like to take this time to review another slightly undersized bruiser who could potentially be a replacement for an expendable like veteran big men Gorgui Dieng. The former Louisville Cardinal veteran big man has cracked the dirty 30 mark of athletes. He’s also an expiring contract we may not be able to keep around past next season, especially if he play a the way he did playing for the Memphis Grizzlies.

With that we’ll dive even further into the 2020 draft class & see who could be that guy available at 40 overall that puts Memphis in position to shed even more salary if/when needed, without losing much if any on court impact/value. Who is the guy that can become a regular rotation player & possibly even fill in as a decent starter in spurts when needed? The guy we’re gonna scout today definitely has the resume, character, & potential to at least be considered.


Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images

DEFENSIVE PLAYMAKING, PASS, DEFENSIVE, PLAYMAKING PASS, & DEFENSE SOME MORE! That’s what you get watching Xavier Tillman on film. Tillman may not currently be nearly as efficient of a stretch shooter as, say, previously scouted prospect Kaleb Wesson, but he makes up for it in almost every other department - especially on defense. Tillman is the player this season that I have seen bully his way into a made dunk, get back down court on defense, closeout on a leaking wing shooter who drifted into the corner for a quick corner three, only for Xavier to not only close out on the shot but actually block the attempt, then secure the rebound & either bring the ball back up court himself or make a very savvy break starter/outlet pass.

He does all of this as a burly built 6’8 center, which speaks volumes to not only his awareness, but also his timing & feel on defense. He is like Memphis’ very own Brandon Clarke in that sense - except Tillman has the much longer wingspan of the two while Brandon Clarke is the hyper-athlete. Both are brilliant all around basketball playmakers who happen to be undersized “Big Men” to a certain degree.

Tillman also happens to be a pretty solid rebounder, which allows for him to secure defensive rebounds & launch fast break opportunities that learn to quick points. He is also pretty good at using his rebounding for putback baskets & resetting the offense when the point guard needs to do so.

Xavier has so many more intangibles such as play recognition, understanding angles on both ends of the court, anchoring defenses in a way that controls the middle of the court & the flow of the defense as well as direction of the offense. Tillman has shown the ability to run the floor & even stop some fast breaks, due to his deceptive athleticism & length along with his timing.

The most glaring aspect of Tillman’s intangibles maybe his leadership. The Big Ten recognizes him as the best defensive player in the same conference as guys like Kaleb Wesson who was also a solid defensive big man. As a proud father who is also recently married, Tillman is a grown man with responsibilities & mouths to feed, so I say that to say he is a no nonsense type of guy to a certain degree. He is very thoughtful & resourceful, hence his advanced playmaking metrics on both sides of the ball.

Xavier Tillman is the defensive playmaker who can create defensive plays such as being in certain places at certain times that forces the offense to settle for certain shots & looks. He’ll also force certain passes that lead to him stealing the ball & making a break starter pass that lead shot to creating an easy quick basket for the leaking player he feeds the assists to. This type of play is where he truly reminds me of a bit of another defensive playmaker big man who played at Michigan State for Tom Izzo, one Draymond Green of the Golden State Warriors. All things considered, I actually like to think of Xavier Tillman as the center version of Draymond Green, minus Dray’s polarizing personality. We all know Defensive Rating is a stat very reflective of not only an individual player’s defensive performance but also the team’s performance as well, so one must definitely consider Tom Izzo’s system & ability to bring out the best in his players’ defense to say the least.

However if Xavier Tillman can translate his senior season’s defensive metrics & specifically his 86.8 Defensive Rating at the NBA level in a healthy amount of minutes per game, that alone makes him a steal for Memphis in the 2nd round.

Another thing Xavier Tillman does well is passing & secondary playmaking on offense. Tillman is a very willing passer if nothing else hence him averaging over three assist shooter per game this past NCAA season. Tom Izzo plays a lot of zone offense & has recently started moving away from his post heavy offense to a Moreno perimeter friendly offense with a lot more passing. Izzo basically runs a lot of triangle sets that allow for a lot of passing in zones which provided many touches for Tillman. Xavier may not have been a good option to pass to get his own shot nor did he provide much efficient shooting, but he is very aware of openings & angles on the court to create plays & he often used such an intangible to generate assists. Xavier did average around 14 points per game, but he did so almost exclusively in the paint being he doesn’t currently have good touch on his shot.

Despite his shooting deficiencies, Tillman still boasts a pretty high three-point attempt rate at .167. This basically insinuates that either Izzo’s system of having Tillman outside to share playmaking responsibilities lead to a demand for Xavier to shoot the three ball, forcing defenses to honor his spacing, or Tillman has ultimate faith that his shot is improving & ready to take off. Either way is good, because even if it’s just Izzo forcing Xavier to shoot often from deep for floor spacing (being he is a capable shooter), or it shows Izzo likely has a lot of faith in Tillman’s stretch ability.

Tillman is also a decent inside scorer, who may not be currently good at creating his own shots but he does an excellent job of positioning himself on offense for scoring opportunities. He knows where to be & when to be there in order to get those tight passes & quickly score without a lot of ball skill required. He understands the game is heavily reliant on angles & he has mastered getting those angles all over the court offensively & defensively at the college level. If this intangible translates to the NBA, he will carve out a nice career.

Tillman is best served playing with perimeter stars who will benefit from his strengths such as his passing, ability to set screens & rebounding on offense to clean everything up, while also potentially providing defensive genius to anchor that side of the court as well. He’s an offensive & defensive playmaker, so he does everything a perimeter scorer isn’t typically gonna do & vice versa, which means both concepts compliment each other perfectly.


Minnesota v Michigan State Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Considering the intangible playmaker archetype & thus approach to the game Xavier Tillman has, there aren’t a whole lot of improvements needed to his game. In fact, considering the perimeter eccentric style the NBA climate is today, one can argue that the only thing Xavier truly needs to improve is his three-point percentage. Coaches will like the fact he is comfortable taking the shot often, but noting eases the mind like efficiency & if Xavier can achieve efficiency from deep at the rate he took those shots in college? We’re talking about a potential evolution of Draymond, the center version who can really shoot.

Right now Xavier has somewhat of a hitch in his shot which prevents a smooth & fluid stroke. His shots are sometimes flat due to poor form & rotation on the ball upon release. If drafted it would benefit him greatly to get around Jaren Jackson Jr., Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke & even Gorgui Dieng, being all these big men have shown steady improvement over time.

Mechanics are not the only thing that could improve Tillman’s long range efficiency. Playing next to a Ja Morant level playmaker & scorer will take even more focus off of Xavier from deep, giving him more space & time to take his currently set jump shot.

Xavier also struggles to create his own shots aside from being excellent at positioning. When the defense has Xavier lined up he is nearly worthless as a scorer unless he can bully the defender near the rim. Xavier doesn’t offer array of post moves yet, & his lack of shooting touch doesn’t give him any bailout scoring options. If he doesn’t get an easy basket or his signature post positioning, expect Tillman to be a desperate passer or take a contested shot that usually lowers his offensive efficiency. Tillman can use a few pointers from a post office worker like Jonas on how to create space from well established defenders & improve his scoring touch all around the basket.


Xavier Tillman already has at least one familiar ally on the team in his former Michigan State teammate Jaren Jackson Jr. Both were freshmen who came in together as part of Michigan States very underrated 2017 recruiting class. Jaren & Xavier have at least some sort of prior chemistry that shouldn’t be too hard for them to rekindle or evolve. When you factor in how well the concepts of both players compliment each other, & you have an intriguing situation. Although Tillman has a 7’1 wingspan, Jaren brings even more length & fluidity with the potential tandem. Jaren’s strength is shooting, while Tillman’s strength on offense is rebounding, inside scoring, & passing. Jaren certainly isn’t the rebounder Tillman projects to be, but that works great because Jaren can either secure any leak outs on defense or go get his shot on offense as Tillman prepares to make his signature playmaking passes.

Jaren’s supreme ability to stretch the floor should free up Tillman inside to bully his way into at least to a few buckets. Jaren is also very unselfish so I can see him using his touches & improving playmaking to feed Tillman as well at times.

Tillman should also work well with Brandon Clarke, or at least to a certain degree. Xavier has the girth & beef Clarke doesn’t have yet so Xavier can take on similar matchups when the two share the front court together. Xavier can defend the post to secure the rebound & launch it to Brandon or whoever leaks for a fast break bucket as well. Brandon’s mind functions like a computer, so he’s always looking for ways to be productive so if he isn’t tryna make a play to feed Tillman himself, he’ll likely be looking to bail Tillman out by cutting to the rim & going baseline via off ball activity, when Tillman is the Ball handler on certain plays.

Ja Morant also loves a good bruiser who can not only help him preserve himself for offense, but can also free Ja up in certain situations to get open & good lucks at the basket. Tillman can be his new front court muscle. Tillman can not only help

Ja defensively, but he can also save Ja a lot of banging inside & allow Ja to focus on cherry picking & leaking out when Tillman secures a defensive rebound. Tillman can also be a recipient of Ja Morant’s fancy feeds even the airborne alley passes. I can also see Ja being the recipient of some of his alley passes as well.

If Xavier Tillman becomes a reliable knockdown shooter from deep, I can certainly see him becoming the eventual 3rd big man along with Jaren Jackson Junior & Brandon Clarke. At worst Xavier can definitely serve as a beefy big man to help Jaren & Brandon with paint duties in a reserve role. Even without much touch on his shot yet, Tillman should command minutes right away with everything else he does, as long as you have reliable shooting/scoring around him. I see him being a part of the active roster immediately versus a guy like Kaleb Wesson, who seems more likely to be developed in a teams’ G-League farm, at least to start his career.


Syracuse v Michigan State Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

Xavier Tillman may not be a superstar scoring talent, but he can become a special player in the league with the right opportunity. He is definitely mature & ready to be on any NBA team’s active roster immediately, but he can become a core player with improvement on his shooting touch & form. He could also use a few added post moves but he may never be needed enough scoring wise to use it anyway so Shooting is the main area of growth for Tillman.

I legitimately see him becoming a stud defensive playmaker bruiser. Izzo has a nice list of big man who were underrated around the time of he NBA draft, only to take the league by storm in some facet of the game. The Grizzlies have already had at least two of those former Izzo dynamic big men in Jaren Jackson Junior & Zach Randolph.

Can Tillman become the third big of such caliber? Only time will tell, but if he’s available when Memphis picks in the 2nd round, he should be near the very top of the draft board if not the guy they select.

Player Arch-type: Defensive Playmaking Bruiser

Current NBA Comparison ceiling: Draymond Green (Center/Bigger version)

Current NBA Comparison Median: PJ Tucker

Current NBA Floor Comparison : Khem Birch