On the surface, Xavier Tillman’s production as a rookie last season is nothing that stands out, even among his peers. 6.6 points and 4.3 rebounds on 56% shooting in 18.4 minutes a game is certainly serviceable. However, it is not a statistical line that will garner much attention on a team that boasts a Rookie of the Year in Ja Morant, one of the most efficient rookie scorers in NBA history in Brandon Clarke, or one of the best rookie three point shooters in NBA history in Desmond Bane.
No, Tillman’s value is not easy to find when focusing solely on counting stats or any singular metric. Yet, the value that Tillman provides is certainly notable and significant. The reason being is that for such a young player, it is quite impressive at how consistent Xavier Tillman is as a source of positive value.
Last season, among front-court rookies who played more than 1,000 minutes, Xavier Tillman had the highest individual plus/minus total. Among the 21 rookies who played 50 or more games and played 15 or more minutes per game, Tillman was second in individual NET Rating and had the best TS% and eFG% of the group (Desmond Bane was second in TS% and eFG%). While individual plus/minus and NET Ratings ratings may have their flaws, if a player is among the best of his peers in both those categories plus shot selection metrics as well, one point can be made:
When Xavier Tillman is on the court, good things happen often for the Grizzlies.
The positive value is not just beneficial for Tillman himself. Tillman was part of the Grizzlies four-man lineup combination with the best eFG%, AST/TO Ratio and AST%. He also was apart of two of the four three-man combinations with the best NET Ratings on the Grizzlies (min. 100 minutes). When Tillman was on the court, it was rare that he made a play or went a significant stretch of time where negative value occurred. While he certainly had his individual struggles at times and also look overextended as a starter for long stretches, both he and the team far more often flourished than they failed when he was on the court.
Coming into the 2020 draft, one part of Tillman’s game that made him stand out among other young bigs was his decision making as a passer and facilitator. In the 3-point era (since 1979-1980), only eight rookies have played primarily forward and/or center and produced 2.5 or more assists and 1.5 or less turnovers on a per-36 minutes scale while playing 1,000 or more total minutes. Among that group, Xavier Tillman had the highest eFG% and TS%. Once again, the true calling card for Tillman’s game is that among players his age in the NBA, he is one of the best bets to consistently make right decisions and effective plays.
This is a big reason why Tillman was called upon to start less than twenty games into his NBA career when Jonas Valanciunas missed games last January. Tillman not only started, he made big plays. For instance, against the 76ers on 01/16/2021, Tillman’s excellent defense against Tobias Harris with the game on the line sealed a big victory for the Grizzlies. Tillman made plays such as this throughout the season that gained the Grizzlies advantages that helped them earn many needed victories to earn a spot in the play-in tournament.
However, the other big key for Tillman is that while he added plenty of value outside the box score as a rookie, he also improved his production when it came to counting statistics. His ability to score, pass, and shoot all improved as the season went along. While his ability to shoot the three was not something that showed up in college, he certainly gained confidence in shooting it in the NBA as last season progressed.
There was no better example of Tillman’s ability to impact the game inside and outside of the box score than the Grizzlies play-in game against the Warriors.
In the first highlight, Tillman’s awareness to challenge Draymond Green’s path to an easy look at the rim for a game-winning shot created enough of a distraction to make Green lose control of the ball. While much was made of Green’s inability to make the play happen, more credit should be given to Tillman in playing effective defense without fouling. Due to that miss, the game went in to overtime. The second highlight shows Xavier Tillman hitting a big three that allowed Memphis to keep pace until it eventually sealed the victory to advance to the NBA Playoffs. It is very likely that Xavier Tillman would not have been trusted to take that shot during the first half of the season.
These two plays perfectly illustrate the versatility of how Tillman can be utilized. On defense, he can make the small yet smart and significant plays that can pay big dividends during any moment of the game. On offense, he can provide a big shot or help others find good looks on their shots. He can do all these things to start the game, coming off the bench, or in critical, high leverage moments. The confidence that Tillman has in his game regardless of the situation is why the Grizzliest had the confidence in trusting him in big moments all season.
As Tillman’s play last year continued to make a positive impact, he also surpassed Brandon Clarke on the depth chart when the Grizzlies roster was at full health. This is one of the bigger narratives heading into this season. The Grizzlies starters at the four and five positions on the court are obviously Jaren Jackson Jr. and Steven Adams. Kyle Anderson, who showed his most effective position was as a small-ball four last year, will also be relied upon for plenty of minutes. This means significant roles for both Tillman and Clarke may be hard to guarantee.
However, in the case of Tillman, it may be a bit easier to find ways to make him fit into multiple lineups. His ability to play the center position, his improvements as a passer and shooter, his versatility as a defender, and his consistent ability to create positive value makes him highly trustworthy when he is in the game. Basically, there is a bit more certainty with Tillman when compared to Clarke, even if Clarke could be more advantageous when on the court at times. In the end, for one of the youngest rosters in the league, featuring as much certainty as possible could be a key to winning games this year. That certainly falls in Tillman’s favor to have a significant role in the Grizzlies rotation.
As a result, Tillman seems likely to start the season as the “third big” for the Grizzlies. When the bench for Memphis starts to enter games, Tillman will likely relieve either Jackson Jr. or Adams for a 15-20 minute role each night. In that role, Tillman will obviously be called up to play good defense near the rim and provide rebounding and a solid shooting touch around the basket, along with finding occasional looks from three.
Yet the biggest step forward this year for Tillman could be as a playmaker. In both the NBA Summer League and this preseason, “Point-Center” Tillman has certainly been exciting to see. While he may not be on Nikola Jokic’s level just yet, the Grizzlies have clearly emphasized making the most of Tillman’s prowess as a passer. Along with Adams and Jackson Jr., this could allow Memphis to be one of the best frontcourt passing teams in the league. That development would help the Grizzlies transition to a team that can confidently find high percentage looks from distance more often.
Regardless of what role Tillman may fill this season, there is no doubt he is a beacon of benefits for the Grizzlies. When he enters the game, he stands out and shines due to the many different ways he can contribute to winning, both for himself and others. If Tillman can continue to improve his abilities as a passer and scorer this season, those benefits will become even more valuable. And for both Tillman and the Memphis Grizzlies, that means plenty of moments of both positivity and prosperity to enjoy.