Xavier Tillman started out the season with a strong first impression. He played a bunch of crucial moments and took on assignments that flashed his two-way upside. After the team’s COVID layoff, his production tailed off a bit, leading to him being sent out of the rotation in favor of outside shooting.
Once he was re-inserted into the rotation in late March, it was almost like he never looked back. He has ramped up his intensity even more since then. His activity and production have been instrumental to the team’s success,
It’s nothing new to him, as he told the media after an early-April game that he’s used to it from his freshman year at Michigan State. He also alluded to making the most of his situation and bringing energy off the bench in those situations.
And he’s done just that.
This season has been all about staying ready and embodying the “next man up” mentality, and Xavier Tillman has seized that opportunity in that situation. Through this stellar month, there’s been growth in his offensive game, while maintaining excellence on the defensive side of the ball.
Since his return to the rotation, Tillman has maintained remarkable efficiency. He’s shot 61.6% from the field since March 29th, and a large reason for it is his knack for timing rolls and being in the right place at the right time.
One of the biggest staples of his offensive efficiency is inside 15 feet. He’s shot 73% at the rim in this recent stretch, per Cleaning the Glass. His brilliance in the short mid-range — the floater zone — is something to marvel at though. He’s converted on 67% of his short to mid shot attempts, ranking in the 93rd percentile per Cleaning the Glass. Just since the All-Star break, he’s been making floaters at an absurdly high rate — both by volume and by the percentages.
This is Xavier Tillman's shot chart since the All-Star break.— Parker Fleming (@PAKA_FLOCKA) April 26, 2021
What I circled is Tillman's performance in the short mid-range (floater zone). Just remarkable efficiency on a shot he and the Grizzlies absolutely love pic.twitter.com/6C7rs7lQ2g
Tillman has experienced success here not only because of his feathery touch inside, but also because of his primary placement within the offense. Taylor Jenkins uses him a lot in the center of the offense, as he typically operates as the 5 in most lineups. There, they run a lot of dribble hand-off’s through him. Once the defense collapses on the ball-handler, Tillman keeps his hands up, finds a hole in the defense, and gets an easy bucket.
He’s also done a great job in transition, as his ability (and effort) to run the floor is a mismatch for opposing 5’s.
(Watch him just turn on the jets to leave Vucevic in the dust).
One of his biggest areas of growth from his last rotational stretch is his 3-point jumper. I’ve been wondering when Tillman’s 3-point potential would be tested for quite some time. In pre-draft works, he finished with the second-best percentages (75%) in the star workout — a 3-point movement drill — per Draft Express. Over the last 16 games, he’s made 8 three-pointers at a 41.8% clip — and for additional context, in the prior 31 games, he only converted on 10 triples on 27.8% shooting.
Tillman has fluid, repeatable mechanics from deep, and his recent run highlights his potential as a corner-spacer and pick-and-popper from the top of the key.
Xavier Tillman has shown legitimate growth from his first stint in the rotation to now. His activity and his improvement from beyond the arc have been impactful for the Grizzlies April success. It’s also going to lay the foundation of who he could become down the road.
What more can be said about Xavier Tillman’s defense? Despite lacking the ideal size for the 5 spot, his physicality and his switch-ability are prototypical for the “center” position.
Over the past month, he’s gotten a big test in playing physical centers. He’s had numerous battles with Daniel Theis and Nikola Vucevic. He’s also gone up against All-Star big men Domantas Sabonis and MVP frontrunner Nikola Jokic. After the latest Chicago game, Tillman talked about how much he enjoyed physical matchups — especially against other physical players— and how getting the less strict whistle definitely makes it more fun. His physicality has played a big part in his rim protection, as opponents are shooting 3.2% worse within 6 feet when Tillman’s the primary defender.
Xavier Tillman’s ability to switch has been awesome since entering the league, including a phenomenal sequence against Chris Paul earlier this season.
This spot here is where Chris Paul puts big men in spin cycles. Love the attention and patience Xavier Tillman exhibits here to stand his ground and force a steal.— Parker Fleming (@PAKA_FLOCKA) January 19, 2021
Guards are going to have problems winnings switches against X & Jaren Jackson Jr.@MSU_Basketball pic.twitter.com/7AhT0KsR5c
Switching — or at least the ability to step out and defend in space — has become a prerequisite for big men in today’s NBA. Xavier Tillman is already wise beyond his years in that regard. He always maintains active hands and moves his feet quickly to keep up with perimeter defenders, and because of that he alters shots on perimeter players. When Tillman’s contesting shots outside 15 feet, opponents shoot 2.6% worse.
Steve Jones Jr. — co-host of The Dunker Spot podcast, and former NBA assistant coach and video coordinator (with the Grizzlies!) — highlighted his ability to switch and keep the ball in front of him in Friday’s game against Portland. Sticking on CJ McCollum, one of the league’s shiftiest guards, is mightily impressive for a big man.
Look at this defensive sequence from Xavier Tillman. Look at it. Late switch, tries to deny, keeps the ball in front and contests. pic.twitter.com/q4GxXmiWTc— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 24, 2021
This wasn’t the only time he flashed that upside against Portland.
Tillman maintained good positioning on Damian Lillard late in the game. Because of his physicality and activity, he forced Lillard into a less-than-ideal, contested fadeaway jumper deep into the shot clock. You love to see that out of your big man.
When sharing the floor with another switchy 4 like Brandon Clarke or Kyle Anderson, the Grizzlies are at an advantage with constant defensive activity in their frontcourt. We saw a glimpse of it against the Clippers when Clarke and Tillman took turns switching on Luke Kennard in the same possession.
Versatility is king in today’s NBA, and Xavier Tillman has just that. His ability to defend in space and switch will keep him in the league for a long time.
Though Xavier Tillman didn’t get the nod in the fully-healthy rotation, he generated more of a case to belonging in it with his latest run of playing time while flashing the upside that this team saw when they traded up for him in the 2020 draft.
It’s just a testament to his work ethic, as Taylor Jenkins recently said that he “relishes the opportunity to get better.”
Before his latest rotation run, Tillman was the odd man out in favor of more outside shooting with De’Anthony Melton, Desmond Bane, and Grayson Allen. And in discussions about a fully-healthy rotation, he was the easy omission. After a marvelous month of April, people were figuring out which combinations could ensure Tillman stays in the rotation for the remainder of the season.
Xavier Tillman has been a fascinating development for the Grizzlies, as he’s an easy fit whichever way they want to roll. If they want to start him next to Jaren Jackson Jr. down the road, they can be interchangeable in the frontcourt, taking on whichever defensive assignment dependent on the matchup. Or he could be a backup 5 that’s a menace defending in space and making winning plays offensively.
His versatility is a key to whichever path the Grizzlies choose to go towards.
Xavier Tillman is a winning player that makes impact plays. Though he may not have a spot in this current 10-man rotation, his production and upside will not go unrecognized when building ahead towards the next iteration of great Memphis Grizzlies teams.
Stats and clips found on NBA.com/stats and Cleaning the Glass.