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Xavier Tillman is a menace for Memphis

Tillman possesses multiple strengths that make him a hand-in-glove fit for today’s NBA.

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NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

If Memphis Grizzlies general manager Zach Kleiman has proven anything over his two-plus years at the wheel, it’s that he ruthlessly capitalizes on opportunities to move up in the draft. In 2019, Memphis shipped the 23rd overall pick and a 2024 second-rounder to the Oklahoma City Thunder in exchange for pick 21, which they used to select Brandon Clarke. Then during the 2020 NBA Draft, Kleiman made two more shrewd deals to land a pair of rookies who by all indications appear to be long-term fits in Memphis: Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

How much did it cost in total to acquire the two 2020 draftees? Memphis surrendered their second-round pick (40th), three future seconds, and cash considerations. Second-round choices are a dime a dozen in the NBA. Kleiman deserves credit for his ability to utilize these picks as cornerstones of deals that saw Memphis move up the board. But second-rounders have served as more than mere trade fodder for Kleiman.

Though picks 31-60 don’t traditionally hold overwhelming value in the NBA, diamonds in the rough emerge from each class. Luckily for the Grizzlies, a recent example of a diamond in the rough was none other than Tillman at number 35, whose rights were dealt to Memphis in exchange for the 40th pick and a 2022 second.

Kleiman is one of the best in the business at spotting young talent. Tillman is only the latest hit for Kleiman in what has been a career full of home runs. The numbers tell the story that the Michigan State alum was elite at multiple aspects on each end of the court.

NBA: Dallas Mavericks at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

The floater shot was a staple of the Grizzlies offense this season. A whopping 29.4% of the team’s combined field goal attempts fell within the short mid-range area, or between 4-14 feet from the basket, per Cleaning the Glass. This ranked tops in the NBA by a wide margin, with the runner-up being the Washington Wizards at 24.9% — 4.5% fewer.

While Memphis relied on the floater more than anyone in basketball, they didn’t lead the way in accuracy. The Grizzlies found themselves closer to the middle of the pack as they converted an albeit respectable 44.2% of their short mid-range tries, good for the tenth-most accurate clip in the game.

If it wasn’t for Tillman, Memphis doesn’t finish where they did in attempts or efficiency from the in-between area. No Grizzly shot the floater with the combination of precision and usage that he did. Tillman’s 55% clip (88th percentile among bigs) not only outclassed all Grizzlies but also all NBA rookies who logged at least 1000 minutes in 2020-21. Furthermore, the sole player 22 or younger who belonged in a higher percentile for the floater zone was Luka Doncic at the 91st percentile. If nothing else, to be mentioned in the same breath as Doncic indicates Tillman did something right.

Tillman’s teammates certainly contributed to his floater game’s seamless transition to the pros. Playing with upper-echelon facilitators in Morant and Tyus Jones in the pick and roll meant Tillman was a continual beneficiary of on-time and on-target dimes at the top of the key. In addition, when factoring in that Tillman possesses a speedy flea-flicker release on his floaters, it becomes apparent why defenses could do little to deter him from scoring within 4-14 feet. As a result, expect the floater to remain a vital piece of Tillman’s offensive repertoire as his career progresses.

NBA: Memphis Grizzlies at Miami Heat Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

The floater is the meat and potatoes of Tillman’s offensive game, but this single shot far from encapsulates his entire scoring capabilities. Tillman also served as a reliable and capable floor-stretcher when need be. He nailed 36% of his threes as a rookie (56th percentile per Cleaning the Glass). However, Tillman’s three-point accuracy was a somewhat puzzling case. The corner three is one of the most efficient shots in basketball. Yet, Tillman went just 34% (42nd percentile) on the year from the corners. What about the non-corners? Tillman approached elite territory, as his 39% clip ranked in the 73rd percentile among bigs.

There’s no reason to panic about Tillman’s corner three woes. Three-point shooting was far from a strength of his as he entered the NBA. He averaged 0.7 long-range attempts per game across his three seasons at Michigan State and converted a mere 27.3% of them. 34%, while not astoundingly accurate by any means, is still a significant improvement from his collegiate days. Gradual progression is the name of the game when it comes to player development, and Tillman did that and then some as a three-point shooter this season.

All it took was one year for Tillman to transform from a non-threat behind the arc to a 36% shooter. In no other area did Tillman showcase such remarkable growth, and in a vitally important aspect of the modern NBA, no less. So long as Morant wears Beale Street Blue, there will exist a demand for shooters to space the floor and open up driving lanes for the franchise cornerstone. Tillman now checks that box. His newfound three-point expertise is a beautiful development and should have Grizzlies faithful optimistic that he’ll only continue to hone his accuracy from deep.

NBA: Sacramento Kings at Memphis Grizzlies Christopher Hanewinckel-USA TODAY Sports

Tillman was an uber-efficient scorer from inside and out, but it was on the defensive end where he truly turned heads. To say he’s mature beyond his years is a massive understatement. It’s common for rookies to struggle defensively because of the talent discrepancy between college and the pros. Tillman was a rare exception. If there were such thing as an All-Rookie Defensive Team, he would’ve almost certainly made the cut. He was that excellent.

Tillman wasted no time in staking his claim as perhaps the Grizzlies’ top rim protector. It’s worth noting he isn’t a traditional shot-blocker such as New York’s Mitchell Robinson. Rather, Tillman employed his superb basketball IQ and defensive positioning to contest shots instead of swatting them into the fourth row. What Tillman lacks in vertical pop he more than makes up for in wits and technique. The rule of verticality, or “going straight up,” is an effective method to prevent at-the-rim scores that Tillman has already mastered.

Opponents fared significantly worse at the rim when Tillman was on the court versus when he was off — 2.9% worse or 79th percentile per Cleaning the Glass. Gorgui Dieng, who departed to the San Antonio Spurs mid-way through the season, admittedly destroyed Tillman in this metric as opponents’ interior accuracy suffered 6.0% when he took the floor for Memphis. But other than Dieng, Tillman’s -2.9% reigned supreme. For reference on how the neophyte stacked up against his peers, Jaren Jackson Jr. was second among bigs on the current roster at -1.4%.

The ideal defensive big nowadays can switch onto perimeter players and defend in space. With active hands and impressive foot speed for a behemoth, Tillman proved himself more than capable of harassing shorter contemporaries. Throughout his 59-game season, Tillman had auspicious sequences checking Tobias Harris, Damian Lillard, and Chris Paul in one-on-one situations. Note how in the clip below he doesn’t backpedal as the perimeter player heads to the rim, unlike most bigs. Instead, he slides his feet side-to-side and keeps pace with his man every step of the way, hence eliminating any driving angles.

The Grizzlies couldn’t have asked for a better maiden season from Tillman. Though he’s played fewer than 60 regular-season games in Memphis, Tillman has proven he is someone worth holding on to beyond the near future.

It won’t be long before Tillman becomes a fan-favorite in Memphis, even more so than he is now. Jonas Valanciunas won’t be the Grizzlies starting center forever, and when that time comes, it’ll likely be Tillman who takes his place. So sit back and enjoy the ride, Memphis fans, because you’ve seen only the beginning of Xavier Tillman.

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