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Translating Xavier Tillman’s Summer League performance

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Xavier Tillman had the chance to do more, and he impressed as a result.

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2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Brooklyn Nets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

There are two truths to Summer League hoops.

You can’t take too much from it. It’s a fun and unique experience, but you’re trying to draw conclusions based on young players being thrust into roles that they won’t be forced into next season around a roster where half of them won’t play regular season minutes next to them.

After all, a lot of us avid Memphis Grizzlies followers saw Josh Selby absolutely destroy the Summer League, en route to a Co-Summer League MVP award, then wash out of the league in the same season.

So you just got to take the flashes and see what’s translatable.

Another truth is, you want to see your “veterans” — 2nd and 3rd-year guys — look like the best players on the floor. If they’re not standing out in the crowd of newly-drafted rookies and players fighting for NBA lives here, it’s a tough scene all-around.

Second-year big man Xavier Tillman falls into both of these truths.

After playing a big role in the Grizzlies playoff run this past season, Tillman went into Summer League looking to expand his game. It was a success, as he looked like one of the best players on the floor while exhibiting good, translatable skills for regular-season action.

He continued to play strong defense, rebound well, and hit his hyper-efficient floater — as he did in his rookie season. He also flashed upside in his two biggest swing skills: 3-point shooting and playmaking. Building on these skills will be crucial for Tillman’s development, especially as the Grizzlies look to architect the perfect frontcourt centered around Jaren Jackson Jr.

2021 Salt Lake City Summer League: Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Blue Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Xavier Tillman was praised for his potential as a playmaker coming into the 2020 NBA draft. He did showcase that in his rookie season, operating well as a high-post passer that primarily generated looks for his teammates through screens and dribble hand-offs..

In this year’s Summer League he continued to create in the high post, but he fully took advantage of the Grizzlies and their “no point guard” system to reveal his full arsenal as a playmaker. He tallied 7 assists in each of the 2 games he played in at Vegas, while averaging 3 assists in the 2 games in Utah.

(Fun fact: The only players in Las Vegas that averaged more assists, in such a small sample by the way, are Payton Pritchard, Sharife Cooper, Immanuel Quickley, and Georgios Kalaitzakis (1 game). Again, small samples but fun Summer League company nonethless.)

Assists can be misleading, because there are some that are created through the flow of the offense rather than creating a look for others. Tillman did get a few assists that resulted from the flow of the offense, but he was also able to find his teammates and set them up for clean looks.

Tillman did an excellent job of creating looks from the perimeter, displaying excellent timing and vision on finding his cutters. He had this one give-and-go sequence with Ziaire Williams, where he zipped a bounce-back to the rookie off the cut, which led to a foul. It was easily one of the best plays from this year’s Grizzlies Summer League action.

In addition, Tillman started to push the ball up the floor off of rebounds and steals more often as well. He displayed good patience and poise to find openings to fire it to open teammates running the transition lanes. He even flashed his switch-ability and open-floor playmaking in this rad alley-oop with Killian Tillie:

Will Tillman have the ball in his hands as much as he did in Summer League? No, probably not. However, he shows value as another playmaker in Taylor Jenkins’ mission to deploy as many guys on the floor that can create scoring opportunities as possible.

He probably won’t get as many chances to push the ball off rebounds, but he showed that he can be a big that takes 2-3 dribbles up the floor before finding a teammate for a transition 3 or easy layup. That is important for a team that relies on playing with good pace and capitalizing on transition play and on discombobulated defenses.

Tillman will continue operating at the top of the key in the offense, as he uses his strength and big frame to free ball-handlers off rugged screens. This is where this summer’s action could translate — as he demonstrated more comfort with the ball in his hands, he could find cutters and open shooters from attacking at this spot of the floor. He’ll continue creating looks for his teammates off hand-offs that lead to screens, but expanding his passing repertoire into slip passes and kick-outs — like he showed this summer — will raise his ceiling and the performance of the system.

Having as many playmakers on the floor is crucial in today’s NBA, and Tillman showing growth in that area is promising for his game and for his fit on the Grizzlies.


2021 Salt Lake City Summer League: Memphis Grizzlies v Utah Jazz Blue Photo by Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

I’ve always thought Xavier Tillman’s archetype could be a 3-and-D big man — a small-ball center that can defend in space, switch when called upon, and hit open looks from 3.

He showed promise as a shooter in his rookie season. Upon his return to the rotation, he canned 42.9% of his 28 3-point attempts in the final 26 regular season games. In addition, he drilled 39% of his non-corner 3’s, which ranked among the 73rd percentile among big men per Cleaning the Glass. With his smooth mechanics, and what a 3-point jumper can do for his ceiling, each triple left me wanting more.

It didn’t connect at the clip that you’d like to see, as he shot 3-of-9 (33.3%) in his 4 games. However, the willingness stands out to me. In the two Vegas outings, he shot a total of 7 threes over the 2 games, connecting on only two of them. Again though, that volume — roughly 3 tries a game — is ideal for Tillman’s trajectory. It puts him in a spot where he’s not compromising his skillset by removing too many 2’s for 3’s, but the more daring volume also elevates his offensive ceiling. Defenders would also have to pay more respect to him from there with that volume, rather than just shooting about 1 game.

Where and how he converts these looks is also a major key for Tillman’s perimeter development. As illustrated in a stat above, he’s a better shooter above the break, typically relocating off of pick-and-pops — and that’s about right for his main roster fit with how often he’s used as a screener. Seeing an uptick in corner 3’s would be nice. If he could hit step-back 3’s like he did here, that’d be massive (but don’t necessarily count on it):

Xavier Tillman has the mechanics to be a good 3-point shooter for his position, and it’s an important swing skill for the trajectory of his game. Seeing him venture out to the 3-point line a bit more in this summer’s exhibition outings is promising, as well as something that can be continued.


2021 Las Vegas Summer League - Brooklyn Nets v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Xavier Tillman is set for a big sophomore season. After a rock-solid rookie performance, he’s getting a chance to build off of it with an actual NBA offseason — something he did not experience his rookie year, as they jumped into training camp two weeks after getting drafted.

It’s promising to see Tillman look like one of the best 2-3 players on the floor during his first Summer League, and it’s even better to see him flash translatable upside in his two biggest swing skills.

Growth in these areas are important for his trajectory.

It could lead to him being the primary 3rd big man, spelling minutes for the 4 or 5 off the bench. He could maybe start next to his best man Jaren Jackson Jr. long-term, or even contend to start next to him on opening night for the 2021-22 season — it’s not crazy to think that.

These things are possible, if Tillman can continue honing his craft as a playmaker and shooter, and he made great progress in those steps in the Utah and Las Vegas Summer League games.

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