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Xavier Tillman embodied the ‘Next Man Up’ mentality

X Gon’ Give It To Ya was few and far between this season

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NBA: Playoffs-Golden State Warriors at Memphis Grizzlies Petre Thomas-USA TODAY Sports

Xavier Tillman’s 2021-2022 sophomore campaign with the Memphis Grizzlies was weird in some ways. His minutes were inconsistent throughout the season, as he never really cracked the rotation, but when his number was called he performed well in some big moments.

By nearly every metric, Tillman got worse this past season after a fairly good rookie year for the former 2nd-round pick. His minutes (18.4 to 13.2), points per game (6.6 to 4.8), rebounds per game (4.3 to 3), field goal percentage (55.9% to 45.4%), and 3-point percentage (33.8% to 20.4%) all suffered in his 2nd year. There are a couple of things that contributed to his Sophomore slump:

  • The re-emergence of Brandon Clarke
  • Jaren Jackson Jr. being healthy for a full season
  • Taylor Jenkins’ insistence on having a 10-man rotation to start the season.

Tillman was asked to do more his rookie year mostly due to the situation (Jaren Jackson Jr. missing most of the season) and showed some promise for his future. He displayed the ability to switch on pick and rolls and pops on defense and held his own guarding the perimeter. He performed so well on defense that my co-host from the Starting 5 podcast, Tev Shakir, gave him potential Draymond Green comparisons. Also, he displayed the ability to shoot the 3 consistently from the corner and rebounded well for his size at 6’8”, 245 lb.

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

He played 59 of 72 regular season games including 12 starts that season. His most notable start was his first double-double against the Denver Nuggets in April 2021, where he racked up 18 points and 14 rebounds on 58% shooting against the eventual MVP Nikola Jokic. Also, he played clutch minutes in the Grizzlies’ play-in game victory against the Golden State Warriors last season, even hitting a clutch 3 from the corner in overtime of that game. His season ended on somewhat of a sour note as he did not play much in the playoff series against the Jazz, mostly because of the height disadvantage of Rudy Gobert and the shortening of the rotation for the playoffs.

As for his sophomore campaign, inconsistent is probably the best term to describe it. His minutes were inconsistent as well as his numbers as he only played 53 of 82 games with 2 starts. Shooting 45% as a big man that mostly plays the center position is not good at all. I recall my other co-host from the Starting 5 podcast, Trevor, making a joke about Tillman’s blown layup attempts when he had opportunities to play a couple of months ago. Judging by his Per 36 numbers, his scoring and rebounding remained around the same at 12.9 PPG and 8.4 RPG, but his shot attempts went up by 1.1 field goals per game which explain the shooting percentage drop.

The playoffs provided an opportunity for redemption of some sort for Tillman. As evidenced by the Grizzlies’ Game 1 loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves, it became obvious that Steven Adams was a huge mismatch for Minnesota to exploit with Karl Anthony Towns being so mobile. In comes Tillman in Game 2 with arguably his best game of the entire season with 13 points, 7 rebounds, and a +5 +/-. Due to that performance, he would continue to not only play but start throughout the rest of that series and the beginning of the Warriors series to mixed results.

Boston Celtics v Memphis Grizzlies Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images

Looking ahead to the future, I’m not sure if Tillman is a trade candidate, a back-end rotation player, or a full-time rotation player. He had a considerable drop in shooting percentage, and it seemed like he was hesitant to shoot from 3 this season. The roster configuration and the next step of his development will likely determine what his role is going forward. For comparison’s sake, Brandon Clarke had a great rookie year before having a bit of a sophomore slump last season and then turning it around in his 3rd year. Although BC is probably more talented, X can look to him for motivation.

The free agency decision of Kyle Anderson, development of Santi Aldama, and potential offseason acquisitions of big men will likely determine Tillman’s fate of consistent playing time for next season and so forth. He has the tools you like on defense and has a good sample size of corner 3-point shooting, and he uses his size to rebound from his rookie year to at least be respected, which is why I believe in Tillman. My prediction is that another year of Summer League play is in store for Tillman, and his playing time status will be determined shortly afterward.

Despite the inconsistent sophomore season, Xavier Tillman came through when it mattered most, and he embodied the team’s “next man up” mentality.

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