Last night, two Michigan State Spartans heard their names called in the NBA Draft. Xavier Tillman was drafted by the Sacramento Kings in the second round (No. 35 overall) and then traded to the Memphis Grizzlies, while Cassius Winston was selected later in the second round at No. 53 overall by the Oklahoma City Thunder and then traded to the Washington Wizards.
Both players met with the media this morning via Zoom. We will focus on Tillman’s quotes for this particular article, and post a separate piece later with Winston’s remarks.
For Tillman, the Draft Night experience was exciting, but of course, nerve-racking. He admitted as much, but he is extremely happy to be in this position.
“It was nerve-racking for sure,” Tillman said of Draft Night. “I was pretty cool until (pick No.) 20. Once 20 happened I was like ‘OK, I could be up anywhere.’ Every pick I was standing up (waiting for my name to be called), ‘nah,’ standing up, ‘nah,’ and just going up and down the whole time. It was definitely nerve-racking for me and my whole family. But no, it was crazy excited...I was like ‘man, I actually got my named call — I’m in the NBA.’ It’s unbelievable.”
Tillman will reunite in Memphis with his former Michigan State teammate, Jaren Jackson Jr. The two are actually close friends, and Jackson was even Tillman’s best man at his wedding in 2019.
The pair first became teammates in 2016, when they played a season of AAU basketball together. After both committed to Michigan State, they won a Big Ten title together as freshmen in 2018. A couple years later, the culmination of that journey sees Tillman and Jackson teaming up for a third time, this time at the highest level of basketball competition in the NBA.
“I don’t know if Jaren called us or we called Jaren, but we were on the phone within like 20 seconds of me getting picked,” Tillman said. “Everybody was so excited. Just to be re-connected again, to know that (Tillman’s daughter) Yanni gets to keep that relationship and build that relationship up with Jaren, and now my son, Bubs, that’s great.”
“A whole lot of screaming and yelling, a whole lot of screaming and yelling — that’s the basis of our conversation,” Tillman said with a laugh. “Just excited, kind of like ‘I can’t believe this is happening.’ (Jackson) was texting me and calling me throughout the Draft like ‘just breathe, you’re good,’ because he knew I could try to keep it cool the best I can, but he knew that I was going crazy on the inside. So he was just telling me ‘just breathe, everything’s gonna be all right, and we gonna be good.”
As mentioned above, Tillman has two young children and a wife at home. Playing in the NBA will force him to be away from his family a lot more, and for longer periods of time. Tillman admitted that’s probably going to be the toughest part of adjusting to NBA life, but he has no worries otherwise.
“We tried to (process what being away from the family means), I tried to for sure,” Tillman said. “Just knowing that the away games and the trips will be a little bit longer than (at) Michigan State where we would leave for like a day-and-a-half to two days, or in the tournament it was up to four days. To like, we might be gone for max a week or maybe even max two weeks gone from home, and then we come back and we’ll be home for a while. I think that will be the hardest part to really adjust to is the length of how long I’ll be gone. But once we get used to that, I don’t see there being any challenges or anything like that.”
Another thing that is unique for Tillman, Winston and the rest of the 2020 Draft class is that there will be no ramp up period to prepare for the jump from college to the NBA. There is no summer league or events that rookies usually are able to attend to work on their games. Training camp starts at the beginning of December, with regular season starting on Dec. 22.
Tillman knows it will be different for him, but he isn’t using that as an excuse or seeing it as a detriment. He is ready to come into Memphis and go to work.
“It’s just gonna be work, and I’m open-minded for everything and I’m ready to learn from everybody,” Tillman said. “Obviously it’s a quick turnaround compared to former years or past years or what have you, but I know it just takes work for me — being in there before practice, after practice and getting as much work as I can to prepare myself for the first game is what I’m gonna do.”
Tillman said Memphis was definitely on his radar, and that the Grizzlies “showed a lot of love” and “desire” to have Tillman and his family there. Tillman is very excited to go to Memphis, however, he felt that a lot of teams passed him up earlier in the draft, and he’s going to use that as a driving motivation throughout his NBA career.
“Definitely, it was motivation,” Tillman said of being passed up in the Draft. “After (picks No.) 26 and 29 and 30 — those were the teams I really thought I had a good chance with, was Boston and Toronto — after getting passed on by those teams, it definitely lit a fire under me. Like, ‘OK, if they didn’t think I was ready now, just wait and see what I’m gonna be like in the season.’ Definitely lit a fire under me — I don’t know if it’ll ever be burned out until I’m done playing because I know my worth and I know how hard I’ve worked to get to where I am. Not to discredit anybody, but just to say that I’ve worked my butt off to get to where I am.”
Tom Izzo texted Tillman about five minutes before he was picked. Tillman said Izzo told him to “hang in there” and to use the fact that he was passed up in the first round to be “a fire” and “motivation” for Tillman moving forward. Tillman added that Izzo’s words helped him keep his head up throughout the process, and he heard his named called five or six picks later.
Tillman also said he was playing close attention to where his teammate Cassius Winston was going. He says every pick he was “locked in” and “waiting to see where he would go.” The two Spartans spoke to each other last night.
If you’re interested in what Cassius Winston had to say about the NBA Draft experience, read here.