In part two of what will now be a three-part series, given Aaron Henry’s decision to declare for the NBA draft, I take a look at Xavier Tillman’s game from an NBA perspective: what will teams think of him when they see his film? How will he do in interviews? How will they evaluate him as a fit in the NBA? And, if he stays in the draft, which teams might view him as a fit?
NBA scouting report for Xavier Tillman
General info and initial scout:
6’8”, ~245 pounds, birthdate: Jan 12, 1999 (~21.75 years old at the start of 2020-21 NBA season)
Wingspan reported at ~7’1” (+5), not an explosive athlete, but has improved significantly in the last two years and looked more explosive towards the end of the last two seasons. Has big hands; had a bout of drops and mishandles early this season, but caught everything in the second half of the season. Not a leaper on defense, but incredibly strong base and lower body (held up very well against a number of bigger centers, especially in conference play), jumps second on block attempts and shows very good timing.
Can ball-watch a bit, but maybe because he is the main leader of the defense. Good hands in passing lanes, reads body-language well, which helps compensate for ball-watching. Good foot-work, but not elite lateral agility, which shows in pick and roll when he can get behind the play covering both the roller and the ball-handler; still projects as a solid PnR defender in the NBA, but not elite. Average defender in isolation situations on the perimeter, but elite at containing ball-handlers and in ISO inside the arc particularly strong post-defender (showed improvements vs NBA length this season).
His body has improved dramatically over his three years at Michigan State, with room for continued improvement. Married, with two children, very mature on and off the court, excellent communicator and thinker on and off the court — terrific locker-room presence, zero maintenance.
Shooting form is solid, but percentages on jump-shots leave much to be desired — did not take many in college, and can likely develop into a passable jump-shooter. Strength on offense is screen-setting (sophisticated use of angles, re-screening, great timing), passing (particularly out of short-roll in 4v3), and finishing (which improved over the course of the season once he started dunking and elevating better).
Was No. 3 in the nation in Box Plus/Minus (BPM) as a sophomore, and No. 1 in BPM as a junior — he knows how to play and contributes to winning basketball.
Length, quickness, and defending in space on switches are the concerns; swing-skills are shooting percentages (especially from three-point range), ball-handling, and lateral agility improvement.
Offense: Xavier is a good, but not great offensive player in college, but in the NBA he may actually project as a better offensive player. He is a terrific screener both in PnR and off-ball, and a superb passer moving the ball quickly and understanding where players should be, which allows him to quickly process defenses and make decisions (comfortably the best passing American big in the draft).
His finishing at the rim is very good, he shows solid body control in avoiding charges, and has begun to develop a useful little tear-drop/push-shot. He struggled more with length in his first two seasons, but developed a better understanding of how to leverage his advantages against bigger players this year and how to avoid blocks either with craftier finishes or by passing to open players. Tillman is terrific off cuts and runs the floor very well (typical of Michigan State bigs).
While his offensive rebounding dropped off a bit this year he will likely be a very good offensive rebounder in the NBA because this skill will be more central to his role (as it was in his first two seasons in college). Similarly, while he has a solid post-game (not great), he likely will rarely post-up unless against mismatches or in small-ball lineups, in which case he has the skill level to take advantage of the match-ups.
The other significant area for growth will be as a ball-handler. He improved significantly this season, but still has a considerable amount of development to become a higher-level creator offensively. Developing as a ball-handler and jump-shooter will determine whether or not he can become a starter or serve as a small-ball-five in crunch-time lineups.
Defense: One of the top defensive players in the nation this past season consistently winning match-ups against top bigs. Terrific post-defender where he held opponents to 38 percent in the paint (on 200 FGA where he was the primary or secondary defender). Combined for nearly four stocks (steals + blocks) per 36 minutes, which places him fifth among bigs in the draft, he is also the top-ranked big in the draft based on defensive BPM and overall BPM.
Tillman’s know-how, ability to read plays and actions, and overall toughness place him near the top of the group of bigs in the draft and clearly place him in a rotation-level category as an NBA defender. He still needs to improve as a defender of smaller and quicker players in space, especially out to the NBA three-point line. Tillman has a knack for making plays, securing important rebounds, and for rising to the level of his individual match-up.
Between-the-ears: As mentioned previously, Tillman is mature, an excellent communicator, and a terrific thinker of the game on both ends. He already has the mentality of an NBA veteran and a clear ability to prioritize the various aspects of his schedule, as evidenced by managing his family-life throughout his college career. He should do very well in interviews, but may suffer from not being able to showcase his intelligence on the court in small-group workouts that typically play a major role in NBA pre-draft evaluations.
NBA prospects & comparisons
The thresholds on the above chart include: Usg ≥ 15; OReb% ≥ 8; DReb% ≥ 15; Box +/- ≥ 6; OBPM ≥ 5; DBPM ≥ 5
Among these players, which the thresholds identify as at least medium-level usage players, solid rebounders, capable offensive players, and very solid defensive players, Tillman clearly compares very favorably. But is this a good indicator of whether his game will do well in the NBA? I would say yes, of this select group (data back to 2008), there are 10 NBA players (drafted and played games in the NBA), and a few solid guys playing in European leagues or the G-League. Tillman is obviously closer as an athlete to Draymond Green than Anthony Davis, Zion Williamson, Brandon Clarke, or even Willie Cauley-Stein, but he is by no means limited to the set listed above.
In addition to the above group, who he compares favorably with based on his statistical impact, he also compares well with NBA players like: Derrick Favors, Aaron Baynes, Ed Davis, Montrezl Harrell, Bam Adebayo, Udonis Haslem, PJ Tucker, and Kevon Looney. While many of these players (and some of the players listed above) developed three-point shots in the NBA, none of them shot particularly well from three-point range in college (if at all).
Though Michigan State fans may simply want to compare Tillman to Draymond Green, that comparison only goes so far (in both directions). Green was a far superior offensive player to Tillman when he entered the NBA, particularly in terms of his shooting and ball-handling, which allowed him to create shots off the dribble in a way that Tillman rarely does except off of possibly one dribble our of the PnR. Interestingly, Tillman is probably further along as a defender in the post at this point — Draymond was a very good post-defender in college, but actually improved on that score as a pro. Tillman has a slightly bigger frame, similarly long-arms, and a thorough understanding of how to bother bigger players, so the comparison fits well here.
Tillman projects as a rock-solid rotational player, with a high ceiling if he can improve his shooting percentages and show that he can handle NBA athletes and ball-handlers in space.
NBA fit, draft context (position-ranking), and potential landing spots
Tillman’s fit and future role is clear. In today’s NBA, bigs are required for rebounding, defending, screening, and scoring is, generally, their last role outside of the top 10 or so bigs in the league. Tillman fits perfectly into this role in terms of his interior defense, rebounding, and screening. His passing ability helps make up for his lack of shooting, somewhat, and potentially allows coaches to use him as a small-ball center (and lone non-shooter). Tillman will likely start as a bench player with a chance to play his way into small-ball lineups if his passing and defending in space hold-up.
In the past five years, the NBA draft has seen between 20 and 15 bigs drafted every year, including usually about three to eight Euro-stash players, and usually about five to 10 who become rotation players or starters. So where does Xavier stack up in this draft, which is curiously full of bigs?
The tiers of bigs are roughly as follows in my view and based on what NBA people and draftniks are saying:
Tier 1 (sure-fire first-round pick): James Wiseman, Onyeka Okongwu, Obi Toppin, Patrick Williams
Tier 2 (later-first to second round): Aleksej Pokusevski, Isaiah Stewart, Paul Reed, Jalen Smith, Killian Tillie, Daniel Oturu, Zeke Nnaji, Precious Achiuwa, Vernon Carey jr, Reggie Perry, Xavier Tillman, Udoka Azubuike, Neemias Queta, Nick Richards
Tier 3 ( second-round to undrafted): Kaleb Wesson, Anfernee McLemore, Jon Teske, Charles Bassey, Austin Wiley
That is an incredible 23 names, with probably one or two that I am missing from overseas (or even some domestic guys). This draft is a strange one for so many reasons, but the number of bigs who fall in the second-tier is one really interesting aspect of the draft, which is compounded by the inability of teams to bring in two to four of these bigs for small-group death-match-style work-outs. Even in the absence of those work-outs, Xavier Tillman still looks like a near-lock to be drafted at some point if he chooses to stay in the draft. What remains is to see how well he differentiates himself from that pack of Tier 2 bigs, and whether some teams would want a Tillman-kind-of-guy.
Looking at the Tier 2 pack, Tillman and Paul Reed clearly project as the best defensive bigs in the modern NBA, with Richards, Achiuwa, and Smith possibly joining that conversation, as they are far more switch-able than guys like Stewart, Tillie, Azubuike, Carey Jr, and Oturu. Reed also has better percentages on his jump-shooting, is a smoother and better athlete, but plays pretty wild and is often out of control.
Offensively, despite his excellent passing and strong but conservative offensive game, Tillman does rank below most of the bigs in this draft, the trick on that front, however, is role and fit. While most of the other bigs are better scorers and shooters, their fit on almost every NBA team is less ideal than Tillman’s whose game is already tailored to the modern NBA - in this respect he is very much like the Draymond Green who became such an integral non-scoring big for the Warriors over the last six seasons.
Looking at team needs in the late-first to mid-second rounds, and teams with picks in that range, the teams that might draft Xavier Tillman include, at least:
Philadelphia: Philly has very little big-man depth outside of Al Horford, Joel Embiid, Mike Scott, and Tobias Harris, and one of the three big bigs contracts (i.e. any but Scott) may get moved in conjunction with the draft. In short, Philly will likely need at least one big in the draft or free-agency, and maybe more. They may not draft Tillman, though, simply because his three-point shot does not provide them spacing.
Denver: Loses both Mason Plumlee and Paul Millsap in free agency just as Jamal Murray’s new contract kicks in, which means they likely will not be able to bring back both guys, even on lowered salaries. I doubt that Michael Porter Jr. can hold up as a big defensively, and I am guessing that head coach Mike Malone will try to play him as a wing as much as possible. Jerami Grant can play the four-spot, but he is not stout enough to hold up against the more physical wings and bigs. Tillman would also fit the culture here as a great passer, and because he is capable of filling in for Nikola Jokic when the big man takes a rest.
Miami: Miami has two bigs under contract: Bam Adebayo (a rising star) and Kelly Olynyk (on a player option final season). They will have to draft at least one big, and Tillman is not a clone of Bam Adebayo (less athletic, not as powerful), but he would fit very well in the uber-tough Heat culture and would be a capable change-of-pace big very similar to Udonis Haslem, who was a Heat stalwart for the last 17 years. Not the shooter Haslem was from the mid-range, Tillman could still provide excellent defense, great passing for Miami’s prolific shooters, and another defensive savant for the Heat.
Boston: Boston has six underwhelming bigs on small contracts. Daniel Theis and Robert Williams are good defenders but not superb offensive players (Theis is the better of the two), and Enes Kanter, their best offensive big, is awful defensively. If Boston makes any moves in their front-court Tillman could be a great fit. Boston will be cash crunched in the coming years with Kemba Walker and Gordon Hayward’s contracts now pairing with huge extensions from Jaylen Brown and, as of next off-season, Jayson Tatum, which may prevent them from making any moves.
Oklahoma City: OKC lose Danilo Gallinari and Nerlens Noel in free agency, and will need to find some long-term bigs to serve as Steven Adams’ understudy (unless the last year of his large contract gets traded this year). Bottom line: OKC has three bigs under contract, and will be bringing in multiple bigs this off-season.
Toronto: The Raptors are about to begin a major over-haul of their roster with Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry (assuming they re-sign him in a couple of years) as their core players. They lose Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka in free agency this year, and will need to bring in three or four bigs this summer. Tillman would fit very well in this culture, which prizes tough competitors; he would also be going to a team with a long-standing love of Michigan State as Morris Peterson was a fan favorite for the seven seasons he spent north of the border.
San Antonio: San Antonio is about one season away from facing a lot of decisions in the front-court, and they may kick start their front-court overhaul this summer if they decide to trade LaMarcus Aldridge. Regardless of that decision, San Antonio has one big under contract beyond next season, and Tillman fits as a high intelligence, high character, tough, great-defending, and superb passing big. Pop would enjoy having him at dinners on the road.
Charlotte: The Hornets have two bigs under contract for next season, and lose Cody Zeller, potentially, the following off-season. Michael Jordan loves drafting successful college players, and, of late, the Hornets have shown signs of really turning a corner. Tillman fits the Hornets’ draft profile, and really helps them in their biggest area of need: defense.
It is tough to say, but I think that Xavier Tillman is a sure-fire draft pick in this draft and possibly a late-first round pick. The question is whether he feels comfortable with his stock or whether he wants to come back for one more season at MSU, play with Joey Hauser, and lead a potentially dominant Michigan State team. Next year’s draft has a MUCH smaller group of big-man prospects, and with continued improvement as a shooter and ball-handler Tillman would almost certainly be a first-round lock. It’s up to Xavier whether he wants to be a pro sooner or later — either way he will be successful. My heart tells me he comes back to Michigan State for his senior year, but my gut and my brain tells me he gets drafted by Miami, Toronto, or Charlotte.