The Michigan State Spartans basketball program — like the rest of the NCAA — had its basketball season end prematurely amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. Seniors such as Cassius Winston, Kyle Ahrens and Conner George lost out on the final NCAA tournament of their careers.
Now, Winston will prepare for the NBA Draft, while the others may have played their last competitive basketball games. Joining Winston in the pursuit of professional basketball is forward/center Xavier Tillman and guard/forward Aaron Henry, who both declared early for the NBA Drat, but retained their college eligibility and could return to school. Henry recently signed an NCAA-approved agent, which is another step forward for him, but still allows him to come back to MSU if he still chooses to do so.
Things are in flux regarding the NBA season, which is currently in an indefinite hiatus as the coronavirus threat still looms large. The NCAA pushed back its original withdrawal deadline, which was originally scheduled for June 3 (happy birthday to me), to a date to be determined. The NBA has now postponed its Draft Lottery (originally scheduled for May 19) and the Combine (originally set for May 19-May 24). So, the Draft, which is currently penciled in for Thursday, June 25, could very well be pushed back as well.
Recently, The Ringer included both Winston (No. 34) and Tillman (No. 41) in its Top-50 NBA prospects rankings. Both players are projected as second-rounders, but sneak into the first round in a few mock drafts. In other news, Henry (No. 62), along with Tillman (No. 26) and Winston (No. 42), each made CBS Sports’ Top-100 prospect rankings. However Henry isn’t listed in any mock draft included below in this piece, as most project him to return to East Lansing. In any event, here is a roundup of recent mock drafts to see where draft-eligible Spartans are projected to go.
Rob Dauster of NBC Sports is one of the few NBA Draft pundits who believes both Winston and Tillman belong in the first round. He has Winston at No. 23 and Tillman at No. 26. Note, with the season unfinished and the Lottery drawing pushed back, Dauster is not projecting specific teams to the specific Draft slots, just the players.
Here is what he had to say regarding Winston:
23. CASSIUS WINSTON, Michigan State
Winston did not have the season many of us expected him to have as a senior — understandably, given the death of his brother in November — but he still put up All-American numbers for a team that won a share of the Big Ten regular season title. He was playing his best basketball down the stretch, and he still has the highest basketball IQ of anyone in this 2020 NBA mock draft. He’s an elite passer and shooter that thrives in ball-screens. Yes, the defense and athleticism are concerns, but we said the same thing about numerous point guards that have made careers out of being backup point guards. Winston is the next in that pipeline.
And here are Dauster’s thoughts on Tillman:
26. XAVIER TILLMAN, Michigan State
I may be out on a limb here, but I truly believe that Tillman is worth a first round pick, especially in this year’s draft class. There’s really two reasons for this: For starters, he is a terrific passer. No one in college basketball is better than making the right play in a 4-on-3 scenario when the defense traps a pick-and-roll ball-handler than Tillman. But he is also an excellent defender that can really read the game. Talk to people around the Michigan State program and they’ll tell you he ran everything defensively. It was his voice that teammates heard. Now, the major question mark is his size. At just 6-foot-8, can he defend fives? Is he quick enough to play the four? If we knew for a fact that the answer to both of those questions would be ‘yes, and he can do it very well,’ I would have him slotted as a top 20 pick.
The first clip here shows how effective he can be as the fulcrum of an offense. The second? Men his size aren’t supposed to be able to avoid a charge like that. pic.twitter.com/5EUGu4EUql— Rob Dauster (@RobDauster) January 4, 2020
The Bleacher Report staff has the Spartan teammates going back to back in its “fantasy GM” mock draft, and Bleacher Report’s lead NBA Scout Jonathan Wasserman provided a grade and analysis of each pick. Both players went toward the end of the first round.
27. New York Knicks: Xavier Tillman
Tillman is a safe pick for a team that could use stability and tough-minded players. His defense, passing and hustle point to role-player potential. But the Knicks passed on too many higher-upside prospects.
28. Toronto Raptors: Cassius Winston
Already 22 years old without any plus athletic trait, Winston doesn’t scream upside. But he should be ready to contribute right away with his high-level shot-making and passing IQ.
Matt Norlander of CBS Sports has Tillman in the first round, but does not have Winston (nor Henry). He slots Tillman at pick No. 21 overall to the Denver Nuggets.
Tillman is a polarizing prospect, weirdly. Many evaluators will not put him in the top 30. I can barely keep him outside my top 20. He was one of the five-or-so best defensive players in college basketball last season. He’s a grown man with a great team attitude and a solid hoops IQ. His offensive habits need some refining, but Tillman has many of the tools required to have a long-lasting NBA career as a power forward. If you watched Michigan State, the case was made over and over. You can’t convince me there are 25 — let alone 30 — better pros in this draft than him.
Lance Cartelli of 247Sports.com includes Winston in the first round of his latest mock draft. He has the point guard heading to the New York Knicks (via the Los Angeles Clippers). He actually has the Knicks doubling up on point guards in the first round after mocking Iowa State’s Tyrese Haliburton to New York with the sixth overall pick.
The Knicks should go all-in on finding their next franchise point guard in this year’s draft. Our take: Draft Tyrese Haliburton early, and double down with Cassius Winston at the end of the first round. Winston is known more for his leadership than his upside, but he’s a battle-tested vet who played under storied coach Tom Izzo for four years. That experience will help him navigate the early days of his NBA career.
Cartelli does not include Tillman (or Henry) in his first round, however, he mentions Tillman as the first on his “Ones to Watch” list.
Tillman is still 50-50 on whether he will return to Michigan State for his senior season, but NBA scouts looking for a young, energetic big man who moves well without the ball and sets strong screens may find a winning option in this Spartans veteran.
There is only one Spartan taken in Yardbarker’s one-round Mock Draft 2.0 written by Sean Keane. It is Tillman, who slots in at No. 28 to the Toronto Raptors.
In college, Tillman already looked like a Raptor. He defends hard in the post, but he can switch onto the perimeter. He sets screens, blocks shots and shoots well. The reason he dropped this far is that he’s already 21 and seemingly hit his ceiling, but this is a guy who’s a useful backup big right now.
Yahoo! Sports’ Krysten Peek sees Winston and Tillman both going in the second round in her latest mock draft. She has Winston coming off of the board at No. 44 overall to the Portland Trail Blazers. Meanwhile, Tillman goes just a few picks later at No. 48 to the Golden State Warriors.
The website tankathon.com has both Tillman and Winston being selected in the second round (Aaron Henry is left out completely) in its latest mock draft.
Tillman actually goes ahead of Winston here at No. 36 overall to the Philadelphia 76ers (via the Atlanta Hawks). What’s interesting is the website actually ranks Tillman as the No. 3 center in the NBA Draft behind only Memphis’ James Wiseman and Duke’s Vernon Carey Jr. In this particular mock draft, Wiseman goes first overall to the Warriors and Carey is actually the last pick of the first round to the Boston Celtics (via the Milwaukee Bucks). Tillman is listed 34th on Tankathon’s Big Board.
Meanwhile, Winston is selected at No. 45 here by the Orlando Magic. This is close to where Winston ranks on the website’s Big Board at No. 47.
Over at NBADraftNet, the site just barely includes Winston in its latest two-round mock draft as he is selected at No. 56 by the Charlotte Hornets (a reunion with Miles Bridges would be fun). Tillman and Henry are not included in this particular mock draft.
On another note, the NBADraft.net Consensus, actually has Winston going a couple spots earlier at No. 53 to the Atlanta Hawks.
The site ranks Winston as No. 60 overall on its Big Board.
For a more in-depth look at Draft projections and team fits, check out Sam Tyler’s draft profile pieces: