Xavier Tillman Could Solve A Lot Of Problems For A Team That Needs A Big Man

Basketball, on a fundamental level, is comprised of micro decisions and events that quickly build upon one another. Teams with better decision-makers — whether that trait stems from skill, athleticism, or feel — generally wield an advantage over their opponent. Eventually, once micro decisions coalesce into macro outcomes, those advantages manifest on the scoreboard or in the standings.

Through an array of avenues, Xavier Tillman is a brilliant decision-maker on both ends, helping forge advantages offensively and quell them defensively. There are more detailed ways to break down his game — we’ll dive into those shortly — but the connective theme is his sharp, instantaneous decision-making, which renders him a top-25 player in this Draft class.

Tillman’s decision-making artistry can often be subtle, though it’s easily discernible when isolating on him. As an interior defender, he is prompt in rotations and merges verticality, timing, and positioning to consistently alter shots inside. He understands angles, which, along with supreme functional strength, he applies to stymie post-ups. He has inarguably the best hands among big men in this class, enabling him to snare rebounds or steals — he boasted a 2.1 percent steal rate this past season. All of this means he embodies vital pillars of defense: alteration and deterrence.

Offensively, this same understanding of angles and proclivity for executing snappy, correct decisions is prevalent. As a passer, Tillman consistently keeps the ball pinging, capable of executing high-level reads for a big, while also being timely in his actions. His post passing is quite good, but feels less pertinent when assessing his professional future because it’s unlikely he commands significant touches on the block in the NBA. But his short-roll playmaking is where the true talent exists, providing a stage to showcase vision and punctuality.

In addition to his passing, his finishing and screen-setting suggest he projects as a highly equitable pick-and-roll big moving forward. Last season, he ranked in the 91st percentile around the basket, according to Synergy, and brandishes both ambidexterity and savvy at the rim. His lack of vertical pop will pose hurdles as a finisher in some NBA contexts, but the aforementioned assets should ensure he remains good or very good.

The concept of off-ball impact or presence is overwhelmingly reserved for back-court players offensively, largely centered around how good someone is as a shooter, cutter, and relocation artist. But Tillman is the rare big man who is so impactful without the ball in his hands that his value must be articulated. Whether it’s to simplify/enact a passing window, set a screen, or dive to the rim, he maximizes his opportunities off the ball. Despite some woes from beyond the arc that we’ll get into momentarily, defenders cannot ignore him without risking repercussions. Doing so invites him to free someone up with a screen, wander into space for a drop-off pass that leads to a bucket inside or dart to a spot, initiate a pick-and-roll or dribble hand-off, and establish an advantage with his screen-setting.

Tillman is the chief screener in this class and nobody rivals him. He constantly springs teammates loose with mammoth picks, is instinctual in identifying impromptu chances, and recognizes when and how to flip the angle of screens if the situation demands. Any NBA team utilizing a screen-heavy attack will benefit from his services, and it’s a leading reason he’s so dangerous off the ball.

This excellence as a screener lends credence to the idea that he should holster utility in dribble hand-offs, too. Given his draft range, it seems doubtful that he earns on-ball usage in such a manner early on. But down the road, his screening prowess and intelligence are going to give him worth as a DHO initiator. He was the trigger man rather frequently at Michigan State and exhibited faculty, leveraging advantages in the two-man game for pull-up jumpers or downhill waltzes. Sometimes, when the defender overplayed the handoff or he deemed it suitable, he’d even audible, bust out a ball fake, and further display his finishing and passing acumen against a scrambled defense.

Discovering ways to extract offensive value from Tillman is paramount. While I’m optimistic about his finishing mostly translating, he encountered struggles against longer rim protectors in college because he doesn’t own the vertical pop to score over the top. More importantly, he doesn’t offer notable self-creation potential and the projection of his three-point shooting remains in flux. He shot 27.3 percent from deep on 77 total attempts and 66.7 percent at the free throw line across three collegiate seasons, both of which are discouraging signposts. But a minor mechanical tweak could facilitate the development of his jumper to fashion value in pick-and-pops or on spot-ups.

He has considerably pronounced wrist flexion when he shoots, forming a perpendicular angle with his forearm. My suspicion is this inhibits Tillman’s touch. To some degree, it’s as if he’s launching the ball rather than purely shooting. That, from my perspective, appears to be the underlying issue here. In the proper environment and with targeted development, I’m confident this sort of problem is correctable to the point of turning him into a viable threat from outside.

If so, Tillman becomes a particularly novel offensive cog. He’d be one of the most sound decision-making bigs in the league, while also imprinting himself as a short-roll passer, pick-and-pop presence, and elite screener. Of course, there likely exists a shallow ceiling on his offense, since he is not a dominant play finisher, lead ball-handler, or adept self-creator. But even acknowledging that ceiling does not preclude him from merit, given the baseline of decision-making, passing and screening; a positive shooting outcome merely threads all of this together and amplifies the impact. These three skills do not require him to shoulder voluminous on-ball reps, which is crucial for non-stars, and enable him to seamlessly blend into the background, ideally advancing the goals of his team’s primary ball-handlers and scorers.

When thrust into pick-and-roll defense, deploying him in drop is the most prudent approach. He’s a master of positioning, acutely aware of how to contain ball-handlers and toggle back to the roll man, utilizing intelligence, strength, and swift, strong hands to muck up actions. He’s also playable in hedge-and-recover, traps, or “shows,” touting the length (7’2 wingspan), reaction time, and relative mobility to function on the perimeter occasionally. These aren’t the type of coverages he should be tasked with consistently, but he isn’t a plodder who must be anchored in the paint.

His lack of short-area quickness and vertical explosion are going to hurt him in both conservative and aggressive coverages, so he’s not going to emerge as one of the league’s top pick-and-roll big defensively. Regardless, these physical limitations are not enough to override his effectiveness on the whole, even if some opponents will find success scoring over him or finding the edge to get downhill.

If the surrounding personnel allows, I’m also intrigued with the possibility of Tillman defending these face-up or slashing-oriented guys who don’t have the pull-up game of most handlers nowadays. He’s strong, boasts some lateral mobility, knows how to position himself to maximize angles, and is an adept rim protector. Assigning him to All-Stars such as Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler, and Ben Simmons, each of whom you can generally duck under screens against and whose shot preferences reside in the paint, seems like it has validity. Expecting him to chase them around off ball would be overextending him and some, such as Siakam or Simmons, may be too quick for him. But on the ball, he’s at least shown enough perimeter mobility to warrant exploring this possibility, which holds value as the archetype continues to gather popularity throughout the NBA.

There are few centers deserving of a first-round investment this year. Aside from Tillman, Onyeka Okongwu and James Wiseman are the lone others with top-30 grades on my board (Obi Toppin is a 4/5 in this case). While Okongwu and Wiseman are slated to be lottery selections, assuredly enjoying a prominent offensive role in the NBA, Tillman’s signature will be penned via other channels.

He’ll fare well in impact metrics, despite likely authoring a mundane box-score line, sparking viewers to tune in, fixate on him, and grow cognizant of his value. So, in that sense, it’ll be an extension of his college days, stamping his mark with ever-present brilliant decision-making that coalesces into macro advantages. It manifests in a variety of ways and drives the bus for his case as a top-25 pick in the 2020 NBA Draft.

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