LAS VEGAS — There’s a calming kindness that radiates off of Xavier Tillman, his voice is soft, direct, with a bit of a smile lilting it up and open-ended, his eyes are warm, and all of that absolutely vanishes the second he steps on court.
For the Grizzlies Summer League team, Tillman and Desmond Bane are like two storms converging. Bane, in his pushing of team pace and tempo like a gradually rising wind, and Tillman more brooding, slow-building and waiting for his moments to rumble over an opposing team’s best defensive efforts or crack back with a shot from deep, thunder and lightning both. Part of their well-paired, storming cadence comes from being the two designated veterans on the roster and what one full and occasionally discordant NBA season has taught them, but another part comes from their natural tendency to push.
In college, what Bane lacked in size he made up for in effort as an energy sparking guard who went careening for loose balls and any possible possession, ultimately adding an intuitive knack to his game for all the places he could see it heading, because he was chasing it there. Tillman on the other hand had the size, so much of it that it made all his plays look unhurried, quick cuts looked like strolls, drives appeared neatly practical. He balanced his size and strength easily, leaning into defensive playmaking with hustle rebounds and clinging screens. Both Bane and Tillman were initially drafted to other teams before they ended up together in Memphis and watching them play and ultimately make the most of such a shaky season — Bane recording the highest 3-point field goal percentage since Steph Curry and Tillman turning into a needed anchor for the Grizzlies’ bench — it’s hard not to think of their circuitous routes to winding up such complimentary teammates as fated.
But it was Summer League that they both missed out on, last year’s event cancelled because of the pandemic, and its been coming back, full-circle, to the 10-day tournament that typically works like a springboard for a rookie’s NBA career that’s given the pair a stage to reconcile the takeaways of their first season with what they want to next few to look like. Especially for Tillman, who looked markedly more comfortable shooting and became, next to Bane, a vocal leader on the floor, essential to Memphis’s fast chemistry.
“It’s been great, especially because this part is a little bit different than it probably would have been, coming at the beginning of my rookie year,” Tillman says, when asked what it’s meant to integrate his first season with his first Summer League. “Where this time, I’m trying to be more of a leader and use my voice and keep myself accountable and keep my teammates accountable. Whereas, if I were to probably come the last time,” he laughs, “I would just be trying not to look crazy out there.”
The Grizzlies Summer League coach, Darko Rajakovic, sees this time as the same developmental opportunity for Tillman and Bane on the floor as much as off of it.
“It means so much. It means so much to the team. It means so much to those two guys,” Rajakovic said after the Grizzlies wrenchingly close and well-played double OT and one-point sudden death loss to the Heat. “They can be leaders of this group. They’re very vocal, they own it and they’ve been doing great jobs so far. They did not have Summer League last year, but this is their opportunity to make a next jump in their careers.“
For some, the double rookie cohort of this year’s Summer League might feel crowded, but it’s a testament to Tillman’s growth as a leader that he’s treating it as another part of his development, noting that “helping guys just with the little day-to-day things has been great.”
For Tillman, Rajakovic specifically mentioned getting the ball into his hands more as his role expands, noting how impressed he’s been seeing Tillman turn into a confident shooter and facilitator.
“Obviously in Summer League, you’re going to have good decisions, bad decisions,” Rajakovic added, “but I think this is going to be very valuable experience.”
One of the most valuable experiences of Summer League for young players is the environment it primes to make decisions, whether they end up being right or wrong. While many of last season’s rookies, like Tillman, looked decidedly better at it, likely owing to more substantial in-game minutes in an NBA season where a next man up mentality became prerequisite due to injuries and Covid protocols, the experience of these games can be an accelerator for next season’s training.
In his role as backup center for the Grizzlies this past season Tillman didn’t wind up taking a ton of shots, preferring instead to wait for clean looks from the corner, executing them with that same unhurried precision. In Vegas, his 3-point production was up along with his confidence, often throwing up outside shots on the fly that stuck, rather than waiting for the right conditions.
“The three ball is definitely all development,” Tillman laughs. “I was not doing that in high school. I started doing it in college towards the end of my career, my sophomore and junior year, but definitely the development, just working day in and day out, and then having the staff, from our coaching staff to the video guys, just always in my ear, ‘Be confident, take those shots. You want to take the shots, we see you’re working on them day in and day out, so just be confident.’ And when I got in the game, I was just playing. So, I see a guy giving me space then I just raise up and do what I do.”
The assurance is working, with Tillman averaging the 2nd most points per game, behind Bane and tied up with two-way Killian Tillie, at 14.5 over the two games he played in Vegas. He notes that he’s trying not to overthink it, opting to correct any mistakes in film the next day.
And for his dominating size, he’s fleet-footed, toggling easily between the two to shake defenders. At one point late in the Heat game, Tillman planted his feet one second, full weight of his body behind him and daring someone to try and bully him off, only to launch into a nimble spin and slip around the defender that took the bait, lane to the basket his to float through. In the team’s first game of the week against the Nets, with under three minutes left in the fourth quarter, Bane and Tillman were the last two catches on a tidy whip-around that hit all but one of the lineup’s hands that had the Nets defense lurching. Bane drives it to the right of the paint, lifting the ball to pass across his shoulders to Tillman, waiting at the free throw line, who lifts high and lightly, toes almost delicately pointed down en pointe, one-handing a floater.
Tillman’s defensive prowess is also beginning to influence his offensive capabilities, most notably (and audibly) in his communication on the floor. More than just bringing the ball up or calling plays, his knack for communication has led him to the team’s highest assist percentage (39.2) and assist to turnover ratio. Between him and Bane there’s a steady hum of chatter, making for an intuitive in-game chemistry that flows through the entire team. Asked if he’s always been a big communicator and he nods, voice emphatic.
“Yeah, that’s something that I definitely take pride in, is using my voice. I said a long time ago, in high school, try to control the controllable. So being a vocal leader, hustling, bringing a great attitude to the game are just things that I try to do on a day in and day out basis because I know those are the things that I can control.”
Before he got to Vegas, Tillman was already accustomed to doing a little bit of everything. Memphis saw Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke and Jaren Jackson Jr. all out for stretches this past season, and Tillman became the bench’s steady ballast, providing valuable and needed defense in the gaps on the floor when stretched starters Dillon Brooks and Kyle Anderson were absent from it. In Vegas, Memphis outplayed Brooklyn and got to double OT with the Heat largely because of Tillman’s inherent defensive capabilities — yanking boards, sticking like a long shadow to his guys, cleaning up around the rim — but where the team looked best was when he would lift, assured, for three pointers, drive sanguine to the basket, or use his voice to draw up the lines not only for the team to play within, but to keep them connected. That Tillman had to wait a year to close the loop on the first season of his NBA career only means that the shape of what’s to come for him is all the more boundless.