Kirthmon F. Dozier, Detroit Free Press, Detroit Free Press via Imagn Content Services, LLC
Could the physical big from Michigan State help beef up the Nuggets front court rotation?
Xavier Tillman, PF/C, Michigan State
Age: 21 (1/12/1999)
Xavier Tillman has a strong frame, more than holding his own against NCAA bigs. His rebounding benefits from a low center of gravity to go with that strength, and he was heavily relied upon as a rebounder for Michigan State. His 10.6 rebounds led the Spartans with the second most rebounds coming from teammate Aaron Henry at 4.6 per game. He also sets hard screens and rolls to the basket with physicality. He is a load to handle even though he’s only 6’8.
Defensive IQ and Impact
Tillman was the 2019-20 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year. Michigan State as a team ranked 13th in KenPom’s adjusted defensive efficiency metric, and Tillman was the biggest factor in that defensive excellence. Tillman is surprisingly laterally quick and agile for his frame, and when paired with his strength, he made life difficult for some of the top prospects he faced this season. He led the NCAA in Defensive Box Plus-Minus (+6.2), averaged 2.4 blocks per game in conference play. He looked like a player who could potentially captain an NBA defense. He won’t be a true rim protector, but he will be in the right place at the right time.
Another key factor with Tillman is his ability to switch onto the perimeter. He won’t be a player that defends every position, but he can defend in space, make some plays, and be in the right position. This allows him to maintain a defense’s integrity without compromising a switch heavy system.
Role player potential offensively
While Tillman isn’t going to break out the Hakeem Olajuwon dream shake in the post, he does have some moves that are in development and could serve as an occasional 1-on-1 threat in the post. He finishes well in the pick and roll and can use a variety of moves to score around and over defenders.
He also displays some good passing vision and execution, especially out of the pick and roll finding shooters on the perimeter. For NBA offenses that love to maximize spacing, Tillman’s ability to find the open man consistently projects well at the center position. This should be a ready-made trait for the NBA level.
TIllman’s perimeter jumper is a work in progress. He shot just 21-of-77 from three-point range (27.3%) in three college seasons, and though he attempted the outside jumper more frequently his junior season, his conversion rate actually dropped. Michigan’s offense converted three-pointers at a reasonable rate despite Tillman not being a major threat, but the NBA level may be different.
If Tillman profiles as a center going forward, then outside shooting likely won’t be an issue as long as he can finish efficient at the rim and on the short roll. If Tillman wants to expand his positional flexibility to being a power forward, adding a reliable outside jumper will be extremely important. Right now, that tool isn’t in Tillman’s toolbox.
‘In-between’ sized big man
At 6’8 (maybe 6’9 on a good day) and 245 pounds, it’s unclear whether Tillman is best suited defensively as a center or power forward. His height will limit him at times against the best bigs in the NBA, while his frame at 245 pounds may be too large to keep up with some perimeter players. He grabbed 9.9% of offensive rebounds in 2019-20 which is below expectation for someone of his physical strength. That combination may limit his ceiling as a high level starter at the next level, but may be ideal to fill a versatile role off the bench.
Projected Draft Range: Late first, early second round
Denver Stiffs Big Board: 21st overall
Why Tillman makes sense for Denver
Mason Plumlee, Paul Millsap, and Noah Vonleh are all free agents. That leaves Nikola Jokic as the only pure center under contract. Unless at least two of the three mentioned are retained, the Nuggets will need to address their front court. Tillman could do nicely as an enforcer type backup 4 or 5. This versatility is key. Having a big that offers rim protection as well as some lateral quickness means he could potentially be utilized as a backup center or next to Jokic at power forward. Beyond that, Tillman is a less “risky” prospect that could contribute right away. The Nuggets could be more enticed with “safer” players given the likelihood that they’ll already be developing Michael Porter Jr. and Bol Bol through increased playing time next season.
Why Tillman doesn’t make sense for Denver
Tillman could be considered a slight reach with the Nuggets 22nd overall pick. Most draft boards have him falling further in the draft. The good news is if the Nuggets are high on Tillman, he is likely to still be available with their 22nd overall pick. However, if they would prefer not to use that high of draft capital, he could still be a target if they traded back. Another concern is that Xavier may struggle against NBA size at center. If he can play PF, then this wouldn’t be a problem, but his athleticism and jump shooting would need to improve to match the skillset of modern NBA 4’s.
Will the Nuggets go the route of more proven college veterans to fill out their front court instead of a rookie? I would feel good about Tillman as the fifth big man on our depth chart. Meaning he would not be in the regular rotation. Instead, he’d occupy the role of the next man up for foul trouble or injuries to our top four bigs.
Xavier Tillman would be a solid pickup, but I might prefer to see him added as a depth player slightly later in the draft. Is trading back worth the risk of him still being available? OG Anunoby fans would probably say no.