In the NBA right now, there is probably no more controversial position in the league right now than the center position. This season at the trade deadline, we saw the Houston Rockets trade away their productive starting center, Clint Capela, in an effort to go to a permanent small-ball lineup and to cause other teams to adapt to their style. This type of lineup became trendy because of the success of the Golden State Warriors’ Hampton 5 lineup, which was a fixture during their recent string of championship runs.
Unfortunately for the Rockets, they were not quite as successful with their version of the small-ball lineup, getting eliminated in 5 games a few weeks ago by the Los Angeles Lakers, who themselves rely heavily on two traditional centers - former Wizards - JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard. The results showed that perhaps the small-ball lineup is not always the best solution. With that said, the success of the two Finals teams - the Lakers and the Heat - show you that if you have the right big men in your rotation, you can still find them to be effective.
That brings us to the topic of Xavier Tillman. The Wizards’ big man rotation has been lack luster to say the least. An infusion of a young, athletic, rim-running big man would be the ideal fit for the Wizards, but without having a lot of cap space, and not finding a good one in the first round, the Wizards will have to expand their criteria for a big man that can hopefully upgrade their current rotation. Although Tillman doesn’t fit the mold of the ideal modern big, perhaps he can still find a role in the NBA. Let’s examine.
Tillman was a standout big man at Michigan State, where he played for three years. Despite his shorter height at 6’8”, he became known as a defensive big man who was capable of rebounding (10.3 rpg, 3rd in the Big Ten) and protecting the middle (2.1 bpg, 4th in the Big Ten) this past season). Tillman is not going to win the NBA combine with his leaping ability, with his quickness or any of his athletic prowess, but his 7’1” wing span allows him to be effective in the middle despite some of his physical limitations.
In addition to long arms, Tillman has the smarts. He is a savvy defender, adept at reading pick and roll plays, positions his body well to maintain solid positioning even when guarding out in space, recognizes when there is a need to get over for weak side help and also he uses that wing span to get into the passing lanes. None of this is a surprise given that he played under Hall of Famer Tom Izzo, who has been known to develop well-rounded players capable of carving out roles in the league.
One thing that also stands out is his energy. He is a high energy player that doesn’t mind getting on the floor and doing the dirty work. The way he plays on the court with his high motor is infectious to his teammates and could really help him carve a place as a high energy role player.
On offense, Tillman has a solid base that allows him to be an effective post player. He has the skill set to be effective in the post with room to still expand that part of his game. Tillman also has a very solid ability as a passer. He is comfortable making plays with the ball in his hand and has a knack for making the right decision, especially in pick and roll scenarios.
Unfortunately for Tillman, his game is not a great fit for the modern NBA era. He is not an explosive athlete which may make it challenging for him to adapt to the speed of the NBA, to guard the perimeter and to keep up with some of the more mobile big men.
Xavier also has not developed his jump shot which is a big issue for keeping big men on the court while trying to maintain spacing. If Tillman expands his shooting range to have a more consistent jumper, especially if he can expand it out to 3 point range, he can find himself a lot of minutes in the NBA, but until then, it’s going to be difficult to justify having him in the rotation outside of him being a plus defender.
How should the Wizards use Tillman?
Tillman reminds me a lot of Robin Lopez. He’s somebody that’s not going to blow you away with his style of play, but he is gritty, tough, smart and a skilled defender. If the Wizards spend their 1st round pick on a wing player, I can definitely see the opportunity for them to take a flyer on a big man in the 2nd round.
Even though Tillman doesn’t improve the athleticism in the front court for the Wizards, he brings some toughness and defensive ability that could prove to be a cheaper replacement to Ian Mahinmi. Tillman’s energy and ability to play defense would be great as a backup center that this team may need should they not re-sign Mahinmi or sign another veteran to take his spot.
Where should the Wizards pick Tillman?
Given that the Wizards are picking earlier in the second round (37th to be exact), Tillman could be in consideration, but I believe there will be some big men with a higher upside available when they pick in the 2nd round. Also, Tillman is ranked just 66th on NBADraft.net’s Top 100 prospect board. That said, he is also ranked 26th on Sports Illustrated’s Top 80 list.
If the Wizards move back or purchase another pick, Tillman could be a solid developmental piece that has a high floor, but still has some room to develop his game even more. That’s the kind of player that makes sense as a second round pick, but will he be the best option for the Wizards when they pick? We will see.