Can Tillman Be Memphis’ Next Successful Spartan?


Xavier Tillman’s second season wasn’t as glamorous as the second year of his teammate, Desmond Bane, who was drafted five spots ahead of him—and that’s ok. 

Tillman, like many players before him, experienced the “sophomore slump,” something very common in the NBA. There isn’t any one definite cause for this, but rather there are a multitude of different circumstances that could impact a player’s second year. 

Even though it wasn’t the best year for Tillman, Grizz fans shouldn’t be concerned about his development. Many NBA players have had dips in production in their second year, and Tillman has already shown an ability to play a role for this up and coming Memphis team. 

Entering the League

Tillman entered the draft with an expectation that has come to fruition in the NBA.

He projected as a reliable and high IQ player on both sides of the court, but due to his physical limitations, he was expected to be a rotational bench player. His biggest limitations entering the NBA draft were his size, athleticism and questions surrounding his outside jumper. 

Tillman received many comparisons to another former Spartan, Draymond Green. There are some similarities in that they are both high IQ, undersized big men lacking elite athleticism.

Obviously, there are major differences between the two. Green has had an unbelievable career and is a potential hall of famer, which no one would argue Tillman is close to at this point.

That being said, Tillman does have some qualities that Green himself lacks.

One such quality is the skill that Tillman possesses in the post compared to that of Green. There’s another former Spartan that Tillman resembles in the clip above.

Developing a low post game to emulate that of Zach Randolph will quickly earn Tillman respect from the Grizz faithful. Tillman possesses a little more finesse and athleticism than Z-Bo, but if he plays with the same Grit N’ Grind mentality that Randolph brought to Memphis, he’ll find time on the court and feel the love from Grizz fans.



Outside of developing an elite post game, one of the most obvious points of improvement for Tillman to work on this offseason is his shooting stroke.

In today’s game, there is value in every player on the court being able to step out and hit the three consistently. In his rookie year, he shot the three-ball at a 33.8% clip, but last year he shot just 20.4% from deep.  

Now, these were on low volume (65 total and 49 total, respectively) and with inconsistent minutes the second year, so it isn’t surprising that the percentages dropped. But if Tillman wants to play real minutes for Memphis, he’s going to have to prove they can trust him to hit big shots from deep like he did against Golden State his rookie year.

If Tillman is able to bring his shooting percentages up, he will see much more time on the court than he has seen in either of his first two years.

Ball Handling

The next thing Tillman should be bringing to the court this year is improved decision making with the ball in his hands. In his time at Michigan State and thus far with Memphis, he’s shown the ability to make good decisions with the ball on the block and on the perimeter.  

However, he is not hyper-effective with the ball in his hands. He is not a very effective dribbler, and he can make some mistakes when trying to make those post passes. Being able to facilitate to the level of someone like Steven Adams and develop an ability to consistently drive on bigger opponents would bring a wrinkle to Tillman’s game that could help negate his size disadvantage.

Limiting the mistakes with the ball comes with reps, so work in the offseason and in training camp should lead to more success in the regular season. Studying the way guys like Draymond are able to bring the ball up and make quick passes from any spot on the court is something fans should hope to see come out in Tillman’s game this season.

The Seal

Finally, the last thing Tillman should add to his game this year can be learned from his current teammate Steven Adams: the seal.

The seal is one of the more nuanced maneuvers for a big man and is super helpful when playing with quick guards like Ja Morant, Tyus Jones, and even rookie Kennedy Chandler that thrive on utilizing the pick-and-roll.  

Being able to seal effectively doesn’t require any special skill. All it takes is someone willing to do the dirty work.

Two of the best in the league at the seal are Daniel Theis and Steven Adams. It isn’t an athletic move, and it doesn’t show up on the box score, but the easy buckets it creates are so beneficial for the quick, crafty guards that Memphis rosters. 

The seals Steven Adams was able to set for Ja Morant this year helped contribute to his 27.4 points per game. If Tillman is able to learn and develop this skill, he’ll find plenty of time on the court.


With Jaren Jackson Jr. out to begin the season, Tillman has a great opportunity to use his minutes to show what he’s been working on this offseason. Having a more defined role with consistent minutes should be very conducive to Tillman’s production early in the year. 

Tillman has had a full offseason to work on his craft and improve on the parts of his game that were exposed in his second season. He can learn some new tricks like the seal from teammates, and the loss of key contributors from last season presents an opportunity for Tillman to step in and contribute early. This will be his best opportunity to earn more time and shots coming off the bench this season. 

The expectation shouldn’t be that Tillman becomes an All-Star caliber player, but earning minutes and carving out a role on a young playoff team could be something that fans see from the young big man.

Spartans have a history of coming to Memphis and establishing their name in the NBA. This year, Tillman could be the next to cement his name.


Check out last week’s Deep Dive Piece on Danny Green by Chris Ingram (@chriman_), Can Green’s Championship Pedigree Elevate Memphis?. And be sure to check out the Grizz 901 Podcast, where the Grizz Lead guys get on to discuss these Deep Dive players and much, much more!

About Jesse Elsea

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