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MikeCheck: Bane, Tillman rotation impact ‘not surprising’ as Grizzlies rookies thrive in early roles

by Michael Wallace | Grind City Media

MEMPHIS – Hours of conversations, weeks of background checks and months of intense scouting and evaluation all culminated in a strong hunch.

But there still were no guarantees.

The meticulous work coach Taylor Jenkins and the Grizzlies front-office staff invested in trading into the first round of last fall’s NBA Draft – then moving up in the second round to acquire two top-35 picks – clearly displayed the confidence in who they were targeting.

But deep down, we knew these guys were going to be really good contributors. It’s hard to predict, but with all the studying we’d done . . . it’s not surprising they’re able to translate really well early on.

Taylor Jenkins

However, what the Grizzlies would get out of those prospects and how soon they’d get it were hardly a sure bet. But barely a dozen games into their NBA careers, rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman are on a fast track to being high-impact rotation players.

With each game, high hopes for these rookies are transforming into loftier expectations.

“Honestly, it’s hard to predict when guys come into their rookie seasons,” Jenkins said of the impressions Bane and Tillman have made a month into their NBA careers. “But deep down, we knew these guys were going to be really good contributors. It’s hard to predict, but with all the studying we’d done . . . it’s not surprising they’re able to translate really well early on.”

An encouraging youth movement continues as the Grizzlies (5-6) aim to extend their winning streak to four games when they face the Timberwolves for the second time in three days. Memphis will try to sweep the set between the NBA’s youngest teams, with the Grizzlies (24.3) second behind only the Timberwolves (23.9) in average age of players on the active roster.

Desmond Bane against the Brooklyn Nets
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 8: Desmond Bane #22 of the Memphis Grizzlies looks on during the game against the Brooklyn Nets. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

While Minnesota boasts the No. 1 overall pick in swingman Anthony Edwards, whose 12.5 points per game is second among all rookies in scoring, arguably no team in the league is getting more impact from its rookie class right now than Memphis.

Bane, the No. 30 and final pick of the first round, entered the two-game series in Minnesota this week essentially ranked second among rookies in three-point shooting. And Tillman, the No. 35 overall pick, was fifth in plus-minus impact among newcomers overall.

During the Grizzlies current win streak, Bane and Tillman have combined for nearly 17 points, seven rebounds, four assists and two steals the past three games. In Monday’s 101-91 win in Cleveland, they collectively shot 8-for-10 from the field. And during Wednesday’s 118-107 victory against the Timberwolves, Tillman and Bane helped spark a second unit that produced 50 bench points on a night the Grizzlies also set a franchise record with 80 points in the paint.

I just want to learn and improve every way I can. Whatever comes with that, comes with that. You can easily see areas where you need to improve. That’s my tool to get better.

Desmond Bane

The sample size is small, and it’s still early in the development process.

But progress is steady and trust is building.

The same stroke that allowed Bane to lead the Big 12 in three-point shooting at TCU last season has translated well to the NBA, where the 6-foot-6 swingman is shooting 46.3 percent from deep. Bane also opened his career by making multiple threes in six consecutive games, which was the second-longest streak to start a career in NBA history.

As an offensive threat, Bane’s playmaking and scoring contributions are desperately needed as the Grizzlies scramble to fill voids created by the injury absences of catalysts Jaren Jackson Jr. and Ja Morant in addition to veteran Justise Winslow. But the defensive strides Bane have made within the team’s concepts are what keeps him in the primary rotation each night.



“Coming into the season, I was just focused on learning and I didn’t really want to put any goals as far as accolades or numbers or anything like that,” Bane said. “I just want to learn and improve every way I can. Whatever comes with that, comes with that. You can easily see areas where you need to improve. That’s my tool to get better.”

Whereas Bane was basically a regular in the rotation from the outset, Tillman endured an early setback as he battled knee soreness that sidelined him after the first game of the preseason. Out of action for nearly three weeks, Tillman focused on improving his conditioning and embracing a demanding NBA treatment regimen.

I was able to see what I could bring to the table I felt we were missing. I knew, OK, we need guys who can get our guards open. So bet, I can come in and do that.

Xavier Tillman

As a former Big Ten Defensive player of the year and Sixth Man of the year at Michigan State, Tillman impressed the Grizzlies with his versatility on both ends of the court. His study habits, high basketball IQ and communication on the court allowed Tillman to carve out a role as soon as his body was healthy enough to return to the mix.

Over the last three games, Tillman has moved ahead of productive veteran Gorgui Dieng as the first big man off the bench. Having celebrated his 22nd birthday this week, Tillman is mature beyond his years in both his preparation for the game and his impact on the court. In the past week, he’s met the challenges of defending DeAndre Jordan, Andre Drummond and Karl-Anthony Towns – all elite-level NBA centers who are significantly bigger than Tillman.

And when you study winning basketball, they just make the right plays. Those guys have been solid contributors. They’re watching a lot of film, doing a great job of taking something they saw the day before and applying it the next game. That’s a good sign of development. They’ve gone out there on both ends and are making unselfish, team-oriented plays. And that’s why we’re excited about them steadily getting better.

Taylor Jenkins

“What helped me was that I was paying attention while I was out, I was locked in on what the team was doing offensively and what our schemes seemed to be defensively and where I could fit in,” Tillman said. “I was able to see what I could bring to the table I felt we were missing. I knew, OK, we need guys who can get our guards open. So bet, I can come in and do that.

“We need guys who can defensively communicate on ball screens and know what they’re supposed to do,” Tillman continued. “Bet, I can do that, too. Being a guy who paid attention and executed that when I got my opportunities.”

Xavier Tillman boxing out Jarrett Allen
MEMPHIS, TN - JANUARY 8: Jarrett Allen #31 of the Brooklyn Nets and Xavier Tillman Sr. #2 of the Memphis Grizzlies fights for position during the game. Photo by Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images.

At this rate of rookie production, those opportunities are likely to keep coming.

“Studying them in college, we knew they impacted winning,” Jenkins said of Bane and Tillman. “And when you study winning basketball, they just make the right plays. Those guys have been solid contributors. They’re watching a lot of film, doing a great job of taking something they saw the day before and applying it the next game. That’s a good sign of development. They’ve gone out there on both ends and are making unselfish, team-oriented plays. And that’s why we’re excited about them steadily getting better.”

So far, Bane and Tillman possess three key ingredients of the Grizzlies’ developmental recipe.

They arrived with the necessary grit.

They’re showing the ability to grind out games.

And there’s tremendous growth potential still ahead.

The contents of this page have not been reviewed or endorsed by the Memphis Grizzlies. All opinions expressed by Michael Wallace are solely his own and do not reflect the opinions of the Memphis Grizzlies or its Basketball Operations staff, owners, parent companies, partners or sponsors. His sources are not known to the Memphis Grizzlies and he has no special access to information beyond the access and privileges that go along with being an NBA accredited member of the media.

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