When he arrived as a second-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft, Xavier Tillman brought with him a reputation as one of the nation’s most rugged and effective defenders.
A year later, the former Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year is emerging as one of the more clutch offensive performers and playmakers among the Grizzlies’ young core.
So what’s been the source of Tillman’s encouraging transformation?
“Definitely development,” the Grizzlies’ rising second-year big man insists. “Just working day in and day out, and then having the coaching staff and the video guys always in my ear. They’re saying, ‘Take those shots. We want you to shoot those shots. We see you working day in and day out, so just be confident in it.’”
Tillman’s comfort level and confidence continues to grow as he rounds out his game with each opportunity he steps onto the court for the Grizzlies. Building on an encouraging rookie season during which he blossomed into a steady rotation role, Tillman is currently branching out as one of the leaders on the Grizzlies’ summer league team.
The burly, 6-foot-8 Tillman is no longer simply the big man setting vicious screens, snatching rebounds and banging in the post at the power forward and center positions. His voice as a vocal leader has always resonated, even during his rookie season when he played in 59 games, earned 12 starts and averaged 6.6 points, 4.3 rebounds and shot 55.9 percent from the field.
Just working day in and day out, and then having the coaching staff and the video guys always in my ear. They’re saying, ‘Take those shots. We want you to shoot those shots. We see you working day in and day out, so just be confident in it.’
Tillman is using this summer league stint to showcase other aspects of his game as one of the team’s featured players. In his debut two weeks ago in Salt Lake City Summer League, Tillman had 11 points and 13 rebounds. He opened this week in Las Vegas at the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League with a team-high seven assists while initiating offense in a ‘point-center’ role.
And the offense continued to shine on Wednesday with another seven assists to go with three steals. Tillman has also knocked down timely shots, including three-pointers, during key stretches of the games Memphis has played in Salt Lake City and Vegas so far.
The playmaking responsibilities have been needed on a summer league team that lacks a traditional point guard. The Grizzlies have been using rising second-year shooting guard Desmond Bane at the point this summer, and have also used versatile wing player John Konchar on the ball. Grizzlies summer league coach Darko Rajakovic is seeing a mix of progress and growing pains as players adjust to different assignments in the spirit of development.
“It’s a challenge for them and it’s a challenge for me and my coaching staff,” Rajakovic said. “But at the same time, it’s fun to see those guys develop a little bit outside of their comfort level and go through some growing pains. It’s positive, and they’re expanding their boxes. And that’s what this is all about; it’s about player development and continuing their growth.”
More growth opportunities are in store this weekend as the Grizzlies face the Kings on Friday night and the Bulls on Sunday in Vegas. Memphis is coming off a 97-94 double-overtime loss to the Heat on Wednesday, but the outcome is hardly what these games are about in the summer.
But at the same time, it’s fun to see those guys develop a little bit outside of their comfort level and go through some growing pains. It’s positive, and they’re expanding their boxes. And that’s what this is all about; it’s about player development and continuing their growth.
For the Grizzlies, growth is measured by incremental progress within their development system. During summer league, sometimes a practice session behind closed doors can produce more breakthrough moments than the actual games on national television.
Those non-game days have been essential for the Grizzlies, who are working to expand the games of their returning roster players while also aggressively on-boarding their incoming rookie class. That latter group includes first-round picks Ziaire Williams and Santi Aldama, who have pushed through two practices and two games in a span of five days already this week.
“It’s a whole new world,” Aldama said of his first taste of NBA summer league action. “Ziaire, he’s a great kid and he’s trying to help me out, and I’m trying to help him out. We’re both rookies, so everyone has been helping us. Summer league is really fast and different from what I’m used to. It’s a learning experience just to play games here and get used to the NBA world.”
For newcomers such as Aldama, the final first-round pick of last month’s draft, or young vets like Tillman, the NBA world this time of year is all about adjustments and adapting.
“When I’m in games, I’m just playing and doing what I do – I try not to think too much about it,” Tillman said. “And if I see something on film, I go out and try to correct it the next day.”
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