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2020 NBA draft scouting report: Xavier Tillman

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Wisconsin v Michigan State Photo by Rey Del Rio/Getty Images

In advance of the 2020 NBA Draft, Peachtree Hoops is evaluating prospects with a look at what the Atlanta Hawks might be considering from now until the selection process occurs. Dozens of prospects will be profiled in this space and, today, we take a look at Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman.


In my opinion, Michigan State big man Xavier Tillman will be one of the best values in this draft class. While a college player’s performance measured by Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM) should not be taken as predictive of NBA success, Tillman is the only player to post two seasons in the top 25 overall of NCAA PIPM in database history (since the 2004-05 season).

Analytics’ affinity for Tillman is not limited to PIPM, as Barttorvik’s version of Box Plus/Minus (BPM) finds Tillman as the second-best player in this all-in-one metric, after Dayton’s Obi Toppin. It’s not too hard to discern why Tillman is well liked by various analytics: he’s good at basketball. The 2020 Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year, Tillman’s cerebral play provided the foundation for the Spartans’ defense.

Standing half an inch under 6’9 in shoes with a 7’2 wingspan, Tillman profiles as a small ball center in the NBA. He was the heaviest player weighed at the 2020 draft combine at 266.5 pounds and also possesses Kawhi Leonard-esque massive hands. Although undersized for a center, Tillman’s bulk allows him to hold up physically against taller players.

His physical profile and keen understanding of how to play reminisce of fellow Spartan, Draymond Green (of course I’m not saying he’ll enjoy similar outcomes). A savvy passer, Tilllman averaged a little under four assists per 40 minutes, an excellent mark for a big. Recent research has found that assists are an indicator of defensive skill for bigs — think: Green, Marc Gasol, Joakim Noah, etc. — and Tillman is of a similar mold.

While not likely to be a foundational piece for a team, Tillman has the outlines of a “star” role player; someone who, while not a star himself, has the ability to raise the ceiling of a good team by providing timely playmaking and defensive impact. He has the outlines of a 16-game player that can have an impact at the highest levels. He simply does the right things.

Offensive Analysis

  • Although not currently a three-point shooter, his career free throw percentage of just under 70 percent suggests he might be. Tillman also has obvious touch. A team would do well to try and develop this aspect of his game. He doesn’t have to be a sniper, just present a threat.
  • Very smart playmaker. Maybe the best short roll passer in the draft class. His feel for making the right read on the roll is not just a supplementary skill but something that can add a new dynamic to an offense.
  • Unlikely to be much of a post scoring threat in the NBA — his value here will mostly be from his ability to pass from the post. His offensive impact in general will mostly be from his passing.

Defensive Analysis

  • “High IQ” defender is the easiest way to encapsulate his defensive play. Sometimes the descriptors “IQ” and “feel” get tossed out too often — Tillman is the genuine article. No other player in this class makes the rotations that he does.
  • While not a great athlete, he’s mobile enough and his superior processing leads him to be in the right place at the right time more often than not. Has high level understanding of team defense and good sense of timing. His strength will make him difficult to overpower in the post.

Fit with the Hawks

A difficult player to measure in terms of draft stock, I think Tillman is likely to hear his name called somewhere between the late first and middle second round. As such, he is likely not within Atlanta’s draft range barring some moves on draft night. In any event, should he fall to Atlanta’s pick at No. 50, he absolutely represents home run value.

Lack of short roll playmaking has been something of an issue for the Hawks, and Tillman offers a readymade solution. It’s not hard to imagine him finding success working pick-and-roll alongside Trae Young and tagging open shooters on the roll.

Further, his defensive acumen would upgrade Atlanta’s options there as well as provide an intriguing small ball 5 in crunch time. If the Hawks were to acquire an additional second round pick somewhere in the thirties, Tillman would be one of my favorite targets.

Big men who can create for others as well as supply intelligent team defense are hard to find. It is not surprising that when you do, they’re often on contenders. One might find Xavier Tillman on just such a team one day.