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 profiled in this space and, in this edition, we examine Gonzaga’s Killian Tillie.
Killian Tillie is one of the most talented players eligible for the 2020 NBA Draft. Largely due to a surfeit of injuries plaguing him throughout his four-year career at Gonzaga, he will not be drafted like one.
It’s worth reviewing the laundry list of injuries that Tillie suffered at Gonzaga to understand why a prospect who possesses obvious first round talent ranks 61st on ESPN’s board at the time of writing. The list (kindly provided by Jackson Frank) includes multiple ankle sprains, a stress fracture in his ankle, a partially torn plantar fascia, a hip pointer, as well as undergoing a preventative knee procedure.
In a cruel twist of fate, Tillie also suffered an ankle sprain while working out for the Hawks last May, ultimately deciding to return to school.
But enough about his injuries.
Tillie is one of the most skilled players in college basketball and was the best player on one of the best teams. At 6’10, Tillie is a career 44% shooter from deep. He and Tyler Hagedorn of South Dakota were the only players in college basketball 6’10 or taller to shoot at least 40% from distance on at least 80 attempts this season. His Synergy profile is almost comical in its proficiency. 98th percentile in overall offense. Adept at spotting up, posting up, cutting, rolling, and transition, where he makes a lethal trailer.
As a shooter, Tillie ranks in the 79th percentile in catch and shoot, an excellent mark for a big. When defenders close out, he has the ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the basket (though mostly in straight lines) and finish with touch. He shot 68.3% around the basket in half court on non-post-ups, good for 93rd percentile. Eventually, you would like to see more growth in shooting off the dribble, as he demonstrates good touch on runners, and, with time, he could develop more of a pull-up threat in the in-between game.
In the pick and roll, Tillie can roll or pop, and he can make plays for others out of it as well. He ranked in the 92nd percentile as an overall roll man. 82nd percentile on rolls to the basket; 93rd percentile on pick and pops, where he shot 9-18 on no-dribble jumpers. If he continues to develop his short roll passing, his overall repertoire in P&R will be difficult for defenses to contain. Add it all together, and you have a diversified big who can make quick decisions and hurt defenses in a number of ways.
In the NBA, Tillie will likely play the primary role of a floor spacer, as his high frequency of spot-up possessions reminisce of spot-up bigs like Serge Ibaka, Luke Kornet, etc. In addition to spacing the floor, with his high feel for the game, Tillie can also provide a secondary hub of creation and link up play.
Killian Tillie shot 49.0% (24-49) on 'Pick and Pop 3s' over his four years at Gonzaga— Zach Milner (@ZachMilner13) March 22, 2020
Over those four years, he was a career 44.4% (106-239) 3-point shooter pic.twitter.com/1EvVVogtiv
Tillie’s intelligence and overall feel carries over to the defensive side of the floor as well. He has nimble feet for his size, and has the capability to defend on the perimeter against smaller players. He’s not a specialist here, but he can hang.
While not particularly long (or at least he doesn’t seem to be), he has a good sense of timing and serves as an adequate rim protector, though no one will confuse him for his former teammate, Brandon Clarke. In short, he’s a smart team defender who rotates well, who communicates, and who can switch on to smaller players without being a total liability in space.
After establishing the basics of Tillie, we can move on to the core of this piece, which is about the value of versatile third bigs, and why, in spite of his lengthy injury history, Tillie is worth gambling on. I’ll also look into his fit with Atlanta, since this is a Hawks blog after all, and chances are, if you’re reading this, that’s what you want to know.
The search for the ideal third big
One of Plato’s biggest contributions to philosophy is his concept of Forms (capital F). To make things quick, there’s the world of ideas (non-physical) and the world of the reflections of those ideas (physical). In the world of ideas, we have the true essence of an object - the real object - and in the physical world, we have to settle for a mere interpretation, something not quite perfect.
Only ideas represent the true and essential nature of the object, in a way that the physical form cannot. The truth is in the abstraction, not the physical.
Suppose that there’s such a thing as the perfect chair. When you and I both imagine the perfect chair, our interpretations might differ, and we might imagine the perfect one for ourselves, but we can’t capture the true essence of that perfect chair which eludes our grasp.
In Plato’s philosophy, the perfect chair exists only in the world of ideas; a concept known as Platonic idealism. The Platonic ideal is the perfect version of an object that cannot be captured in the physical world. It has all the traits that you want, but you can’t nail down.
Thus, there is a perfect idea for nearly everything: chairs, morality, basketball players.
What might the Platonic ideal of a “third big” in the NBA look like?
As the philosophy of the modern NBA advances, big men mostly cleave off into archetypes. There’s the rim protecting, rim rolling centers, like Clint Capela. There’s the floor spacers who provide shooting, like Mike Muscala. These are two of the most common archetypes.
With the delineation of bigs into roles, it makes sense that the first big off the bench should fit between archetypes in a copacetic manner. Basically, you want your third big, who typically receives twenty-ish minutes per game, to be able to play with either member of your starting frontcourt, either of whom might represent one of the aforementioned main archetypes, in order to maximize your lineup versatility.
For example, if you’re starting Clint Capela, you might not want another Capela off the bench, under the logic that you can’t play two non-spacing fives together, or at least you would suffer diminishing returns in doing so. Rather, a big who possesses the ability to shoot would be valuable in support of Capela, since he could theoretically play next to him or relieve him and provide a different look for the offense.
So, since shooting is a valuable tool in a big, it would make sense that a perfect third big would be able to shoot. After all, a shooter could fit with many different types of partners. Since most bigs typically score predominantly in the paint, a shooting big could provide space for the other one to operate to full potential.
With this established, I think most of us would prefer their perfect third big to shoot the basketball. But what about on the other side of the floor?
If you’re starting Kevin Love, inserting another shooting big with defensive issues could be problematic. Ideally, you would like to pair a shooter like Love with a good defender. So, in order to fit with two of the main types, an ideal third big should be able to shoot and defend, at least competently, in order to complement both.
But this is uncommon.
Taking a look around the league, one big who fits this criteria is Maxi Kleber of Dallas. A good enough shooter and defender, Kleber is able to slide into lineups and pair well with either of Dallas’ frontcourt options. In essence, Kleber’s ability to mix and match due to his unique skillset makes him a near-perfect third big. His versatility makes him a valuable bench option; he signed a four-year $35.9m contract last summer, actually a nice bargain, and might have made more had he been an unrestricted free agent.
Due to the demand for “3&D” bigs, and the general lack of viable options on the market, a good solution is to simply draft one. And this is where Killian Tillie represents a smart buying opportunity. As both a good shooter and a good defender, Tillie could theoretically play a role similar to Kleber. And due to his injury history, his likely draft range will have his injury risk baked into the price. A team could have an opportunity to select a player to fit the valuable “Kleber role” outside of the first round (a good deal in itself), and without having to pay a premium in free agency, a terrific price for Tillie’s skillset.
And Tillie also brings a third quality: playmaking.
A third big who can shoot, defend, and create for others is about as ideal as one can get. Within the big picture, Tillie provides an opportunity to “buy low” on a player with the upside to be a premium bench asset. Since the landscape of the league is always changing, and players come and go, having a versatile big like Tillie (who can fit with so many options) on a multi-year deal is pragmatic.
It’s fair to question Tillie’s ability to stay healthy. But since this downside is already priced into his draft stock, the risk is relatively low. Few doubt his ability to play winning basketball, so if he’s able to stay on the court, odds are good you’ll have a useful player. With NBA-level training resources, perhaps he can find a program that works for him, specifically targeting his lower limb problem areas.
And if he can stay healthy, he has a great chance to provide a high ROI on his draft price.
The list of players in the NBA this season 6’10 or taller to shoot at least 39% from deep, on at least 80 attempts, is a short one, and all of the players on this list are useful players, to varying degrees.
Having shot 106-239 (44%) from three-point range over his career at Gonzaga, Tillie is as good a bet as any to shoot with high proficiency in the NBA. Simply having a player of his size who can punish defenses from range provides a lot of value in itself, and Tillie has other appealing qualities as well.
There’s a reason most of these players were either selected high in the draft or represent lucrative signings on the market, and this should put into perspective the value that a player like Tillie could bring, if he pans out.
Tillie’s fit with the Hawks
As for his fit in Atlanta, Tillie helps to address a major problem for the Hawks, which is the team’s poor three-point shooting from its supporting pieces. Atlanta “finished” the season tied with Golden State for dead last in the league in three-point percentage. An elite shooter in college, Tillie would add another sniper to the bench, with the added benefit of providing shooting from the frontcourt, where Atlanta could use another floor spacer between Collins and Capela.
A skilled playmaker, he could also provide another outlet of creation outside of Young. If Tillie develops his short roll passing, a needed commodity for the Hawks, he could become a nice weapon in Atlanta’s pick-and-roll heavy offense, dishing to shooters or finishing the play himself.
Quality rotation pieces were hard to come by for the Hawks this season. If he’s able to stay on the court, Tillie could help remedy a bench that sorely lacked impact. While more of a power forward, he should be able to play the center spot as well at times, allowing him to fit with either one of Collins or Capela.
Schlenk has demonstrated a preference for versatile players in the draft that fit his “dribble/pass/shoot” ethos, tabbing prospects like Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, and Cam Reddish in consecutive drafts. Tillie’s versatility could fit Schlenk’s overall vision, as a player who can put pressure on a defense in a multitude of ways.
It’s conceivable that Tillie could be available as late as #52 overall, where Atlanta’s 2nd round pick from Houston is currently projected to land. In this territory, Tillie would represent something of a home run, bringing both upside as well as application to some of Atlanta’s problem areas. At such a price, Tillie would be a tantalizing fit, and very difficult to pass up.
The NBA Draft is ultimately about risk taking. While Tillie has clear downside as an oft-injured prospect, the opportunity to nab a high IQ big with such a versatile skillset - particularly one that complements Atlanta’s philosophy — at a discount is a risk worth taking.