The Philadelphia 76ers need more perimeter creation, playmaking, and shooting, and there’s no doubt that they should look to address those areas of need with their first-round pick in the 2020 NBA Draft. However, with four second-round picks at their disposal, they’ll be able to look at other positions and skillsets. Seeing as trading Al Horford should be a priority now (as difficult as it may be to find a reasonable return for a decent price), looking for help at backup center is definitely worth considering.
Xavier Tillman, a 21-year-old big man from Michigan State — who made the All-Big Ten Second Team and was named Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2019-20 — is an excellent target.
Tillman’s explosiveness and physical profile — 6’8” and 245 pounds with a 7’1” wingspan — doesn’t jump out and it’s a drawback to his potential, which is one reason that he appears in the second round of many mock drafts. However, Tillman’s impressive IQ and skill level makes up for a lot of his weaknesses. It’s what stands out so clearly when watching him, and why he deserved his accolades at Michigan State. He finished last season with averages of 13.7 points (shooting 55 percent overall, including 60.8 percent on two-pointers, with a True Shooting Percentage of 59.3), 10.3 rebounds, 3 assists, 1.2 steals and 2.1 blocks per game.
This is where Tillman, one of the best defenders in college basketball, shines the most. Among players who played at least 10 games against top-50 teams last season, Tillman’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus of 5.7 ranked 2nd.
Again, he is somewhat limited with his physical measurements and athletic ability. He doesn’t have much vertical bounce or elite foot speed when changing direction, which can hold him back slightly when closing out to shooters, recovering in pick-and-rolls, or contesting more explosive opponents at the rim.
He has pretty much everything else you could want, though. Especially from a center playing off the bench.
His intelligence and motor is impressive, and helps make up for a lot of his physical limitations. He rotates on time, works hard to close out on shooters, communicates, actively denies passes when need be, provides alert and energetic help defense, he’s rock solid guarding players in the post, and he has good timing as a shot blocker.
The plays in the following video also help demonstrate Tillman’s awareness, timing and anticipation to break up plays off ball (like passes to cutters) and on ball (like dribble hand-offs):
While Tillman isn’t lightning fast on his feet and doesn’t have the best change of direction or hip twists to turn on a dime, he’s still nimble and has good lateral quickness with sound footwork. He supports this with effort, a low stance, and an understanding of how to angle himself to deter opponents from ideal driving lanes. This allows him to switch outside and hang with some smaller players pretty effectively. He can be a deterrent in these situations thanks to this mobility and his length/effort to contest at the rim:
Tillman does bite on pump fakes he shouldn’t at times, but again, his high effort level and lateral quickness help him recover, as you can see in plays like this:
Tillman would be well suited for the Sixers’ drop coverage scheme, but still has the ability to provide a touch of more aggressive hedging and shift out against pick-and-rolls. There’s so much to like about Tillman’s potential to serve as a reliable defensive presence off the bench behind Joel Embiid.
Tillman’s IQ doesn’t just help him defensively. It’s a big part of his value on offense as well, where he does so many little things to contribute and keep an offense flowing.
He’s generally an incredibly solid screen setter and has a sharp sense of when to slip to find space for cuts and new passing angles.
The following play is a good example of Tillman’s off-ball activity. First he sets up favorable positioning inside and backs down his defender to the right side of the paint to clear a driving lane for his teammate. Then Tillman sticks with the play and fights for a put-back:
When Tillman gets inside to attack, he’s a great finisher. Again, it’s still important to note that his lack of leaping ability is a drawback, and could hurt him against the NBA’s better rim protectors. That said, he often makes up for it with his excellent touch, the ability to use both hands, patience, crisp footwork and fakes, and a reliable handle for straight-line drives and more crafty attacks, like the odd fake dribble hand-off.
Besides his finishing, Tillman’s best weapon on offense is his terrific passing. He consistently makes smart, quick decisions, and can be relied upon all over the floor — whether he’s keeping the ball out of a hand-off to set up a better opportunity, passing from the elbows or post, or making plays on short rolls to the rim. Tillman makes some advanced reads for a big man (such as instant skip passes to the weak-side corner on rolls to the rim), and has great awareness of the floor and where to hit shooters when defenses have the paint well covered.
A lack of confident, reliable shooting range is the main knock on Tillman’s offensive game. He can be very hesitant to pull the trigger and passes up some open looks. He only started taking more than one three-pointer per game in his third year of college, making just 13 of his 50 total attempts (26 percent) in 2019-20 (he shot 21-of-77 for his entire career, good enough for only 27.3 percent).
Nevertheless, there’s reason to believe he has the potential to become a passable three-point shooter with a limited dose of pick-and-pops and spot-up attempts. His form is fairly smooth and he looks fluid when he’s aggressive and goes straight into his shot when popping out to the arc.
Tillman also shot 69.5 percent from the free throw line during his three years at Michigan State, which is a start and an important factor to consider for his shooting projection. When considering the soft touch he has around the paint as well, he has a foundation to build upon as a shooter moving forward.
Tillman has the talent of a late first-round pick and the makings of a player who can have a long NBA career. He even ranked 1st in Box Plus/Minus (11.3) among all college players who played at least 10 games against top-50 teams.
While he may not have star upside or elite athleticism, he’s well-rounded at both ends of the floor and does so many things to contribute to winning. And as someone who may slip into the early second round (and possibly be available with the 34th or 36th picks that Philly owns), he’s a highly qualified option for the Sixers to strengthen their big rotation.