(CBS)- If you watched a Michigan State game over the last two years, you likely heard the name Xavier Tillman quite a bit throughout the broadcast. The 6’8″ 245-pound forward routinely stuffed the stat sheet for the Spartans. He also did plenty of things that don’t show up in the box score, like setting hard screens, making the defensive rotation just ahead of the ball, anticipating where it’s going next.
Playing against him is likely exhausting. Tillman prides himself on that hard work, the gritty areas of the game that others may do, but with no particular joy in the task. That playing style was instilled in him early by his mother, Tanya Powell-May.
“I’ve always played hard. That was something my mom kind of instilled in the early. You have to give it your all every time. I had that from an early age, playing hard. But then, the whole outwork, rather than out-skill somebody I learned that my freshman year at Michigan State, playing with guys like Jarren (Jackson), Miles (Bridges), Cassius (Winston), Nick (Ward), Josh Langford playing with guys like that,” said Tillman in an interview with CBS Local’s Ryan Mayer. “It was like, it will skill-wise, I’m not even close to you guys yet.”
“But I needed to make an impact in practice. The way I’m designed, the way I’m cut is that I got to impact the game somehow,” continued Tillman. “Whether that’s just setting a great screen and getting somebody open, or checking the best guy offensively or even just making the extra pass to guys who are open.”
The freshman-year battles further drove home the lessons taught early by Powell-May, the person Tillman credits with getting him involved in the game. A college hoops star in her own right, Powell-May was a four-year letter winner at the University of Michigan from 1986-1990, and by the time her career was done, she finished as the school’s all-time leading rebounder. Tillman credits his mom for nurturing his love of the game while at the same time not pushing him towards it, allowing him to gravitate to it on his own.
After a successful high school career at Grand Rapids Christian, he committed to Michigan State after originally wanting to go to Marquette. He says the comfort level he had with the East Lansing campus, the coaches and the ability to have his young family with him, his now wife Tamia and their daughter Ayanna, were the key factors in going to MSU.
After a freshman season of finding his role on a Spartans team stacked with two NBA lottery picks in the front court, Tillman broke out in his sophomore year, playing in all 39 games and starting the final 13 as the Spartans made a run to the Final Four.
As a junior, Tillman finished the 2019-20 season averaging a double-double and earning second team All-Big Ten honors in helping lead the Spartans to a likely NCAA Tournament appearance before the season shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. He announced his intention to leave for the NBA Draft in March and then reaffirmed that decision in August amid the uncertainty of the pandemic.
While his Spartans career ended short of the ultimate goal, Tillman has kept a positive outlook on things amid the uncertainty that the pandemic has introduced to the draft process. The 21-year-old earned his degree from MSU this summer and, at the same time, has continued to juggle the responsibilities of being a father to his two children, three-year-old Ayanna and now six-month old Xavier Jr., and training for the draft.
“It’s going good. We’ve been able to find a balance and kind of find a routine to where I can get my workouts in, and my wife can handle her school stuff, and my daughter’s doing home school now, and I’m her teacher now,” said Tillman. “We’re finding our little niche right here of getting used to operating the way we want to and stuff like that. So it’s been going pretty well.”
While homeschooling is a new experience, one that parents across the country are finding both rewarding and frustrating, Tillman has enjoyed having the time to be home with his family. He’s kept an optimistic outlook on the Draft process, despite the date now having been pushed back twice.
“It’s been interesting. Kind of disappointing that it kept moving back. But at the same time, my excitement for getting to play where I always want to play, in the NBA, kind of keeps me alive,” said Tillman. “Because I know at some point, they’re going to have to stop pushing the day back. Having that kind of mindset, that kind of optimistic mindset where you know the time is going to come, just keep doing what you’re doing is pretty good to have.”
It’s that mindset and the confidence Tillman has in his game that has NBA teams interested. He has been going through the virtual process, interviewing with teams following the advice of his friend and former teammate Jarren Jackson: be confident in your game.
“His main point of advice is confidence. You have to know that you belong. And don’t take that to be arrogant. But, when you’re talking and having your interviews, you have to really believe and trust your work that you put in,” said Tillman. “All my interviews that I had, hey, I’m confident in my abilities, but I’m not stupid either. I’m not going to tell you that I’m a 40% three-point shooter, but I will tell you that I’m the best defender in the draft. Not overselling it, but sticking to my ground on what I know and what my foundations are.”
That foundation had his coach, Tom Izzo, remarking in March that Tillman had abilities on the defensive end similar to that of another former Spartan, Draymond Green. For Tillman, that comparison is one he strives for as he modeled his game after the way that Green plays.
“It’s funny that you say that, because he’s one of the players that I kind of modeled my game after, as far as getting guys going. If you really notice, he’s great at getting Steph and Klay going,” said Tillman. “Whether that’s screen, whether that’s running the DHO (dribble hand-off) and giving them the right pass, or whether that’s putting the pass on the money. My thing is, him being literally exactly my size and my weight, and we play alike defensively and able to lead the offense, facilitate. That is something that kind of guides me through when I play and I try to do that every time.”
Green entered the NBA a second-round pick of the Warriors and was given the space to develop his game into what it has become as part of a team that became the league’s most recent dynasty. For Tillman, he’s working on his game to further round out those aspects that right now are considered weaknesses.
“My free throw shooting is the first one. My career at Michigan State, I think I hit 69.5 percent. So, it wasn’t terrible, but it’s not consistent enough to where I feel like a coach will trust me in the game late and get fouled. Raising that up to high 70s, low 80s or if I’m able to low 80s, high 80s. That’d be great,” said Tillman. “As well as my three-point shooting. I think I shot 26% this year, my junior year. So if I can raise that up to the mid 30s and make myself a respectable three-point shooter, to where I’m not shooting five threes a game, but you’re going to respect me when I’m shooting. That’s something that I want to add to my game as well.”
Aside from improving his stroke at the free throw line and from deep, Tillman is continuing to work on his defensive abilities with the goal of being able to guard every position on the floor. As he points out, that’s the way the league is evolving, noting the Houston Rockets, who trotted out a lineup with no played larger than 6’9″ Robert Covington.
As draft day approaches, the excitement is building for Tillman. He’s ready to prove what he can do and says fans should be ready to see a workhorse on the court and a dedicated member of the community off it.
“Get ready to see a workhorse. I can’t wait. I can’t wait because Jarren tells me a lot of stories all the time and, and you really got to love it and you really got to be dedicated. And that’s something that I am. I love playing basketball,” said Tillman. “That brings me almost as much joy as being with my family. Being able to escape and just be you and the ball is something crazy. So just get ready to get a workhorse who day in and day out is going to put in endless amount of work, to be a huge contributor to the team.”
“Also, I’m gonna be a guy who’s gonna be in the community a lot. That’s something that I always wanted to do, to give back,” continued Tillman. “Whether that’s philanthropically or just my time and effort and just being with the people within the community I go to. Those things are things I want to do.”
The NBA Draft is set for November 18th.