EAST LANSING — If you’re a Michigan State basketball die-hard who’s expecting Grand Rapids Christian senior forward and Spartan signee Xavier Tillman to immediately live up to his Mr. Basketball runner-up tag, you’re in for a rude awakening.
If you think his 18-point, 13-rebound and eight-block performance in a victory over Mr. Basketball-led Kalamazoo Central was a glimpse into the immediate future, I’d advise you to lower your expectations.
His 6-foot-8, 260-pound frame is similar to that of Nick Ward — who caught MSU faithful by surprise with his superb freshman season — but his game isn’t Ward’s. Not yet, at least.
Spartan fans should look no further than Friday afternoon’s Class A district semifinal game between the No. 1-ranked Eagles and Romulus to see what Tillman can come in and offer to Tom Izzo and Co. next season. It wasn’t the most attractive stat line — Tillman finished with five points, eight rebounds, six assists and seven blocks — but it was telling.
Tillman was a minimum of three inches taller than anyone Romulus trotted out to guard him. He didn’t take the bait. Romulus often sent two guard-size defenders at Tillman each time he touched the ball. Tillman countered with a team-high six assists, helping the Eagles run away with a 74-52 victory at the Breslin Center.
“I have a team full of scorers,” said Tillman, who only attempted three shots in the game. “My job is to facilitate.”
Tillman’s high basketball IQ should help him see the floor next season for the Spartans — even if graduate transfer Ben Carter is granted another year of eligibility and Gavin Schilling returns to full strength. He’s bruising, but not like Ward. His touch isn’t there yet, either. But Ward doesn’t have Tillman’s handle away from the rim. Ward, also, doesn’t have Tillman’s vision.
With 1:36 remaining in the first quarter, Tillman caught the ball nearly six feet away from the block. He turned, faced up, and flung a pass to the opposite corner for a wide-open 3. His teammate’s shot rimmed out, but it was the right play. There were many more instances like that one throughout the contest, many of which ended with a positive result.
Grand Rapids Christian coach Mark Warners said his club is better when the ball touches Tillman’s hands.
“Usually when our team struggles offensively it’s because (Tillman) doesn’t get touches,” said Warners, whose team will take on No. 3-ranked Clarkston for the Class A state title at noon on Saturday. “It’s not because he doesn’t get shots, it’s because he doesn’t get touches.
“One of the guys even said, ‘I stopped throwing it into him because I knew that they were going to double.’ I said, ‘Trust him. Trust him to make the right play.'”
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Tillman’s motor should help him get minutes — no matter how small — his freshman year. His seven blocks were a game high. There were nine blocks total in the game. High-motor guys usually get praise from Izzo.
There’s no doubt that Tillman is raw, but the ability to see the floor and high energy aren’t things you can teach. He needs a jump shot to make him more dangerous than his 6-foot-8 frame will allow him to be at the next level. He could get more crafty around the rim, too. Izzo may need him in two years if both Ward and Schilling are gone. Experience next year could pay off down the road.
Tillman has time to put it all together. He’s not one-and-done. But he probably won’t be on campus for five years, either.
“The college coaches, when he was being recruited, the thing that set him apart, they told me, was his ability to see the floor, his ability to pass, and how smart he was,” Warners said. “It wasn’t the numbers that he was putting up or anything like that. It was that he’s such a smart player and can see the floor so well.”
Contact James L. Edwards III at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @JLEdwardsIII.