MIDDLEVILLE – Xavier Tillman blocked the shot, grabbed the ball and pushed the pace.
Towering over his smaller, quicker opponents, the Grand Rapids Christian senior went on a one-man fast break. He dribbled behind his back when one defender went for a steal, then swooped in for a long-stride Eurostep layup.
Whistle. “Traveling is called.”
Nevermind that the referee got it wrong. The Michigan State signee flashed some of his least-heralded abilities on that play, part of a well-rounded performance Friday night in the Eagles’ 66-39 win over Thornapple-Kellogg.
“It’s part of my game. I feel like I’m versatile,” Tillman said. “Not versatile in terms of jump-shooting, but versatile in that I can handle the ball, I can pass the ball, I can post up real well, I can block shots, I can get a steal, I can guard the ball.”
Tillman finished with in that 12 points, 11 rebounds, four blocks, four assists and two steals in playing less than three quarters. He averages 12.6 points, shooting better than 70% from the field with at least five double-digit rebound games for a Grand Rapids Christian team that’s now 7-0, often taking a seat in the second half of blowouts.
Those numbers barely scratch the surface of Tillman’s talents, Eagles coach Mark Warners said. The temptation could be there to put the 6-foot-9, 270-pound power forward on the block all game, every game and pad his stats, but he wants Tillman to continue to develop the skills he will need when he becomes a Spartan. Warners is moving Tillman around the offense, setting screens and looking to make plays on the perimeter as well.
“We like the ball in his hands, because he makes great decisions,” Warners said. “You know, we could throw him on the block and get him 20 shots a game and he could score 30 points a game. We could. But our team wouldn’t be as good. He’s talented on the block and he can do that, but he wants to do things that help the team win.”
That doesn’t mean Tillman – who committed to Tom Izzo in September and signed his letter of intent in November – isn’t a force around the basket. He uses his quick feet and hulking size to establish a wide post-up position, scoring eight of Grand Rapids Christian’s first 12 points Friday in the paint. That included one off a lob that he tipped through the cylinder.
However, Tillman knows he needs to improve his shot from outside. Right now, he said, he’s comfortable taking his jumper from elbow-to-elbow, but he working to add more range and a three-point shooting component to his game as a trailer.
“I believe I do (have that in my game),” Tillman said, “I just gotta have the confidence to shoot it. I work on it all the time. I want to be able to shoot it from anywhere – from three, from mid-range, from the post, anywhere on the court. But right now, my game is sort of elbow-in, but I’m trying to expand it.”
Also a work-in-progress is Tillman’s body, something MSU coaches have wanted him to improve before he arrives on campus. He’s talked with current freshman Nick Ward, who has dropped more than 30 pounds since this summer, about the things Tillman should be doing to help get his weight to around his target goal of around 250 pounds.
“He told me it’s not as crazy as you think, actually,” Tillman said. “It’s just eating right. They give us protein shakes and a food plan and what to eat. He said it’s not like he weightlifted differently or anything, he just ate better and his body improved.”
Tillman is expected to arrive at MSU this summer to start taking classes, but winning a state championship is his first priority. Still, he’s kept his eye on the Spartans this winter and their lack of post players due to injuries.
It’s hard to not think about what if he was with them right now.
“That’s what (associate head coach Dwayne Stephens) told me. He said, ‘We need you,’” Tillman said with a laugh. “I said, ‘Nah, let me finish my senior year.’”