This is the second in a series of profiles on the six finalists for the Hal Schram Mr. Basketball Award, which is to be announced March 20 at the Free Press.
A February game against East Grand Rapids showed Xavier Tillman’s progression.
The Grand Rapids Christian basketball star received a pass some 15 feet away from the rim. The 6-foot-8, 270-pound power forward could have made a move toward the basket and finished with an authoritative dunk.
Instead, he opted for a quality jump shot.
“I never shot jump shots,” Tillman said last week. “But in that East Grand Rapids game, I had one jump shot that gave me confidence. As I caught it, I just felt, because I wasn’t getting touches that game as much as I would have liked to because of their 2-3 zone, that I had to shoot it.
“As soon as I touched the ball, I wanted to get that shot off.”
Tillman’s willingness to expand his game is among the things catching the attention of scouts. The four-star prospect, who signed with Michigan State in November, is rated as the state’s top player in the 2017 class, according to the 247Sports Composite rankings.
The Basketball Coaches Association of Michigan backed up his status when it named him a Mr. Basketball finalist in February. He was joined by Detroit Cornerstone’s Jamal Cain, Detroit East English Village’s Greg Elliott, North Farmington’s Amauri Hardy, Kalamazoo Central’s Isaiah Livers and Powers North Central’s Jason Whitens.
“When I talked to the college coaches when they were recruiting him, that’s what set him apart,” Grand Rapids Christian coach Mark Warners said. “They watch a lot of high school kids play, and with him, they saw somebody who sees the floor like he does at his size, and that’s a big thing for them to see.
“He has the ability to handle the ball. He’s not quite an 18-foot jump shooter, but a 15-foot jumper? He can catch that on the high post and stick that shot.”
Tillman’s versatility includes averages of 13.0 points, 10.4 rebounds, 5.0 assists and 4.1 blocks for the Eagles (21-0) this season. He has posted several triple-doubles.
The high post is where he did most of his damage as a ball handler and passer, as the Eagles ran their offense through him.
“It’s just a mentality thing,” Tillman said. “When you catch it, you got to have that dog in you. You got to look at the rim first in triple-threat, and that’s when you look to score. When I catch in triple-threat, it helps me see the hoop and everything.”
Tillman’s “dog” mentality hasn’t always been there, and he and Warners believe that’s the best thing he improved in high school.
“I’ve definitely improved my aggressiveness, especially when I get the ball and look to score a little more with it,” Tillman said. “Post-wise, I’m more aggressive, and I make sure my body is up to the defender. I work to get to the free-throw line.
“My goal is to be aggressive in every game, set the tone and make sure I’m running the court to make sure I affect each play and still get the win.”
Warners said Tillman shares some of the same skills that former Grand Rapids Christian standout guard Drake Harris had in high school, but he also said parts of Tillman’s game are more advanced.
Harris garnered Division I basketball offers before signing to play wide receiver at Michigan.
“They’re totally different players in that Drake Harris would shoot the ball 20 to 25 times a game, and he had the ball in his hands a lot,” Warners said. “He wasn’t nearly the passer that X is, though, and they play different positions. Drake was bringing the ball up the court, and most of the time, X isn’t.
“X, we said to him so many times, we needed our offense to run through him, not necessarily for him to score but because of the attention he draws and, most importantly, his passing abilities. That’s a good thing for this team to have.”