Xavier Tillman’s potential Celtics impact: Offense, defense, and the important stuff

by 24USATVFeb. 8, 2024, 7:01 p.m. 23
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As rumors of the Boston Celtics’ potential trade activity continued to swirl on Wednesday night, Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN confirmed their actions, reporting their trade for Xavier Tillman. Boston shipped out Lamar Stevens and two second-round picks, adding some big-man depth in the process.

The now-former Memphis Grizzlies center is listed at 6-foot-8 but plays well above his height, utilizing a strong frame and elite versatility to concoct a highly-praised defensive game.

“Tillman is one of the few bigs in the NBA that can legitimately claim they can, as a defender, slow Nikola Jokic and LeBron James,” Joe Mullinax of Locked On Grizzlies told CelticsBlog.

Boston had their eye on Tillman, in large part due to this exact idea.

“Obviously, we paid a lot of attention to him just because of the team that he plays for and the coach that he has,” head coach Joe Mazzulla said of Tillman. “And I think his defensive versatility. He has really good numbers against some of the top centers in the league. And his pick-n-roll defense and rim protection is pretty good.”

For a Celtics team with plenty of offensive firepower, adding a defensive-minded backup provides a new look for their secondary units. Luke Kornet’s familiarity with Boston’s system may give him the edge early on, but the speed at which Tillman takes to their schemes could determine his rotational role.

That said, Tillman’s defensive prowess should be a useful tool for Boston come playoff time. The Celtics have defensive weapons to deploy in Jrue Holiday, Derrick White, Jaylen Brown, and Jayson Tatum, but all of those guys have large offensive roles to worry about, too.

During the Grizzlies’ first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers last season, Tillman held Anthony Davis to 15-of-35 shooting (42.9%) and forced six turnovers in 35:48 of matchup time - the most of any individual matchup in the series.

But that wasn’t his only point of impact.

“His defense rocks,” Grizzlies writer Parker Fleming of SubTsakalidis told CelticsBlog. “People will point to the AD matchup in the playoffs, but he can stretch across many archetypes. He toggled between AD and LeBron [James] in the playoffs last year [and] was a better option on Bron than Dillon Brooks.

“He also guarded [Joel] Embiid and [Nikola] Jokic, as well as Zion [Williamson], Paul George, and Kawhi [Leonard]. For a big man, he’s very little on his feet and absorbs contact very well.”

As Boston gets prepped for a path on which they may encounter Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and other top-tier big men, Tillman could be extremely useful.

“It’s his truly elite movement laterally for his size - maybe think Grant Williams-lite - that may pay dividends as the Celtics eventually encounter the NBA’s best big men in their pursuit of an NBA championship,” said Mullinax.

Tillman’s versatility may end up being his best attribute in a Celtics center rotation that requires it to earn regular minutes.

“One of the most important positions in our defense is our bigs and their ability to be versatile,” Mazzulla said when asked about Tillman’s switchability. “And so, he’s shown that, and we just got to continue to coach him on it and get him up to speed in our system. So, I’m looking forward to it.”

Tillman’s turnover generation should also be useful for a Boston team that ranks 29th in the NBA in opponent turnovers per game (11.8). The 25-year-old is the only player in the league (min. 30 games played) who averages at least one block and one steal in under 25 minutes per game.

He has “very active hands [that] cause a lot of disruptions on that end,” Bryson Wright of Bluff City Media’s Next Gen Podcast told CelticsBlog.

That said, the defensive specialist has earned that title for two reasons - his aptitude for defense and his oft-subpar offensive game.

“[Offensively], he’s fairly limited,” said Fleming. “He’s a non-shooter, and his touch has abandoned him around the rim and at the free throw line — a bad sign for an undersized big man with no vertical pop.”

A lack of elite athleticism makes Tillman’s 6-foot-8 stature even more of a barrier on the offensive end, but he’s made up for it with solid rebounding efforts.

But as the Grizzlies have struggled with injuries this season and his offensive burden has increased, his field goal percentage has taken a massive hit. He’s down to 40.8% from the floor this year after shooting 61.4% last season. (Also a career 26.4% shooter from distance.)

Some of this could be solved by him playing alongside the star-studded Celtics, but there are certainly still some concerns that need to be ironed out.

“He is inconsistent but has had success as a roller,” said Wright. “[His] finishing is hit or miss as well, but [he] has had a few games where he [has been] awesome (like Game 2 vs. the Lakers last [postseason]). Don’t expect him to be a shooter. He will take them but doesn’t make a ton.”

Mazzulla’s thought process and love for Tillman’s “toughness” make it clear that Boston traded for him with his defense in mind, knowing his offensive game could be a bit rough around the edges.

But perhaps more important than his offensive of defensive contributions is Tillman’s personality off the court.

When questioned about the trade deadline at Tuesday’s practice, Mazzulla emphasized that he never wants to be “ a coach that always feels like we have to have something.”

However, he did make one thing clear: Chemistry is important. More important than people realize.

“I think one of the keys for a roster and for a locker room is for role guys to kind of find their niche within and within a system,” Mazzulla said. “And really, the relationship between your stars and the role players and the trust that they build amongst each other is super important. And I think both parties really facilitate that trust and that relationship.

“And so having a change will kind of start that process over. And then obviously just the language offensively and defensively. The culture aspect of it. So, there’s just a lot that goes into it.”

There’s no guarantee that Tillman will immediately mesh with everyone in Boston, but his track record certainly suggests that could be the case.

“He’s phenomenal off the court,” said Fleming. “Candid with conversations with the media. He’s great in the community.”

Last March, as the Grizzlies were on a hot streak with Tillman filling in for Steven Adams in the starting lineup, he had other duties off the court. Dad duties.

The big man (literally, when hanging out with non-basketball players) volunteered to be a chaperon on his daughter Ayanna’s kindergarten class’ field trip to the Memphis Zoo.

“I’m definitely (not too cool to be a chaperone),” Tillman said via Drew Hill of the Daily Memphian. “My kids are way more important than this game to me, so whenever I have the free time to go and spend time with any of them, that’s what I’m going to do.”

From hosting youth camps to volunteering at a Grizzlies-run Martin Luther King Jr. Day of Service project that focused on supplying “500 local families and organizations with food boxes,” Tillman’s family-first mindset trickles over to his good-natured work within the community.

Defensively, Tillman is a stalwart. Offensively, there is some room for improvement. But if his past actions are any indication of his character, the Celtics’ ever-important team chemistry should persist, and perhaps blossom even further, with his addition to the locker room.

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