Memphis Grizzlies: Xavier Tillman Sr. was unexpectedly dominant in 2021

Memphis Grizzlies

Xavier Tillman, Memphis Grizzlies (Photo by Justin Ford/Getty Images)

The Memphis Grizzlies have drafted extremely well ever since Zach Kleiman was put in charge. In fact, the argument could be made that they’ve been better in the past few NBA Drafts than any other team in the league.

Looking up and down the roster, who hasn’t either met or exceeded expectations thus far?

You won’t find anybody, as the entire roster is full of players who have played beyond what experts predicted before the draft. This is evident by looking at guys like Dillon Brooks or Brandon Clarke, neither of whom were expected to have a huge impact in the league. Boy, those experts were wrong. Very wrong.

In 2021 though, the near-perfect drafting was expected to slow down. The Grizzlies didn’t have a great draft pick and, as a result, were given the 30th and 35th picks in the draft. It looks like Kleiman didn’t care.

He secured two of the biggest steals in the draft in Desmond Bane (30) and Xavier Tillman Sr. (35).

The Memphis Grizzlies saw their rookie center blossom into a defensive force

We’ll go over Desmond Bane in another post. Right now, I’m going to take a look at Xavier Tillman Sr., who quietly and swiftly established himself as one of the better backup centers in the league.

Tillman originally earned time in the rotation due to injuries to Jonas Valanciunas, Brandon Clarke, Jaren Jackson Jr., and other big men on the team. Eventually, he would turn sporadic minutes into role-playing minutes on a talented Grizzlies roster.

He did this by bringing something to the Grizzlies’ roster that was much-needed — defense. In Jaren Jackson Jr.’s absence, there was a jarring lack of defensive presence at times for this team. You had Dillon Brooks, who can guard virtually anybody 1-on-1, and Kyle Anderson, one of the league’s best pickpockets, but both of these guys were in the starting lineup.

Beyond that, the Grizzlies’ defensive presence was nonexistent. Tillman likely won’t surpass Jonas Valanciunas for a long time, but he’s capable of holding down the paint with a Sixth Man of the Year ceiling.

Despite being a small center, he has been a brick wall in the paint.

Offensively, Tillman has been extremely reliable as well. He’s not a Justise Winslow-type of player, who succeeds on defense and virtually doesn’t exist on offense. Rather, X is the type of player who isn’t the greatest offensive player at the moment but has consistently shown glimpses of a strong offensive skillset.

In an odd choice by Taylor Jenkins, Tillman’s minutes dwindled in the NBA Playoffs. The Grizzlies struggled on defense against the Jazz, so hopefully, Jenkins will learn from his mistake and play X in a larger role in the future.

Down the road, he could become a Draymond Green-type of player. Time will tell, but for now, Memphis has to feel good about their 2020 2nd-round pick out of Michigan State.