Daniel Theis is a really good role player on this Boston Celtics team and belongs in the starting lineup. Veteran Enes Kanter provides a scoring and rebounding punch against certain lineups who won’t expose him on defense, but could opt out next month. Youngsters Robert Williams and Grant Williams bring vivacious energy in different ways; Robert through pogo-stick dunks and rim protection, Grant through savvy positional movements and some defense as a small-ball 5.
The point is this: behind Theis lies a litany of pieces with clear strengths and clear flaws, none of whom are versatile enough to provide a consistent answer to who will fill that role on a nightly basis.
Kanter has, at most, one more year left in Boston. Theis is already 28. Neither of the Williams guys are incredibly impactful on offense outside of the roles they already fill. Could Danny Ainge look to add more depth at that position and bring in a versatile piece able to wear all the hats the backup centers currently do?
We’ll focus on some of the names plausibly available in the later part of the first round, where the Celtics have picks 26 and 30. In that juncture, three players come to mind: Isaiah Stewart of Washington, Killian Tillie of Gonzaga, and Xavier Tillman from Michigan State.
Isaiah Stewart, Washington
If the year were 1998, Isaiah Stewart would be a certain top-five pick. A real renaissance player, Stewart relied on his physical gifts, motor, offensive rebounding, and back-to-basket arsenal during one year on the west coast. He is, by all accounts, an infectious personality, unbelievable teammate and supremely hard worker, qualities most general managers swoon over.
Can he prove he’s got a modern game that allows him to succeed at the things big men are asked to do frequently in today’s game?
The 7’4” wingspan and supreme length is impressive on its own, but when paired with the constant work ethic of Stewart, the length comes to life. He’s a bully on the glass and interior, constantly seeking contact and fighting for second-chance points. His 2.7 offensive rebounds a game were impressive, but also a product of the fact he spent almost all his time within eight feet of the hoop.
That wingspan also breeds hope that Stewart can be an effective rim protector in drop coverage and block a ton of shots. His college team plays a 2-3 zone exclusively, as their head coach was an assistant at Syracuse for decades before getting the Washington gig. There’s always a concern about how that translates to the NBA and very few high-level defensive bigs who come from similar systems.
Beyond tightening up his man-to-man play, Stewart has a lot of other areas to add polish and impact. He’s not a particularly strong leaper or effective with his footwork. He won’t finish a ton of lob plays, nor will he be skilled enough immediately to punish teams that switch onto him.
The swing skill for Stewart is in his shooting. Many scouts believe he already has 3-point range despite not showing it off at Washington. If true, and he becomes a reliable stretch-5, there’s a ton of upside to his game.
Without that shooting, Stewart is a little too similar to Robert Williams to be someone that adds a new element to their frontcourt. I would steer clear of adding him to the glut of bigs since he isn’t the versatile piece Boston sorely needs there. You want to root for good, hard-working guys, but be weary of overvaluing character if the skill doesn’t go with it.
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga
On the exact opposite end of the spectrum is Killian Tillie, a proven winner and bona fide stretch big. He’s got an unbelievably sweet stroke reminiscent of Kevin Love and would add a beautiful element to Boston’s offense. At 22 years old, he’s ready to log minutes right away and would give the Celtics the only type of 5-man their roster doesn’t currently have.
Tillie is elite out of the pick-and-pop, and is a little better at attacking closeouts and driving to the rim than you’d expect. He can space the floor in corners, play with his back to the basket or pick defenses apart from the top of the key. Adding a pick-and-pop threat next to Kemba Walker would open up the rim so much more for all the Celtics’ perimeter attackers.
Tillie isn’t perimeter-bound by any means. He’s a sneaky good defender, great with angles and terrific with verticality. He also had success in a few possessions switching onto smaller guys.
There’s no player in this draft more like Daniel Theis than Tillie. He may not be as tough or quick, but he’s solid and is a better 3-point threat. He’d be a really good role player to have in the modern NBA.
Here’s the bad news with Tillie: he’s very injury prone. Robbed of some college years due to lower body and knee injuries, there’s a limit on how athletic Tillie is. So many front offices shy away from spending a valuable first-round pick on someone who catches the injury prone label this early in their career, particularly one who doesn’t seem to have a ton of upside left athletically.
He also doesn’t solve one of the major issues Boston has defensively: rebounding. He’s not explosive enough to get balls out of his zone, and not physical enough to negate other bigs so his teammates can rebound. Boston may be the best landing spot for him to mask those concerns, but the question is whether he’s the right guy for the franchise and if they’ll put up with those shortcomings.
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State
For a team in win-now mode, there’s something incredibly attractive about a mature, ready-to-play prospect.
Enter Xavier Tillman, a super-strong 21-year-old who is already married and a father of two. He’s successfully balanced his personal life with achievement in the classroom and on the court, all while being heralded as an unbelievable teammate at Michigan State. He’s the type of person you welcome into your locker room and know will make a positive impact.
On the floor, Tillman is great in some areas and very subpar in others. From a stylistic standpoint, he may be too similar to Grant Williams to be a perfect fit with the Celtics.
Tillman is the best passing big man in this draft. He makes tremendous plays out of the short roll, an area Theis has improved greatly. To put a Draymond Green-like passer in those spots unlocks certain areas of the Celtics’ offense that few others can. Add to it that Tillman is one of the better finishers off the dribble and he’ll be a huge threat with Boston’s pick-and-roll partners.
Beyond that, Tillman is a super solid defender. He’s great in help situations, routinely under control with closeouts and can guard 3 thru 5 effectively. I wouldn’t call him a superb shot blocker or rim protector, but he’s so good with angles and intense with his communication that there’s almost no way he can hurt a team.
Unfortunately, Tillman is not a very good shooter. The versatility he provides as a big man is that he can play the 4 or the 5 and defend both spots well. Without the ability to space the floor, I’d doubt Brad Stevens would welcome many minutes for him alongside another big. His 22 percent uncontested 3-point mark is really low and drives down optimism about him adding consistent range to his jumper.
The lack of shooting, as well as not being a great scorer in any facet, may limit the offensive impact unless he moves to the 5 full-time. That would be the role the Celtics need him in most, so there could be a fit here. But doing so likely squeezes some minutes and a role from Grant Williams long-term, an interesting development to watch for on Draft Night.