The Boston Celtics acquired Xavier Tillman via trade on Wednesday, sending out Lamar Stevens as part of the deal. The move likely cements Boston’s big-man rotation, giving them optionality within the rotation. While not the offensive threat of Kristaps Porzingis or Al Horford, Tillman is a physical presence with a reputation for playing strong defense and adding physicality.
He has spent his first three and a half NBA seasons with the Memphis Grizzlies. He played in 34 games for them this season, starting 13. As he acclimates himself to his new teammates and coaching staff, Tillman will likely be the fourth-string big man behind Luke Kornet — filling the role we’ve seen Neemias Queta in over the first half of the season.
As he grows comfortable with the Celtics system and gets used to where his offense is going to come through, he could potentially oust Kornet from the third-string role. Time will tell.
For now, though, all we can do is look at the film on Tillman’s game and try to learn what he brings to the table so that we can envision how it will translate to Joe Mazzulla’s team. It all starts with his ability to thrive as a drop defender, staying in front of his man and containing drives and pick-and-roll actions.
Here is a good example of how Tillman can slide his feet to stay in front of guards. Malcolm Brogdon tries to turn the corner but gets shut off. Tillman then stays connected to him without fouling, ensuring that Brogdon’s drive is contained and he’s tightly contested on any shot attempt.
Tillman can also defend on the perimeter and in the mid-range. The clip below is a great illustration of how he can absorb physicality on the perimeter. Watch how Zion Williamson tries to discard him with a bump, with Tillman still staying in the play.
Another aspect to the above clip is how Tillman angles himself to take away the center of the court, forcing Zion into an angled drive, allowing Jaren Jackson Jr. to lurk for the block. The next clip is of Tillman defending LeBron James in the mid-post.
Again, LeBron — one of the more physically imposing players in the league- cannot bully his way through Tillman. Instead, he settles for a tightly contested fadeaway, which clanks off the back rim.
So, it’s clear Tillman can give you physicality and has a low enough center of gravity to stay rooted when dealing with some of the stronger players in the league. Another aspect of Boston’s defense is how they have their bigs switch actions when they move away from their drop scheme. That won’t be anything new to Tillman, as he’s held a similar role with the Grizzlies.
In the above possession, the Denver Nuggets go to pick-and-roll between Aaron Gordon and Nikola Jokic. Tillman switched onto Gordon, trailed him in a rear-view contest, anticipated the pass, and got the pilfer. His timing and reading of the play are both encouraging in this play. It is his understanding that he doesn't need to be completely connected to the roller to impact the possession.
Overall, Tillman’s defensive skillset fits what Boston will be asking of him. He’s physical enough to bang with stronger bigs. He’s intelligent at playing the angles. He can guard on the perimeter or switch onto ball-handlers when guarding pick-and-roll possessions. It’s a similar role to Horford, so there will likely be some veteran tutelage going on there.
However, I want to point out there is one flaw within Tillman’s defensive game: his rebounding. He isn’t the most commanding on the glass, which could have something to do with being 6’8’’ and going up against opposing centers. Last season, he ranked in the 35th percentile for defensive rebounding among bigs, and that was a career-high for him. This season, he’s in the 26th percentile, grabbing just 14% of available defensive boards when he’s on the floor.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they have a plethora of other rebounding options that should be able to paper over any cracks in the glass-cleaning department.
As we turn our attention toward the offensive end, the first thing that stands out is Tillman’s passing ability.
We see the Celtics always run a similar action with their bigs. Tillman sets a screen and slips before the contact is made (a slip screen.) The over-the-top pass is made, setting him free in the middle of the court; he catches around the nail (a short roll) and quickly gets the pass up for a lob play.
Tillman’s passing isn’t something that jumps out of the screen at you. Instead, it’s based on quick decision-making and ensuring the right read is made. We also see his passing skills on display when he’s running DHOs, both on the perimeter and around the mid-post or elbows.
Here’s an elbow zoom action, with Tillman operating as the hand-off big. You may recognize this play as something Ime Udoka liked his team to run, as it manipulated the defense and provided a clearer straight-line drive for the hand-off recipient.
Anyway, notice how once Tillman has initiated the hand-off, he mirrors the drive to offer a passing outlet before setting up shop in the strongside dunker spot. That provides the Grizzlies with two options. First, he’s there as a release valve if the defense kills the drive. Second, he can crash the glass if the shot misses and potentially come up with a second-chance board.
This possession is another example of Tillman’s hand-off passing. This time, it’s in a more traditional Zoom action. The same sequence follows; he tracks the drive before re-locating at the strongside dunker spot.
I like this clip as a good example of Tillman being a “next pass” creator. He fills gaps, is quick to make reads, and has no problem getting off the ball in a hurry. That will bode well for the Celtics, considering the pace they like decisions to be made and the temp they like to run their offense with.
Now that we’ve looked at his passing and defending, it feels like it’s the right time to look at his potential impact as a pick-and-roll big. According to NBA Stats, Tillman is averaging 0.67 points per pick-and-roll possession when Tillman is the roll-man, which occurs 1.3 times per game. Put simply, Tillman isn’t much of a pick-and-roll threat and rarely used in that situation. Instead, he attacks out of DHO actions.
Instead, he’s better when attacking in space after a DHO. It’s similar to a pick-and-roll, but oftentimes, the Grizzlies use Tillman in secondary actions, allowing him additional room when he turns the corner. We see Bam Adebayo run similar corner hand-off actions and operate in a similar way. Tillman’s mobility makes him a threat when getting into space and receiving the ball.
Again, here’s a Zoom action. Tillman once again reflects the ball-handler, this time receiving the pass and getting an easy finish around the rim.
Beyond his hand-off scoring and ability to attack in space when slipping screening actions, Tillman is also a valuable cutter who, when receiving the ball around the nail, is a difficult player to stop due to his frame and overall strength.
This play jumped out to me. Watch Tillman’s movement on the possession. He V-Cut’s out of the corner toward the nail, receiving the ball and completing the cut by attacking the rim, absorbing contact, and getting the finish. Boston has been missing that sort of bulldozer movement since Grant Williams left in the summer. Tillman’s ability to get low, control the ball, bounce off guys, and still get to his spot will be a useful tool for Mazzulla and his overall offensive scheme.
In terms of scoring the ball, Tillman is far from prolific. He’s shooting 56% at the rim, 35% from mid-range, and 24% from deep. His value comes on defense, as a screener, and as a hand-off creator. Still, there are times when he can provide some perimeter shooting.
Given his skill set, it would appear the Celtics are getting an ideal back-up big. He’s not going to look for his own shot, but he will take what the defense gives him. He’s happy to create for others, sets great screens, and is defensively versatile. The hope is that Boston can improve his scoring output and help improve his shooting stroke and that working with the coaching staff can see him become a more reliable rebounder.
The Celtics didn’t give up much to get Tillman through the door. He brings a different dimension to Kornet off the bench. On the surface, this looks like a smart business from Stevens. We will know more as he begins to get minutes within the rotation. Until then, I’m pretty excited about the move.