Analysis: Versatility makes Donnie Tillman ideal fit at UNLV

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Rick Bowmer / AP

Utah forward Donnie Tillman (3) celebrates with fans following a NCAA college basketball game against Washington State, Saturday, Jan. 12, 2019, in Salt Lake City.

Sun, Sep 22, 2019 (2 a.m.)

When UNLV landed a commitment from Donnie Tillman in July, it changed the trajectory of the Runnin’ Rebels’ offseason. While most expected the team to be competitive in T.J. Otzelberger’s first year, the addition of a player like Tillman — the reigning Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year — could propel UNLV toward contention in the upper tier of the Mountain West.

That’s if Tillman is eligible to play this season, of course. After two years at Utah, the 6-foot-7 swingman transferred to UNLV and is petitioning the NCAA for a hardship waiver that would allow him to play in 2019-20. Otzelberger said it’s a 50/50 proposition, but if the NCAA rules in Tillman’s favor he’s good enough to make a big impact for the Rebels right away.

Tillman’s numbers at Utah were more than solid, as he averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds in 27.3 minutes per game. But in projecting his fit in Otzelberger’s system, there is potential for Tillman to take a significant step forward.

His fit as a hybrid forward could not be more perfect for a spread attack like Otzelberger’s. Tillman can play small forward or power forward and bring plus shooting to the lineup from either spot.

Tillman’s 3-point accuracy was good last year, as he made 36.1 percent of his long attempts, but that doesn’t tell the whole story. Most of his offensive value comes as a floor spacer; on catch-and-shoot attempts last year, Tillman produced an efficient 1.151 points per possession. And when he was left open, he was downright lethal, making 47.1 percent of his uncontested jumpers, according to Synergy Sports data.

In Otzelberger’s offense, Tillman will be able to set up shop in the corners and on the wings and cash in at a high rate:

Tillman’s off-the-dribble game isn’t quite as polished as his outside shooting. He’s not quick enough to win in one-on-one situations, as evidenced by his 0.789 PPP on isolation plays last year, and his ball-handling is rudimentary.

But when given a crease, Tillman is a good enough driver to beat close-out defenders and get into the paint. Once he’s near the rim, his strength becomes his greatest asset. He knows how to leverage his upper-body power to get the ball in the basket, and he is at his best when jumping into defenders to knock them off balance and draw the foul:

Tillman's ability to draw contact is a valuable asset. His free-throw ratio of 44.8 percent last season was impressive, and among UNLV players only big men Tervell Beck (57.7 percent), Mbacke Diong (52.8 percent) and Jonathan Tchamwa Tchatchoua (54.3 percent) drew fouls at a higher rate. Unlike those Rebels, however, Tillman can take advantage from the line, as he's a career 78.3 percent free-throw shooter.

Though he’s strong and aggressive when attacking the basket, Tillman is sometimes overwhelmed by taller defenders. He’s a good athlete but his vertical doesn’t come easily, so he finds himself in situations where he is swarmed by shot-blockers and struggles to finish close-range shots:

For the season, Tillman shot 57.8 percent around the rim, according to Hoop-Math.com. That’s an OK rate, but it works for Tillman due to his shot selection. He makes his living in the most efficient areas of the court, as 53.0 percent of his shots are 3’s and 39.1 percent are attempts near the basket.

And he focuses on what he’s good at. He’s not a primary ball-handler and he didn’t get out in transition a ton last year, but as a volume shooter and secondary scorer in a spread offense, Tillman should thrive. The Rebels have Amauri Hardy and (potentially) Bryce Hamilton to break down the defense; Tillman just has to catch kick-out passes and finish, and he has proven he can do that at a high level.

Tillman flashed some passing chops last year as well, though that really wasn’t his job in Utah’s offense. That skill mostly manifested in situations where the court was spaced and Tillman was able to scan and make the proper pass to open shooters:

The key to what makes Tillman such an intriguing player is his versatility. At 6-foot-7 he’s quick enough to defend smaller perimeter players, and he has the strength and toughness to defend bigger players on the interior.

The bulldog mentality is present on every possession, and he defends at full speed. When he squares up in halfcourt situations, offensive players had a hard time getting anywhere:

For the season, Tillman held opposing players to 0.929 points per possession, which was one of the better marks among Utah players. But even more than stonewalling ball-handlers, his defensive value comes from his versatility.

Tillman can switch from small to big and vice-versa without missing a beat. He gets physical with bigger players, then moves his feet and stays in front of quick little point guards, often on the same possession. In the games I watched from last season, I didn’t see one “mismatch” in which the offensive team got the better of Tillman:

One of the fears that holds coaches back from playing small-ball is that it makes the team vulnerable on the glass. But Tillman doesn’t just hold his own when it comes to rebounding, he attacks the boards and plays like a true big man when the ball caroms in his direction.

Whether he’s checking on the perimeter or boxing out big men inside, he is scrappy and fights hard for rebounds, to the point where it’s fun to watch him carve out space and go up for boards:

The numbers don’t quite reflect Tillman’s rebounding prowess. In two years at Utah he posted a defensive rebounding rate of 17.5 percent and an offensive rebounding rate of 6.9 percent, which is comparable to the production of UNLV’s small-ball power forward last year, Joel Ntambwe (18.6 percent DRB, 7.2 percent ORB).

When looking at the total package, Ntambwe is actually an interesting comparison for Tillman. They both project best when playing the stretch-4 position, and their body types are similar. Tillman is more engaged defensively and can be a positive factor on that end of the court, while Ntambwe’s ability to put the ball on the floor is ahead of Tillman’s dribble-drive game.

Both have star potential, and while losing Ntambwe to transfer was a blow for the Rebels, they should be able to “replace” him (and maybe even upgrade the position) with Tillman. He can do everything required of that position in Otzelberger’s system and he can do most of it at a plus-level.

For a team like UNLV, which will want to put at least four outside shooters on the floor at all times, that versatility could make Tillman a star. A player who can defend like a power forward while spreading the floor with outstanding catch-and-shoot ability is a perfect piece for the kind of system Otzelberger is going to run.

Mike Grimala can be reached at 702-948-7844 or [email protected]. Follow Mike on Twitter at twitter.com/mikegrimala.

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