When Devin Tillis committed to UNLV in January it elicited some amount of head-scratching among Rebels fans. Few even knew the program was courting Tillis, and when a quick trip to the recruiting sites revealed that he was an unranked prospect, some questioned what T.J. Otzelberger saw in him.
After studying a handful of Tillis’ games from last season, it’s apparent why Otzelberger made the scholarship offer. It’s also apparent why the rankings sites were not impressed by Tillis. Both opinions are valid.
Tillis, a 6-foot-6 forward, averaged 15 points, nine rebounds and four assists per game last year for Windward (Calif.), and he did all the things that coaches love — he played solid defense, he passed the ball at an incredible level for a prep forward, he shot 43 percent from 3-point range, he handled the ball and broke the press, and he led his team to a lot of wins, as Windward went 28-8 and claimed a CIF sectional championship. He checked a lot of boxes.
He didn’t do the kind of things that bolsters recruiting rankings, though. He didn’t show explosive leaping ability or produce many highlight-reel defensive plays. He didn’t throw down any monster dunks or snap ankles with his crossover. His understated game was never going to translate to the mixtape circuit.
So what can UNLV expect when Tillis arrives on campus and suits up for the 2020-21 season? Based on what I saw in the games I watched, I think the Rebels will get a good freshman contributor — with potential for more.
Like the rest of his game, Tillis’ jump shot is a bit wonky but ultimately productive. He’s got a low release and a long setup, but when he’s open he has a confident release. He put a lot of big shots on tape last year, and Windward played to his strengths by running him off baseline screens and flaring him to the wings for open 3’s. That’s a fairly unique skill for a forward, and it makes me think Tillis will be a strong shooter at the college level:
Otzelberger loves outside shooters who can spread the floor, so if Tillis knocks down jumpers at a similar rate as a freshman he’ll see playing time at the 3 and the 4 position.
His passing is another skill that Otzelberger has praised on multiple occasions. It’s probably the only part of his game that could be considered “flashy” at times, and it’s because he reads the court so well. Windward deployed him as a point-forward, letting him run the halfcourt offense and pick apart opposing defenses.
Tillis also had the green light to rip down defensive rebounds and push the ball upcourt, which is something none of UNLV’s frontcourt players were capable of last year. Tillis can dribble the ball across halfcourt and finish the play off with a nice assist.
He might be one of the best pure passers on the Rebels’ roster next year:
Tillis is a pretty exceptional ball-handler, in my opinion. A lot of people may not feel the same, and that is understandable. He doesn’t dazzle with quick dribbles or change of direction, so it doesn’t stand out on tape, but he’s just so darn strong on the ball. As a forward, he edges around defenders at his own pace, never speeding up or panicking or picking up his dribble. He never dribbled into trouble in any of the games I watched, despite handling the ball a ton. Tillis just seems to have an innate control of the ball and a sense of how to shield it from defenders. It’s a valuable skill:
What he doesn’t have, however, is explosive athleticism. As you can see in that video, there are times when Tillis struggles to finish in traffic because he has almost no lift. He’s gangly and slow, and that allows long defenders to swarm him at times.
That’s going to be an issue at the Division I level, as some of the layups Tillis just barely managed to finish in high school will be blocked or severely altered by college defenders. He’ll have to adapt.
The lack of explosiveness also showed up on the defensive end. Windward played a lot of zone defense, but when Tillis was asked to cover man-to-man in space the results were mixed.
He is committed on the defensive end, and when his feet move quickly enough he is able to stay in front of his man. But when he gets out of whack — say, closing out on a shooter or overcommitting on a drive — he is susceptible to getting beat by quick change-of-direction moves:
Tillis also underwhelms a bit on the defensive glass. He showed some aggression when he had opportunities to pull down boards and go coast-to-coast, but there were too many instances when he failed to box out or stood flat-footed on the outside of the pile and watched opponents win the rebound:
Tillis’ style — smart, crafty, creative — was more conducive to offensive rebounding. He managed to put together a nice little reel of clever putbacks, using his innate sense of timing to swoop in and score some opportunistic buckets:
And while his track record as a man-to-man defender is somewhat limited, he did well in the areas of the game where you would expect “basketball IQ” to make a difference.
Tillis deflects a good amount of passes just by anticipating his opponents’ next move:
His ability to read the action also helps him play positional defense. He’s not a shot-blocker, but he loves taking charges:
It’s an odd profile for a basketball recruit. Tillis is slow but skilled. He’s got good size but no lift. He’s not flashy, but he can shoot the lights out and execute the offense. He sees things before they happen but sometimes lacks the physical skills to do something about it. He’s brainy and does all the little things that will endear him to coaches and teammates. It’s hard to peg him as a recruit.
It’s clear to see why Otzelberger likes him, though. If Tillis can play power forward in small lineups — my biggest question mark, considering his shaky defensive rebounding — his shooting and passing will absolutely make him an asset.
The name that keeps coming to me while watching Tillis is Jared Dudley, the former Boston College star turned NBA journeyman. Dudley was an unathletic swing forward who made a difference by knocking down shots and being smarter and tougher than his opponents. Tillis is an extraordinary long shot to ever reach that level, as Dudley was an All-American caliber college player, but the styles are similar.
Tillis is polished, skilled and knows how to win. Otzelberger will be able to work with that, despite what the recruiting sites think.