Tuesday’s loss in the rear view mirror and we’ve all had our Festivus-like airing of grievances. Now it’s time to get back to the business at hand, the NCAA tournament with a healthy Killian Tillie.
Playing without Tillie for most of the season felt like being able to borrow a Ferrari with an inoperable custom sound system. It’s been incredible but feels like it could have been even better. He’s brings so much to the table for this team. Entering the season, Tillie was a firm potential NBA draft pick, first-round on some boards second-round in others. He has all the tools, solid passer, can run the floor, good rebounder, shot blocker, nice running floater and as was repeated ad nauseum during the WCC tournament, the team’s best 3-point shooter last season. Additionally, did anyone know his family plays volleyball?
Tillie took most fans by surprise with his ability to play and immediately contribute his freshman year. Last year, he was second on the team in scoring, rebounding and blocks. Even with all his skills, possibly his strongest attribute is his impressive basketball IQ. Stating the volleyball connection is fun because it’s mentioned by every sportscaster with only a passing familiarity with the team, but his strong leaping ability off two feet coupled with his ability to make tip-ins or back taps make him the teams best offensive rebounder. A sorely needed skill entering the post-season.
His ability to stretch the floor will be invaluable. Clarke and Rui have proven throughout the year they are essentially unguardable in the post by a single defender. By Killian going 4 for 5 from deep during the WCC tournament, opposing coaches will now have to develop a plan to stop him potentially opening up the middle. Even if he doesn’t shoot from deep, his ability to drive or fire a great entry pass will cause problems for opponents. The military term these skills are a force multiplier, others can accomplish more because of a single factor.
He also provides leadership. In one of his early games this season after returning, the broadcast crew noted him correcting and chastising Rui for being out of position and making a less than stellar effort on defense. Speaking of defense, he’s added a solid 20-pounds muscle to his frame during his two seasons allowing to be a satisfactory defender in the post, another glaring team shortcoming. His excellent mobility allows him to double-team players in the post and quickly recover to return to his primary assignment. While not a head-on shot blocker like Brandon Clarke, he’s great at swatting shots from the weak side.
By willingly accepting a sixth man role, he can enter the game with Geno Crandall to provide a spark on both ends of the court. We all know Mark Few is done experimenting with the line-up and has shortened the bench, but a healthy Tillie gives the team the potential to go big and put Rui at the “3”. Although I doubt I’ll see it in the tournament, we saw a few glimpses of Tillie on the floor with Petrusev this season and the “big” line-up combination was intriguing. It’s something I’d like to see more of next year.
Okay, speaking of next year, how likely is it Tillie will be returning? He missed so many games this season his skill level and conditioning are probably about 75-90% of what they would be had he played all season. An NBA team may take a chance on him and draft him in the second round, especially if he has a great tourney game shooting from deep, but he’ll more likely be a free agent if he chooses to try the NBA after this season.
He could return to Europe and carve out a solid career, but that option has always available to him and will still be available if he returns to Gonzaga his senior season. He came to Gonzaga, and returned his junior year, to increase his chances of playing in the NBA. I know I’m speaking from a selfish fan perspective, but it seems it would be a shame to miss that opportunity to once again demonstrate his skills to NBA scouts because of this season’s injuries.
If he follows the example set by his older brothers, he’ll return. Kevin (the one Vitale was thinking of) and Kim are both professional athletes and both used all four years of the college eligibility playing their respective sports in the United States. Kevin, after playing volleyball for two years in Canada due to visa issues, transferred to Cal State Irvine where his was a two-time All-American and two-time National Champion. He now plays professionally in Beijing, China. His brother Kim played basketball at Utah for four seasons and twice played in the NBA Summer League before settling in for a long career in Europe.
Regardless of his decision next season, having Killian Tillie back for the NCAA Tournament gives the Zags a much better chance of making a deep run. The skill, the leadership and the experience he brings dramatically increase the team’s overall depth while providing some much-needed stability. Besides all that, I’m also looking to find out his parent’s athletic backgrounds from tourney announcers covering their first Zag game of the year.