For Michigan State's Xavier Tillman, Leaving Wasn't Easy

McLain Moberg

In one final press conference as a college basketball player, Xavier Tillman lifted his arm to reveal a tattoo saying "redemption."

It symbolized his motivation to win a national title during his junior year after making it to the Final Four in 2019.

Tillman and his teammates would never get a chance because the NCAA Tournament was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"When it first happened, I was devastated," said Tillman.

But his motivation to win and win in East Lansing wearing the green and white shows how hard of a decision it was. 

He said leaving early for the NBA is "bittersweet," and he was "flip-flopping every two weeks" when it came to staying in the draft or returning for another year at Michigan State.

Tillman is forever thankful for the guidance Tom Izzo provided him throughout his career at MSU.

The former Spartan said Izzo was "eyes and ears out there," when it came to NBA scouts and coaches – they spoke every other week about what he was hearing.

"It shows how trustworthy and honest coach really is … he's like 'I want the best for you regardless of what you're doing," Tillman said.

The 6-foot-8, 245-pound big man said he came to Michigan State as a "chubby 18-year-old" kid. Everyone thought he'd be a decent four-year player before "Coach Izzo turned me into a monster."

He won Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year in 2020 while averaging 13.7 points, 3.0 assists, 10.3 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks per game.

At first, Tillman didn't get much attention from the NBA, saying his first evaluation came back without a single first-round projection. But things continued to improve. After multiple interviews, he felt comfortable he'd be selected.

"Okay, I've got a really good chance of getting drafted," Tillman said.

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