Justin Tillman wasted no time in becoming a fan favorite his freshman season at VCU. The Detroit native dropped an easy 14-point, 10-rebound double-double in his 17-minute debut in last season’s exhibition opener against Cal U. But it wasn’t the stats that made him standout, or the impressive afro, it was the way he delivered those numbers, connecting on a handful of highlight-worthy dunks that set the tone for what the talented freshman was capable of.
Yet despite the flash and promise the 6’7 forward demonstrated, Tillman was unable to really grab the minutes needed to become an Atlantic 10 rookie star.
Under the previous coaching staff and their limited role for traditional bigs, Tillman checked in at ninth in minutes played (12.3) and usage (15.6%) on last year’s team. What’s more, at 6’7 200lbs Tillman would often relieve center starter Mo Alie-Cox, giving up considerable size to opposing bigs.
Expect that to change this upcoming season.
For starters, Tillman has added 15 pounds to his frame and should enter the season even heavier than that — Will Wade has said he’d like Tillman to gain another 5-7lbs to help with in-season weight loss. When asked recently if he had any hints at players who could see big minutes next season that fans aren’t familiar with, old or new, Wade told VCURamNation.com that Tillman and fellow big Michael Gilmore are two names that could see expanded roles.
This is great news for VCU and here’s why: Hassan Martin.
Hassan Martin has become an Atlantic 10 star as the defensive identity of another set of Rams, the Rhode Island Rams. He was a Second Team All-Conference selection in last season’s A-10, an All-Defensive Selection and a huge part of Rhody’s rise from conference bottom-feeder (3-13 the season before he arrived) to third place finisher in last season’s league play (13-5 in the A-10).
The similarities between Martin and Tillman are abundant.
Tillman came to VCU as an ESPN top-100 power forward at 6’7 200lbs. Martin found his way to Rhody as a top-125 Rivals recruit at 6’7 190lbs. But wait, there’s more!
ADVANCED STATISTICAL COMPARISON (freshmen seasons)
Tillman – 107.3
Martin – 107
Effective Field Goal Percentage
Tillman – 53.8%
Martin – 54%
True Shooting Percentage
Tillman – 53.5%
Martin – 54.4%
Offensive Rebound Percentage
Tillman – 9.3%
Martin – 7.6%
Defensive Rebound Percentage
Tillman – 14.3%
Martin – 17.2%
Tillman – 9.5%
Martin – 9.5%
Tillman – 54%
Martin – 57.1%
One huge difference which complicates those numbers is freshman minutes played. Tillman saw just 12.3 minutes per contest on last season’s deep VCU team while Martin averaged 25.8 as a freshman on a rebuilding program. But while they were on the court, the two were virtually identical. Both are somewhat undersized bigs with insane athleticism and a penchant for highlight worthy dunks on offense and blocks on defense.
Two sources close to Tillman commented on his summer, both telling VCURamNation.com the forward has added muscle and has worked on expanding his game to create mismatch problems, the ability to post up smaller defenders — a more likely scenario with Wade’s use of two bigs as opposed to Smart’s smaller lineups — while also being able to beat more traditional bigs off the dribble.
Outside of his summer gym time with the Rams the Detroit native has worked out in Texas and at home with a number of professional players to help improve his game.
Tillman is also getting along well with the new staff despite almost transferring after the news of Smart’s departure. That was a huge victory for the Rams and one VCU will get to enjoy soon enough with basketball season just around the corner.
I am of the opinion that Tillman has Hassan Martin type of potential based off both the available data and the all-important eye test, and like Martin, with increased minutes could be a huge contributing factor this upcoming season in the first year of the Will Wade era Rams.