With University of Utah big man Donnie Tillman in the building, going through an official predraft workout with the Utah Jazz, there was a palpable buzz on Friday at the Zions Bank Basketball Campus.
A few extra TV camera crews, photographers, and reporters beyond what is normal showed up, collecting B-roll footage of him taking free throws and hoisting up 3-pointers, before eagerly assembling around Jazz Vice President of Player Personnel Walt Perrin for his assessment of how the Ute forward performed.
“We had to get on him a couple times ’cause his shoestrings came loose,” Perrin said. “I had to say to him, ‘You played here, so you should be used to the altitude instead of trying to take breaks.’”
OK then — so, room for improvement, it is.
Actually, that was a big reason why the Detroit native was there to begin with.
Tillman — who would be a Ute junior in 2019-20 — and other underclassmen have until Wednesday night to withdraw from the NBA Draft and keep their college eligibility. But the league has made it easier than ever for underclassmen to go through the evaluation process and get feedback from pro personnel before ultimately returning to school.
Tillman was named the Pac-12 Conference’s Sixth Man of the Year as a sophomore, when he averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds. He came off the bench in Utah’s first 13 conference games, making him eligible for the award.
He worked on his outside shooting last summer and wound up making 36.1% of his attempts from 3-point range in 2018-19. His 53 3-pointers in 31 games came in bunches; he made 21 of those shots in five games, including a 6-of-8 performance in a win at Arizona State.
Based on what the 6-foot-7, 225-pounder did in Friday’s six-man workout (which also included Syracuse’s Oshae Brissett, Houston’s Corey Davis Jr., Davidson’s Jon Axel Gudmundsson, Minnesota’s Jordan Murphy, and Gonzaga’s Zach Norvell Jr.), Perrin was able to give Tillman some insight into what the NBA perception of his game is right now.
“What I saw out there was a player that’s got a nice strong body, and knows how to use it going to the basket. Needs to probably learn how to finish a little bit better,” Perrin said. “His shot was a little bit inconsistent — he needs to work on that to go further in this profession. But he showed a lot of energy.”
Tillman did not address the media, per a Jazz team policy that restricts predraft interviews to seniors alone prior to the withdrawal deadline.
He began last season as a starter for the Utes, before coach Larry Krystkowiak replaced him in the lineup in mid-December, partly in an effort to make him address some off-court issues. The strategy paid off on the court, as Tillman scored 22 points in Utah’s Pac-12 opener at ASU and 21 in an overtime loss at Arizona.
He again became a starter in late February when teammate Timmy Allen was injured. Following a scoreless game at Washington, he responded with 16 points and 11 rebounds in a win at Washington State, while playing good defense on All-Pac-12 forward Robert Franks.
Tillman acknowledged afterward that his performance tended to “meander” from game to game, and he’s “never really engaged” defensively. That changed at WSU, where he accepted the challenge of guarding Franks, knowing he was testing himself against a future NBA player.
“It was fun,” Tillman said.
Sedrick Barefield, Tillman's then-Ute teammate, said that day, “Donnie’s a super-talented player, one of the most athletic teammates I’ve ever had, so he has the tools. When he comes with that mentality, he’s an amazing two-way player.”
Utah’s 17-14 season ended with a loss to Oregon in the Pac-12 tournament quarterfinals, with Tillman scoring 18 points. After that game, Tillman said he intended to become "more of a leader" for Utah in 2019-20.
Perhaps that process starts with keeping those laces tight and that effort level up.