Freshman Donnie Tillman remains grounded despite already becoming a focal point for Runnin' Utes

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donnie Tillman speaks with the media as the Utah men's basketball program begins fall practices with a fairly new roster of players on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

In just nine games, Utah freshman forward Donnie Tillman has already started to establish himself as a crucial figure for the team’s success this season.

His immediate impact already has some Utes fans salivating the potential future of the 6-foot-7, 225-pound native of Detroit, Mich.

Despite coming off the bench for a Utes team starting four seniors, Tillman enters this week among the team leaders in scoring (10.7 points per game) and rebounding (6.2 per game).

So far, he has remained humble about his initial splash.

“I try not to pay attention to that, not look at all the media stuff,” Tillman said last week. “It’s easy to get a big head. I just turned 18 four months, three months ago. I just know I can get better. That’s really it.”

Once you know the path Tillman took to pave his way to the Utes, it’s not hard to see why it’s easy for him to stay grounded. The lead-up to his freshman season in Salt Lake City included tears, a more than 2,000-mile move across the country and the strength of a devoted single mother battling illness.

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The baby boy of four siblings — he has one brother and two step brothers — Tillman grew up looking up to his older brother Clark Bishop. Bishop, five years older than Tillman, played point guard for Div. II Wayne State University. Tillman caught the basketball bug early, and he flourished in his freshman year at Cass Tech in Detroit.

The summer following his freshman year, he and his mother Donna Holmes received a phone call about Findlay Prep in Las Vegas. They wanted him to come play for their nationally-recognized program which has produced such players as former McDonald’s High School All-Americans and NBA draft picks Avery Bradley, Tristan Thompson, Anthony Bennett, Nigel Williams-Goss and Allonzo Trier.

“When I say that we stepped out on faith, I ended up getting sick with epilepsy, grand mal seizures,” Holmes said. “I worked as a poker dealer for MotorCity Casino in Detroit. I ended up falling sick, and it took my job. It took away a lot, but it gave me a chance to finish Donnie’s high school years.”

Tillman closed the deal by giving a presentation on a laptop computer to Holmes, his grandmother and several other families members on what made Findlay Prep a great school, not simply a basketball program.

In less than two weeks, Holmes dropped everything and moved with her son to Las Vegas in time for him to enroll in school.

“My family was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I was like, ’Anything for my children,” Holmes said. “So we took the journey, took the ride, sold everything in the house, got in our truck and my auntie followed me. She passed within six months after the journey to Vegas — that touched us real bad. But we loaded the cars up and stayed in a hotel for six weeks until we got a home. We took it from there.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Donnie Tillman practices his shots as the Utah men's basketball program begins fall practices with a fairly new roster of players on Friday, Sept. 29, 2017.

While she tried to shield Tillman from it at the time, Holmes admits that she undertook the drive in fear that a seizure could be catastrophic on the road. They took a southern route on their trip to avoid driving through the mountains.

Tillman spent almost his entire 15th birthday in a car traveling through parts of Texas as best as he can recall. The first month or two in Nevada, Tillman started to have second thoughts about leaving everything he had ever known.

“I always knew about Findlay Prep, but I was scared too,” Tillman said. “She said there’s going to be a lot of differences, but this is going to be the best thing for you. I cried.

“It took us three, four days to get there and I was scared. I was crying. It was a big turnaround for me.”

Injuries hampered his first two seasons at Findlay, but he helped lead his team to a 33-4 record and the semifinals of the national prep tournament as a senior. By the time he signed with Utah at the end of his senior year, his mother estimated he had more than 20 scholarship offers.

Part of the reason Holmes supported Tillman’s choice to come to Salt Lake City was the strong emphasis on family she took from her meeting with coach Larry Krystkowiak and his staff during the recruiting visit.

Dream Vision AAU coach Clayton Williams believes Tillman will be an even better collegiate player than a high school player. Williams compared Tillman to former NBA player Shabazz Muhammad, who Williams also coached in AAU, because of their shared abilities to post up, drive to the basket and still knock down 15-to-20 foot jump shots.

“He’s always been strong, but you could see that he was kind of migrating to the wing so to speak,” Williams said of Tillman. “He’s always been dominant inside. He started, senior year, putting it all together. Knocking down shots, putting the ball the ball on the floor. Those type of things. His all-around game started to come into play for his senior year.”

Tillman knows he’s got plenty of strides left to make, and he credits the Utah coaching staff for preparing him to contribute as much as he has so early.

He always seems to project a friendly and up-beat disposition. While his relocation, his mother’s illness and being away from family have undoubtedly caused some trying times, you’d never know it from the smile on his face.

“You’ve got to go through what you’ve got to go through in life to achieve what you want,” Holmes said. “It has got it’s days, but we’re still pushing.”

ABOUT DONNIE TILLMAN<br>Height: 6-foot-7<br>Weight: 225 pounds<br>Year: Freshman<br>Position: Forward<br>Hitting the glass: Through nine games with the Utes, Tillman is tied for the team lead in rebounds (6.2 per game) and third in scoring (10.7 ppg) while shooting 53 percent from the field. He posted a 20-point performance in a loss at Butler, and he had scored in double digits in seven consecutive games. ... As a high school senior at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., Tillman averaged 14.3 points and 8.0 rebounds per game while shooting 65 percent from the field for a 33-4 team. ESPN.com ranked him as a four-star recruit coming out of high school.