Donna Holmes once moved from Detroit to Las Vegas in hopes of giving her youngest son a better high school basketball experience. And now Donnie Tillman says he's leaving the University of Utah and going home to be with his mother, amid her health issues.
Tillman, named the Pac-12 Sixth Man of the Year in March, is taking a leave of absence from the school and will miss the 2019-20 season, he announced Friday. The 6-foot-7 forward could use a redshirt year and rejoin Utes as a junior in 2020-21, among other options in his basketball career.
Tillman has been raised by a single mother who deals with the effects of epilepsy, Holmes said in a 2017 Salt Lake Tribune interview. In moving from Michigan to Nevada, Holmes said, “My family was like, ‘Are you crazy?’ And I was like, ’Anything for my children.’" Tillman then played three seasons at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nev., before joining the Utes.
In a statement issued by the school, Tillman said, “It is with a heavy heart that I share with Utah fans that I won’t be returning to the Utes this fall,” adding that he respected coach Larry Krystkowiak and the team’s followers “for understanding my wanting to be with my mother at this time as her ongoing health issues continue.”
Krystkowiak said Tillman made “an admirable decision.”
Tillman’s absence creates another variable for a Utah program that already was heavily skewed toward youth. Of the 12 scholarship players on the current roster, the Utes will have six incoming freshmen, two redshirt freshmen, three sophomores and one junior: guard Alfonso Plummer, a junior college transfer. The program’s two potential seniors in 2020-21, guard Charles Jones Jr. and center Jayce Johnson, entered the NCAA transfer portal, with Johnson moving to Marquette.
The Utes' roster also lists five walk-on players, including senior forward Marc Reininger. Even counting Reininger, Utah undoubtedly will have the youngest team in school history.
Tillman, who averaged 10.5 points and 5.3 rebounds as a sophomore, would have been Utah's No. 2 returning scorer, behind sophomore forward Timmy Allen (12.2). Tillman's absence likely will mean bigger offensive roles for freshman Mikael Jantunen, a highly regarded forward from Finland, and sophomore Riley Battin, a part-time starter in 2019-20.
Tillman had been a somewhat mysterious figure this spring, entering and exiting the NBA draft process without making any announcements about his plans. He worked out for the Jazz on May 24 and then filed paperwork to withdraw from the draft and retain his college eligibility on the afternoon of May 29, shortly before the deadline to do so. Utah issued a short news release that day, saying Tillman would remain in school.