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Xavier Tillman remains in NBA Draft, but Aaron Henry will return to Michigan State

James Hawkins
The Detroit News

Several Big Ten players opted to pull out of the NBA Draft and return to school in recent days, including Iowa’s Luka Garza and Illinois’ Kofi Cockburn and Ayo Dosunmu.

Michigan State’s Aaron Henry joined that group, but Xavier Tillman took a different path.

After months and months of speculation, Tillman announced on Sunday he’s forgoing his final year of eligibility and staying in the draft while Henry elected to come back to East Lansing for his junior season.

Michigan State forward Aaron Henry (11) will return next season, while teammate Xavier Tillman (23) will enter the NBA draft.

Tillman, a 6-foot-8 center, and Henry, a 6-foot-6 wing, both entered their names into the draft in the spring but left their options open to return to Michigan State. Their decisions came a day before the NCAA’s withdrawal deadline, which was pushed back from June 3 due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“To Spartan Nation: We have had an amazing ride for three record-breaking years, winning three Big Ten championships, a Big Ten tourney championship and going to the Final Four,” Tillman said in a statement.

“Based on the feedback I’ve received from NBA teams I am excited to announce my intention to hire an agent and to pursue one of my lifelong dreams. I will keep my name in the 2020 NBA Draft.”

In his first season as a full-time starter, Tillman had a breakout junior campaign. He averaged 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds, three assists and 2.1 blocks in 31 games as the Spartans won a share of their third straight Big Ten regular-season title.

The Grand Rapids native was the only Division I player to average at least 13 points, 10 rebounds, three assists and two blocks last season and is just the third Division I player since 1992 to post that stat line, joining Tim Duncan (1996-97 at Wake Forest) and Bo Outlaw (1992-93 at Houston).

Tillman also earned All-Big Ten second-team honors and was named the conference’s defensive player of the year in a league that was loaded with elite big men. He recorded 65 blocked shots to become the program’s all-time career leader with 153, surpassing Matt Costello’s previous mark of 146.

Most media mock drafts have Tillman pegged as a late first-round pick or a second-round pick. He’s ranked No. 22, No. 26 and No. 40 on the top 100 draft prospect boards by The Athletic, CBS Sports and ESPN, respectively.

The NBA Draft, which was originally scheduled for June 25, has been postponed until Oct. 16.

“I’m thrilled for Xavier and am very excited for the opportunities he has ahead of him,” coach Tom Izzo said in a statement. “We knew that this was a very real possibility for him, but that it was going to be a difficult decision with everything going on in the world today.

“Xavier has been an excellent player and an even better person for Michigan State basketball. He came here as a young man with a great upside and has developed into one of the best college basketball players in the country…There’s no one who deserves this opportunity more than Xavier and we will be here to support him in any way that we can.”

Xavier Tillman

Henry, on the other hand, was ranked No. 55 and No. 67 among the top 100 draft prospects by ESPN and The Athletic, respectively. And while he has NBA potential with his versatility and defensive ability, he wasn’t a lock to be drafted.

As a sophomore, Henry made 29 starts, shot 34.4% from 3-point range, and averaged 10 points, 4.6 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game.

Henry told ESPN the severely limited pre-draft process, which didn’t allow players to work out in front of NBA teams and improve their draft stock, “played a big part” in him returning.

"This decision was based off wanting to maximize my opportunity to be coached by the best coach in the game in Tom Izzo and reach my dreams and full potential," Henry told ESPN. "I wanted to put myself in the best situation possible and not rush anything to make sure I start my career on the right foot. This was a tough decision, but Year 3 will be the year."

With All-American guard Cassius Winston (graduation) and Tillman no longer in the fold, Michigan State will be without its top two scorers from a year ago and will face significant holes in the backcourt and frontcourt.

Henry will be in line to shoulder a larger load and more responsibilities to help make up for Winston's production. Marcus Bingham Jr., Thomas Kithier and Julius Marble will be among the returning players tasked with filling Tillman's void.

"Aaron has been here with us all summer and these past three weeks has made it hard for me to advise him because he has made big strides in his shooting and ball handling," Izzo said in a statement. "In the end, I feel he believes it was too much of a chance to guess where he was and he felt he could keep improving in a few areas and take over part of the role Cassius leaves behind.

"Aaron will be able to fill those shoes plus follow his good friend and mentor, Gary Harris, by becoming an impact player and one of the most versatile players in the country. He can score, pass, rebound and defend at a high level. We are thrilled to have him back and appreciate the fact he kept us involved in a tough decision.“

While replacing Winston and Tillman will undoubtedly be difficult, Michigan State is still projected to be a top-10 team and a Big Ten contender. The Spartans will return four players who started at least 16 games last season — Bingham, Henry, Rocket Watts and Gabe Brown — to go along with the additions of Marquette transfer Joey Hauser and top-75 recruits Mady Sissoko and AJ Hoggard.

“Things will definitely look different,” Henry told ESPN. “Everyone is going to need to step up and be a piece to the puzzle. NBA teams want to see me in a bigger role. They want to see me be the man on a team. I'm not afraid of that. Let's get to it.”

Twitter: @jamesbhawkins