After long wait, MSU's Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston could see first-round payoff in NBA Draft

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

It’s happening about five months behind schedule, but it appears the NBA is finally ready to hold its annual draft on Wednesday night, a night that could be the next step in the career for a pair of Michigan State players.

Forward Xavier Tillman, who left Michigan State a year early, and guard Cassius Winston, the all-time assists leader in Big Ten history, are each expecting to hear their name called. The only question at this point is whether that happens in the first or second round.

“I think both are borderline first-round picks,” ESPN analyst Jay Bilas said. “Both could go in the first round, both could go early second.

“So I think both of them are right in the 28-35 range as far as where their draft position will likely be, so I wouldn’t be surprised if they go first, I wouldn’t be surprised early second.”

That seems to be the consensus when looking around at most mock drafts.

In the final installment from The Detroit News’ Rod Beard, both ended up sneaking into the first round with Winston going 29th overall to the Toronto Raptors and Tillman next at No. 30 to the Boston Celtics.

Cassius Winston (5) and Xavier Tillman (23) could both hear their names called in the first round of the NBA Draft.

Tillman seems to be the best bet of the former Spartans to land in the first round. The Big Ten’s Defensive Player of the Year as a junior, the 6-foot-8 Tillman is a touch undersized but his ability to run the floor and defend nearly any position makes him valuable. Most analysts also believe his offensive game will continue to improve as a professional.

“Tillman is big, strong, good skill level,” Bilas said. “He's only 6-8, but really good defender. He moves his feet well, he can switch out and he does block shots even though he's not a super long-armed big guy that's a legit four or five size-wise. He can knock down an open shot. He scores at a high rate around the basket. He's very good in his decision-making rolling or popping when he gets the ball off a screen-and-roll. He sets good screens and then he operates well off of them. I think he shot like 68% as a roll man on pick-and-roll situations and most of those were with Cassius Winston.”

Subscription: 'They're ready to play': Analysts see first-round value in ex-Spartans Cassius Winston, Xavier Tillman

Over his final two seasons at Michigan State, Winston became a wizard in the pick and roll, setting up teammates while knocking down 3-pointers at an impressive rate. He was named Big Ten Player of the Year as a junior, leading Michigan State to a second straight Big Ten title and a Final Four berth. A year later, while dealing with the death of his brother, Winston put up essentially the same numbers, was named first-team All-Big Ten and led the Spartans to a third straight conference title.

Through it all, the 6-1 Winston has been questioned because of his size and limited athleticism. What’s hard to measure is his understanding of the game, which is off the charts, and his ability to win games.

“In this year's NBA Draft, the best leader at any position is MSU's point guard,” Hall of Famer and MSU legend Magic Johnson said this week on Twitter. “With 18 points per game, 6 assists, and a basketball IQ off the charts, he's an ultimate winner!”

Some of the questions are legitimate, but Bilas doesn’t believe they’ll keep Winston from contributing in the NBA.

“Cassius Winston, offensively, no question marks for me,” Bilas said. “He's not the biggest of point guards, but he's so savvy, such a great passer, so good with the ball, low error rate, can really shoot it. Because of his size, getting his shot off may prove a little bit difficult against bigger defenders. But, man, he is so savvy with the ball and great in screen-roll situations.

“The only issue or question mark about Cassius Winston, and I think it's a very real question, is on the defensive end. He's not a great defender and he doesn't have positional size as a defender. That's been an issue a little bit at Michigan State. It will be one in the NBA. But could he overcome that and improve? Yes, I think so. He's gotten better just in his time under Tom Izzo. I don't have any doubt that he's going to succeed in the NBA. It's just a question to what level.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau