'Crazy excited': MSU's Xavier Tillman, Cassius Winston ready for next challenge after emotional night

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Xavier Tillman’s agent told him he’d be mad. Cassius Winston knew he’d be second-guessed.

The former Michigan State stars went through their own waves of emotion on Wednesday night during the NBA Draft, watching as name after name was called waiting for their name to be next.

Nerve wracking was how each described it a day later. But each had a similar feeling the moment they finally were selected.

Xavier Tillman (23) and Cassius Winston (5)

“I was crazy excited,” Tillman said a day after the draft. “As you saw in the video of me getting picked. I’m like, ‘Man, I actually got my name called. I’m in the NBA.’ It was unbelievable.”

The emotions were similar for Winston.

“You’re sitting there excited, a little bummed out,” Winston said. “You could have gotten picked earlier, so a little bummed out. And then when you get picked it’s like all that just goes out the window. Once you see your name, just the feeling takes over and you're like, ‘Wow, I really just got drafted. That really happened. We really made that happen.’ … That’s an amazing feeling.”

Tillman’s moment came a bit earlier in the night than Winston’s. The 6-foot-8 forward was selected No. 35 overall by Sacramento, which had already agreed to trade the pick to Memphis. It proved to be quite the move for Tillman, who was reunited with former Michigan State teammate Jaren Jackson Jr.

The two made up Michigan State’s 2017 recruiting class and within a minute of being drafted, the two friends were on the phone with each other.

“There was a whole lot of screaming and yelling,” Tillman said. “That was the basis of our conversation; just excited. I'm like, ‘I can't believe this is happening.’”

More: Michigan State basketball's 2020-21 schedule includes Wisconsin clash on Christmas

Tillman and Jackson, who was Memphis’ No. 1 pick – No. 4 overall – in 2018, grew close playing AAU basketball together before both committed to Michigan State. That friendship continued and Jackson was Tillman’s best man in the summer of 2019 when Tillman got married.

So, it’s no surprise Jackson was talking Tillman through the stressful process on Wednesday night.

“He was talking to me and he was texting me and calling me throughout the draft (saying), ‘Just breathe, you’re good, just breathe,’” Tillman said. “Because he knew. Obviously, I could try to keep it cool the best I can but he knew that I was going crazy on the inside.”

Not long after Tillman was taken, he started to turn his attention to Winston. His former teammate was still on the board, so Tillman grabbed his phone to see how it would play out.

“I just wanted the best for him and his family,” Tillman said, “so I was definitely locked in for sure.”

Winston was feeling the same way. The former Big Ten Player of the Year, two-time All-American and Big Ten career assist leader had a small gathering of family and friends while he was doing his best to remain positive.

As each pick was made, Winston grew more anxious, right up until the 53rd selection when he was taken by Oklahoma City, which had agreed to trade the pick to Washington, making Winston a Wizard.

“You don't know what the result is gonna be so you’ve got to just sit there waiting,” Winston said. “The suspense is crazy, and when you just hear your name it's like a relief. You can take a deep breath (and say), ‘That happened. We just made that happen.’”

Winston said he soon heard from Michigan State coach Tom Izzo, who reminded his former star how people have been doubting his game for years. Even as the 6-1 Winston was winning Mr. Basketball honors at Detroit Jesuit, the critics were saying he was too small and too slow to succeed in the Big Ten.

Having proven them wrong, Izzo told Winston he believed in him, that Winston would again prove all the naysayers wrong in the NBA.

“He told me how proud he was of me and that I've been in this situation before,” Winston said. “I've been doubted before. I've been told things that I can't do and what things will hold me back. I know what that situation feels like and look what I made of it. So he has faith that I can go out there and do it again.”

Izzo isn’t the only one. Winston believes in himself, too.

“I trust myself. I trust my ability, and I’ll put my money on me,” Winston said. “I got an opportunity and that's really all I wanted. That was all I’ve been asking for the longest time. There was a point in time where I wouldn't even be in this situation that I'm in right now, so I’m grateful for the opportunity.”

By the end of the night, Tillman and Winston finally talked.

“It was emotional,” Tillman said.

Now both Tillman and Winston head off for the next step. In a few weeks, they’ll begin their NBA careers.

“I’m just ready to get started,” Winston said.


Twitter: @mattcharboneau