Xavier Tillman is turning to Al Horford for mentorship, advice as he settles into Boston

Xavier Tillman is turning to Al Horford for mentorship, advice as he settles into Boston


In his first few weeks in Boston, Xavier Tillman has mostly sat back and watched. A natural leader, Tillman became one of the louder voices in a Grizzlies locker room where being 25-years-old and a fourth-year NBA player classified him as a veteran.

In Boston, he joins a roster headlined by older, established players who have been there before, like 37-year-old Al Horford and 33-year-old Jrue Holiday. As one of the new guys, he’s opted to take it all in as he figures out the team’s offensive and defensive schemes, and gets acclimated to the new environment.

Horford — long known for mentoring younger players — has helped Tillman find his place on the team in his early days with the Celtics, the new acquisition told NBC Sport Boston’s Chris Forsberg earlier this week.

“A big thing that Al has shown me is being able to use my voice,” Tillman said, noting that Horford has relayed to him that he should always tell his teammates what he sees if he knows what he’s doing.

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For Tillman, Horford’s longevity and continued success serves as a hopeful glimpse into the future – both players are defensively versatile rather than traditional rim protectors, and while Horford’s career is a tough act to follow for any NBA player, there’s a reason why some have wondered if Tillman could end up being a long-term Horford replacement.

Al extended his NBA career by becoming a floor spacer – he’s hitting 40.4% of three-pointers this season, and converted on a remarkable 44.6% last year, one of the top marks in the league.

Tillman is nowhere near there right now – he’s a 26.4% career three-point shooter – but neither was Horford at age 25. Horford didn’t shoot threes for most of his Atlanta days, but began to prioritize shooting in the second half of his career.

“This past summer, I spent a lot of time on my threes, and I was getting up thousands and thousands of shots – movement threes, stationary threes,” Tillman told Forsberg. “That’s where the league is trending. Unless you’re a big who can jump over the rim easy, you need to be able to shoot the three-ball.”

Tillman said that like Horford, he’s in pursuit of a long NBA career. There’s only a handful of guys Horford’s age still getting NBA minutes – Lebron James, Chris Paul, Mike Conley, Jeff Green, Kyle Lowry – and Tillman knows that a lot of dedication and consistency goes into that feat.

“The thing that I personally, selfishly want to learn from Al is longevity – what it takes to be in this league that long,” Tillman said. “A big thing that he always talks about is being in the weight room and making sure that you’re also eating the right foods, that way you aren’t putting extra weight on your joints and your knees and stuff like that. Just learning from him, I want to play for a long time as well.”

On Friday night, Tillman got his first extended run – 15 minutes against the Mavericks, and he looked pretty good doing it. He finished with 6 points on 3-3 FG and two assists, and looked to have acclimated well to a system that still remains pretty knew to him.

After the game, Tillman said that he’s grateful to have the ability to lean on Horford as he continues to learn the Celtics’ system: “I feel like Al can help me a lot as far as like when coach draws up the play or when he comes out with a defensive scheme I’m like, ‘Al, what did he say?’ Or, ‘Al, what are we doing right here?’”

Tillman said that when he got to Boston, teammates immediately told him that he should look toward Horford as a model of consistency that he can emulate.

“It’s been everybody telling me that over the past years, this is all Al’s been doing, being consistent every day,” Tillman said on the Gilbert Arenas Show. “They’re looking at me like, ‘we need you to be as consistent as you can every day.’ That’s something I’m like ‘I’m built for it, I can do it. You just kind of give me the blueprint of what you want for me, and I’ll get it done.’”

In turn, Tillman said he’s watched Horford’s reliable routine, making note of what he can adopt: “Al’s been really good at showing me the meticulous things that you need to do every day, from the lifting to the eating right to the mobility stuff and stretching, and then when you’re coming in, really just locking in and getting your work done.”

At the same time, Horford has taken note of Tillman’s desire to learn from him since his arrival in Boston.

“It’s been good to have X around,” Horford said after last week’s Celtics win over the Knicks. “Right away, he’s been picking my brain a lot, asking a lot of questions and really trying to figure things out — off the court, on the court. And when you have that kind of mindset, I feel like it’s going to be beneficial.”

Tillman’s role remains undefined. In the first three games post-All Star break, he was out of the rotation. On Saturday night, he served as the second big off the bench. Prior to his trade, he averaged 6 points and 4.6 rebounds in 20.6 minutes per game for Memphis.

Horford think Tillman could ultimately help this roster: “He’s the kind of guy that wants to get better, he wants to have an impact, and he has that ability to have an impact on our group.”


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