Chris Forsberg

Xavier Tillman on learning from Horford, ‘crazy' move to Boston

The new Celtics big man is finding his footing after a midseason trade.

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It’s been a wild few weeks for Xavier Tillman.

He spent the days before the trade deadline planning a birthday celebration for his wife, Tamia, only to get dealt that very day to the Boston Celtics. His family didn’t join him in Boston until this past weekend, which took a toll on the proud father of three as he tried to get settled into his new NBA home.

Tillman, battling some knee soreness when he arrived, has made just one appearance for Boston, scoring a late bucket in a win over the Bulls coming out of the All-Star break. But he’s been able to soak up some knowledge since his arrival and feels ready to help the team however he can over the final 24 games.

Four back-to-backs, along with Boston’s hefty lead atop the Eastern Conference, should provide an opportunity for Tillman to show how he can help Boston’s established core.

For now, he’s just building chemistry with his new teammates — including diving headfirst into the in-flight card games -- and absorbing what it’s like to be around a championship-driven squad. He’s eager to learn from 37-year-old Al Horford, with hopes of a long NBA career of his own.

🔊 Celtics Talk: Getting to know Xavier Tillman, and a chat with Jrue Holiday | Listen & Subscribe | Watch on YouTube

We sat down with Tillman this week to learn more about him, on the court and off, and check in on his transition to Boston.

You can listen to the interview as part of this week’s Celtics Talk podcast, or watch on YouTube.

Q: I noticed you working on the 3-point shot after practice. It feels like every big man in the league eventually has to gravitate out there. How much of a focus is that for you? I think about Al, not a big 3-point shooter when he first came into the league, can you see it growing as part of your game?

Tillman: "Absolutely. That's just the way the league is trending. This past summer, I spent a lot of time on my 3s. I was getting up thousands and thousands of shots. Movement 3s, stationary 3s this summer. That's the way the league is trending.

"So unless you're a big who can just jump over the rim easy, you need to be able to shoot that 3-ball."

Q: Most guys who get traded midseason, you're scrambling to get here, you get thrown into it. You were able to kind of absorb a little bit. What did you learn during that process?

XT: "I kind of started to learn the culture, started learn the guys and how they like to operate, what they're most comfortable doing. I'm learning how our offense likes to flow and how we like to get into our actions and the players we like to go through.

"Defensively, I’m learning a lot of key concepts that the coaching staff has and how we like to guard and stuff like that. These first couple of weeks here has been really good for me to just be able to learn and to kind of sit back and understand what we're trying to do, what it takes to do what we're trying to do, and how to do it each and every day."

Q: Are there guys who have pulled you aside and put you on the right path?

XT: "Everybody's been great. From Payton [Pritchard] to Luke [Kornet] to Al. Everybody’s been great."

Q: I was talking to Brad Stevens right after trade deadline and I said, defensively, you and Al seem very similar to me. Below the rim guys but the way you can defend, the versatility. How much can you learn from being around Al?

XT: "The thing that I personally, selfishly, want to learn from Al is longevity. What it takes to be in this league that long.

"A big thing he always talks about is being in the weight room and also making sure that you're also eating the right foods. And that way you're not putting extra weight on your joints and your knees and stuff like that. But just learning from him. I want to play for a long time as well. So that's me, selfishly.

"And then, on the court for us right now, a big thing that Al has shown me is just being able to use my voice, especially if you know what you're doing out there, it'd be great for you to help the guys see what you're seeing."

Q: So tell me the personal side of this. You're traded midseason. You've got a family. Three kids, right? What’s that like?

XT: "It was crazy. It was crazy for sure. I had been planning my wife's birthday on the trade deadline. Her day was the day we got traded, the day before. We had a whole birthday thing planned out. We were still able to do it but it was like, ‘Man, this is crazy.’

"And the kids, they're adjusting. They finally got here [Sunday]. So I'm excited. Now it's just trying to get them comfortable with the people, getting comfortable with school, and getting comfortable with their routines and stuff like that. So they are all settled in.

"I got my dog (an English bulldog named Poppy, after the Trolls Movie) here, too.”

Q: Looking at your social media, it seems like you’re a big family man. So what was that like having to be away from them?

XT: "It was awful. It was awful. Because, like you said, I'm a real family man. And what I mean by that is I call them every day. Maybe three times a day. Just to check in on them. So, for me, not just being there with them, I could see that my son was feeling it and my daughters were feeling it and my wife was feeling it. Like, dang, it’s just hard not to be together.

"And it was hard for me to fully be present here because I was just thinking about them and how they're doing. So now that they here, it feels really good. Now that I know, OK, that they're good, now it's just about getting them adjusted. And, like I said, finding their routines and their rhythm and the people that they want to hang around.”

Q: Do the kids know the opportunity here with a championship-caliber team?

XT: “No, my kids are 7, 4, and almost 2. They just know daddy plays basketball. That's it … As soon as they start printing the 26 jersey, I’ll get my oldest daughter a 26 jersey.”

Q: Tell me about picking a jersey number because it's difficult here.

XT: "Very, very difficult. First and foremost, when I got the list I was like, ewww, these available numbers are not basketball numbers. But my dad's birthday is March 26. And it’s him and then my grandmother’s birthday is also the 26th as well. 

Q: Your Twitter handle is @RookieDunker. Where did that come from?

XT:  "Me and my boy, his name is Christian Rodriguez, he was my point guard from like fifth grade up until 10th grade. So when Twitter came out — we got on Twitter around 8th, 9th grade, his [username] was @AssistKing and I had just started dunking so my mine was @RookieDunker.

"People are like, ‘Yo, you know you can change that?’ I’m like, it’s just me. That’s my story. I’m not changing it."

Q: You could be @ExperiencedDunker now.

XT: "Right, right? Moderate dunker. Day-to-day dunker. (Laughs)"

Q: What was it like being on the other side and playing the Celtics?

XT: "Every time we played against then — so, first of all, my whole career, I think I've played them eight times, nine times, never beat them. Never beat them. A couple times at home we got close, but never beat them.

"It would always be a big game, too. And their fans — Boston fans travel. In Memphis, we'd be half and half, and it didn't make any sense to me how the Boston fans got to Memphis.

"They’re a team that was always winning. I feel like, ever since [Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown] came into the league, they're always in the playoffs and they're always making a deep run in the playoffs. So that was always cool to see from afar. 

"Once I got here, I wanted to learn like what it takes to consistently be there. Like, what are they doing on a day-to-day level? And so this has been great.”

Q: There are four back-to-backs remaining on the schedule, there should be opportunity for you to play more over the final 24 games. What do they tell you about staying ready and how can you help this team?

XT: "Just being a professional. Making sure that I'm showing up on time, working out as hard as I can, making sure I’m eating the right things and treating my body right, getting proper rest so that I'm ready for when those opportunities come. Not necessarily performance based, but giving myself the best chance to be successful when those opportunities come. 

"And it's pretty easy for me to do because my whole career has been like, in the rotation, out of the rotation, in the rotation, out of the rotation. So, for me, like, it's nothing new.”

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