Spartan Pair, Ex-Piston Make Key Contributions To Playoff Underdogs

Jackson, Tillman duke it out with Davis in Grizzlies-Lakers series




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In September 2016, both Jaren Jackson Jr. and Xavier Tillman announced that they would play basketball the following year at Michigan State University. The Spartans proceeded to go 30-5 with them in 2017-18, winning the Big Ten title before losing in the second round of the NCAA Tournament to Syracuse.

Jackson, the more talented of the two big men, was a key contributor on that squad, while Tillman didn’t see much action in his freshman year. Jackson didn’t wait around for his sophomore season, declaring for the NBA Draft and getting selected fourth overall by the Memphis Grizzlies.

Meanwhile, Tillman stuck around for three seasons in East Lansing, steadily improving in each campaign. In the 2020 draft, he was selected in the second round by Sacramento, which conveyed the pick to Memphis, where he would reunite with his old college teammate.

Jackson was named to his first All-Star game this season and was just voted Defensive Player of the Year. He’s had to step his game up due to the extended absence of starting Memphis center Steven Adams, as has Tillman, who’s been thrust into the starting lineup by virtue of Adams’ injury.

Well-equipped to stop A.D.

The Grizzlies lost Game 1 of their first-round series against the Los Angeles Lakers over the weekend, giving up 128 points in a contest where Jackson and Tillman were outplayed by Anthony Davis and Rui Hachimura.

Memphis’ home loss and a hand injury to star point guard Ja Morant have turned the Lakers into -294 favorites at WynnBET (-290 at FanDuel) to win the best-of-seven series. If the Grizzlies are to climb back into contention, they will need stronger efforts from the ex-Spartans, who combined to grab just eight rebounds in Game 1.

The good news is that when Jackson and Tillman play at the peak of their powers, they are as well-equipped as any duo to give Davis fits down low. The 6’11” Jackson is long and athletic, leading the league in blocked shots with three per game, and what the 6’8” Tillman lacks in height, he makes up for with one of the league’s more chiseled physiques at 245 pounds.

In assessing Tillman’s chances of successfully defending Davis in this series, The Ringer noted that the Lakers star had an effective field goal percentage of just 36% against Tillman this season, frequently settling for jumpers instead of attacking the rim.

Hachimura’s 29 points off the bench felt like a fluke. Not that Hachimura, a former lottery pick out of Gonzaga, isn’t talented, but consistency issues have plagued him throughout his career. Nevertheless, uncertainty surrounding Morant’s status for Game 2 has oddsmakers favoring the Lakers by anywhere from a point at WynnBET to 1.5 points at FanDuel.

Bey watch

While second-round picks are capable of producing anywhere from a solid rotation piece (Tillman) to a two-time MVP (Nikola Jokic), they’ve been devalued to the point where the Atlanta Hawks gave up no fewer than five of them to acquire Saddiq Bey from the Detroit Pistons at the trade deadline.

How those picks pan out remains to be seen, but Bey has provided the Hawks with some much-needed scoring off the bench. They’ll need him to come up huge should they hope to dig out of a 1-0 hole and upset the second-seeded Boston Celtics in the playoffs.

Both FanDuel and BetRivers have Atlanta priced at 12/1 to eliminate the Celtics, who are -2500 at FanDuel to advance in what’s widely viewed as the most lopsided first-round matchup. The Hawks are 10.5-point underdogs (FanDuel) for Tuesday’s Game 2 in Boston, and Bey will need to improve dramatically on his 6-point Game 1 performance should Atlanta hope to win.

As Pistons fans know, Bey is capable of scoring in bunches, and he’s been more efficient in Atlanta than he was in Detroit. After the trade, he shot 47% from the field and 40% from 3-point range, compared to 40.4% and 34.5% beforehand.

“They needed some scoring depth and bench pieces, so giving up a bunch of second-round picks isn’t too big of a price to give them that push at the end of the season,” David Lieberman, Caesars Sportsbook’s lead NBA trader, told MI Bets. “Bey can fill it up pretty well off the bench. It was a nice, underrated move by them.”

Photo: Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images