DIMONDALE, Mich. — In a back hallway of Aim High Sports on Tuesday night, Xavier Tillman and Nick Ward let their one-on-one competition on the court during the Moneyball Pro-Am Summer League spill over into a playful debate.
The topic: Who will play power forward and center for Michigan State this fall?
"We talk about that, I think, either every day or every other day. And we argue who's going to play the 4," Tillman said as Ward walked within earshot as he talked to reporters, then grinned as he posted up his teammate. "And I think I'm going to play the 4 and he's going to play the 5. That's right, I'm gonna play the 4 and he's gonna play the 5."Ward, a junior, guffawed from behind.
"I knew you were gonna say that. Listen," he chastised Tillman, "you know my jump shot is pure."
Both were hitting occasional shots from deep in the freeform summer league, which typically is not a true barometer of things to come during the season. Tillman, a sophomore, drained one from beyond the NBA arc while unguarded, and rattled in another that hit the front rim and dropped through the net with a shooter's touch.
They also took turns swatting each other's shots and backed each other down into the post, with one of Ward's elbows landing in Tillman's face for an offensive foul.
"He's a jerk," Tillman said with a chuckle. "I love it just because iron sharpens iron. We just go at each other whenever we can because we want the best for each other."
Neither Tillman nor Ward have shown the ability to make shots with regularity outside of the paint, which is of primary individual concern for both this summer. It is a critical facet to play the power forward spot in coach Tom Izzo's offense, in which Draymond Green, Adreian Payne and most recently Jaren Jackson Jr. all displayed the ability to connect from beyond the 3-point line as a trailing option.
"With the offense we're headed towards right now," Tillman said, "me and Nick just have to work on our 15-foot jump shots and 3-point shots. That way, one of us can play the 4. ... In order for us to play at the same time, one of us has got to be able to step out."
Ward withdrew his name from the NBA draft this spring after hearing from scouts and executives that he needed to work on his outside shot because he likely will play power forward as a pro.
"You don't see the 4s really doing what the 4s used to do, with post-ups and ball screens and things like that," Ward said. "You see the 4s dribbling and handling the ball, making plays, shooting jump shots and things like that."
That does not mean Tillman or Ward will be the first option at power forward.
Incoming 6-10 freshman Marcus Bingham Jr. could replace Jackson, though he is much less sturdily built than the one-and-done big man who was the No. 4 pick in the NBA draft.Kenny Goins, a 6-7 senior who used Moneyball last year to work on his outside shooting, appears in position to again get the bulk of his minutes at power forward and has coach Tom Izzo's trust as a passer, rebounder and defender.
And junior Kyle Ahrens, a 3-point shooting wing who has yet to play this summer while coming off foot surgery that forced him to redshirt a year ago, also played the 4 out of necessity two years ago despite being 6-5.
But the Tillman-Ward tandem is intriguing. They would not be needed to hit from beyond the 3-point arc — hitting jumpers from the free-throw line and elbow would go a long way to settling their argument — and there is precedence for Izzo using two big men together with similar skills in high-low offensive sets.
Tillman, who spent much of his final two seasons at Grand Rapids Christian playing atop the key and orchestrating its offense, might become MSU's best passing post player since Derrick Nix.
Ward led the Big Ten at 64.8 percent shooting last season. Despite making his only 3-point attempt (a desperation, shot-clock buzzer-beater), playing around the rim with his quick footwork and deft touch remains the biggest strength of the 6-8, 244-pound third-team All-Big Ten selection.However, Tillman received more and more minutes in place of Ward late in the season, culminating in a career-best 12 rebounds in 22 minutes against Syracuse in the Spartans' second-round NCAA tournament loss. It also partly was due to Tillman's passing ability and court vision from the low blocks, and defensive ability on high ball screens and help against penetrating guards.
"I just realized that I can't be out there," Tillman said of the Syracuse game. "I have to impact the game in all ways — rebounding, scoring, defensively."
Like Ward did between his freshman and sophomore seasons, Tillman continues to reshape his body. He said he has lost 10 pounds and is at 243 this summer. He looks leaner while standing next to the similarly sized but thicker Ward, with Tillman's transformation evoking memories of how Green went from doughy freshman to sculpted senior in his four seasons under Izzo.
Tillman believes one facet will dictate if both he and Ward can coexist on the court at the same time this winter or if their argument will all be for naught.
"It's offensively," he said. "Defensively, me and (Ward) can both guard the best big, so we're not really worried about it defensively."
This article is written by Chris Solari from Detroit Free Press and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.