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Gonzaga Basketball

‘I believed in it the whole time’: Gonzaga forward Killian Tillie has persevered to earn rotation role with NBA’s Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies forward Killian Tillie, a native of France and former star at Gonzaga, stands on the court during the second half of a game against the Washington Wizards on Nov. 5 in Washington.  (Associated Press)

SAN FRANCISCO – Less than an hour before tipoff at Chase Center, Killian Tillie is sinking warmup 3-pointers and feeding passes to different Memphis teammates with the inside of his right foot. It’s about the extent of Tillie’s on-court activity in a 113-104 loss to Golden State, as the former Gonzaga standout has to settle for a “DNP,” his first in 12 games since adopting a regular rotation role with a Memphis team that currently holds the fourth-best record in the Western Conference.

Fortunately, like many players living on two-way NBA contracts, Tillie has learned the value of things like body language, perspective and patience.

He demonstrates the first at various points of last Thursday’s game in the Bay Area. Although he doesn’t make an official contribution to the box score, Tillie is routinely one of the first Grizzlies to pop out of his chair whenever a teammate drains a momentum-swinging shot or submits a highlight-worthy play on defense.

His perspective comes through in a postgame interview. For someone who’s dealt with as much turbulence as Tillie – injuries stacked on top of more injuries, missing out on the final stage of his senior season at Gonzaga and other pandemic-induced hardships – the second-year pro speaks as someone who’s learned from his misfortunes as opposed to someone who’s let them define him.

Then there’s Tillie’s patience. Asked if he ever thought he’d be in this position after missing 31 of 70 games his final two seasons in Spokane, Tillie suggested his faith never deteriorated even as various parts of his body did.

“I believed in it the whole time,” he said. “I didn’t think the injuries would stop me from that.”

Tillie’s played in 20 of 35 games for Memphis this season, including 15 of the last 17. Between Nov. 28 and Dec. 27, the French-born player who’s played both the small forward and power forward positions in the NBA has averaged 12.8 minutes for a Memphis team that’s gone 11-3 over that stretch.

This season, Tillie’s averaging 3.4 points, 1.3 rebounds and 0.4 assists while logging 11.4 minutes per game. He’s also registered 10 blocked shots, two more than he did all of last season. In Sunday’s 127-102 win over the Sacramento Kings, Tillie played a season-high 27 minutes and finished a +17 in the plus/minus column. In Monday’s 114-113 win over Phoenix, he caught a pass at the three-point line, blew past Chris Paul and finished a one-handed highlight dunk over the Suns’ Jalen Smith.

Tillie’s emergence as a key bench piece has been a revelation for some, but not all, in the Grizzlies organization.

“Every time I’ve ever watched Killian play, whenever he was healthy he was always a very good player,” current Memphis and former Gonzaga teammate Brandon Clarke said. “So it’s good to see him healthy and be able to be the Killian that I know, that we know.”

Injuries have been a deterrent through Tillie’s college and professional careers, preventing him from having a legitimate shot at being selected in the 2020 NBA draft. In college, he sustained injuries to his foot, ankle, knee, hip and hand before dealing with minor foot, hamstring and back injuries in two seasons with the Grizzlies and their G-League affiliate, the Memphis Hustle.

When quizzed about his injuries, Tillie responded, “Oh I remember (them all), but there’s a lot. We don’t have all night.”

Tillie doesn’t revisit the list too often, instead trying to focus on what he’s learned from hours of rehabilitation, treatment and recovery, and how he can guarantee his availability moving forward.

“It’s taught me to be more serious about my body and work harder on my body,” Tillie said. “Obviously I’ve had some bad injuries in the past, but it’s doing much better now. I’ve been doing all my stuff, all my work for that, and it’s definitely taught me to be more mature about it and it got me a little tougher, too.

“It’s definitely frustrating. You’ve just got to be patient and think about what’s next.”

In his first offseason as a pro, Tillie focused on strength training and building up his lower body as a measure to prevent additional injuries, noting, “I feel way stronger” before laughing, “my quads look way bigger.”

Tillie’s been inactive just five games in 2021-22. Pending his availability the rest of the season, the former Zag is on track to play the maximum 50 games allowed by his two-way contract. For reference, Tillie played just 57 games his last three seasons in the NBA and college.

“I don’t really feel like a two-way. I feel like I’m really a part of the team, especially here,” Tillie said. “The coach really doesn’t care about that. He trusts me, loves my game and he has confidence in me, putting me in the game. So, I try to be serious about it and make sure I do good.”

When Tillie entered the league last season, there was some comfort in having a former college teammate in the same locker room, and he said Clarke “helped a lot” with his transition to the NBA.

Most of the advice Clarke passed on Tillie centered around a general theme of “just being ready,” according to the former Gonzaga center who played one memorable season in Spokane after transferring from San Jose State.

“It’s a long season, taking care of your health, taking care of your mind really,” Clarke said. “It’s a real long season, though, and you really don’t know when your name is going to be called ever and when you’re going to be needed. There’s going to be players hurt in the season, so every player is going to be needed at some point on the bench so just always working and just being grateful for even being here and just kind of sticking with it.”

A demanding NBA schedule hasn’t given Tillie too many opportunities to explore his new hometown, but he said he’s enjoyed Memphis’ popular barbecue scene and wants to stay with the Grizzlies organization “as long as possible.”

Tillie and Clarke are both thrilled to see a growing contingent of former Zags in the NBA. Minutes after Tillie returned to the locker room last Thursday, he texted Corey Kispert to congratulate his old teammate on a career-high 20-point outing with the Washington Wizards.

“I saw that, it was great,” Tillie said. “It’s fun to see all these guys play. Just all these guys I played with and now they’re doing great in the league, so it’s good.”

Clarke said it speaks to Gonzaga’s evolution as a college basketball powerhouse.

“It’s great to see it, man. GU is just a really different school,” he said. Most guys here had to grind through it. Most guys except like Jalen Suggs, Chet (Holmgren) in the future and Zach Collins, most guys had to stay there at least two years, three years, four years. So, the fact it’s even as great as a college now and how people always assume Gonzaga is going to be No. 1 and all of this, that’s even crazy we got it there because it’s not like a Duke, Kentucky where it’s a bunch of one-and-done guys. It’s a real great program and team-based team.”

Tillie is keeping tabs on the Zags and communicates with Drew Timme, Anton Watson, Matthew Lang and Will Graves.

“I watched the game against Texas Tech, that was a good game, a good bounce-back game,” Tillie said. “I like to watch my guy Drew Timme play because I played with him. Anton Watson, they’ve just been great.”