NBA fans love plays like this: A drive for the basket and a devastating one-handed dunk over an opposing defender.
This play was made by a young French player for the Memphis Grizzlies named Killian Tillie, on December 28, 2021 and helped the Grizzlies win against Phoenix (114-113). A French Riviera native, from the town Cagnes-sur-Mer, this 23-year-old power-forward has just this year, as of January 2nd, signed his first NBA contract for two years and four million dollars, a vote of confidence for player who has endured many injuries, lots of bench time and some precarious periods his young career.
Killian Tillie is the youngest of three sons in a family of great athletes. His father is none other than Laurent Tillie, the coach of the French volleyball team, which won the Olympic Games in Tokyo last year, and on which Kevin, the second son, plays. The oldest of the siblings, Kim, is also a basketball player. Kim has played for both Villeurbanne and Monaco, which are teams in the Pro-A, or the “Ligue Nationale de Basket,” the equivalent of the NBA in the States, and he was recognized by the the French National basketball team and played 42 games with them, representing France. “Our family is based in professional sports. So, for me, it was a normal job…” Kevin said in a radio interview in 2019 to explain how immersive sports are for their family.
By a young age, Killian Tillie was already a great basketball player and French hopeful. He won the European Championship in 2014 in Latvia where he was elected best player of the tournament, and was enrolled in a prestigious training center reserved for the best national youth players. In 2015, he made the list of the best European prospects under 18 years selected by FIBA (International Basketball Federation) along with another French player, Frank Ntilikina, who now plays in the Dallas Mavericks.
In 2016, Killian Tillie joined the renowned basketball program of Gonzaga University, in Washington state. By his sophomore season, he was averaging 12.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 1.7 assists in 36 games, before suffering an ankle injury and being sidelined for nearly three months the following year. He then missed the start of his “senior” season in 2019 after a knee problem, before re-injuring his ankle in January 2020. “It’s a bit of a pain in the ass because I started with knee surgery…It’s hard because I always have to worry about [my body],” he confided in January 2020 to basketusa.com.
This succession of injuries slowed down the enthusiasm of NBA franchises, and none of them selected him in the November 2020 draft. The Memphis Grizzlies finally drafted him by offering him a non-guaranteed contract in the NBA, the two way, in which Killian Tillie went back and forth between the first team and the reserve of Memphis (G-League).
For his first season in the NBA in 2020, Tillie participated in only 18 games with Memphis and had a meager total of 3.2 points and 1.3 rebounds. This did not prevent his team from qualifying for the playoffs, a first since the 2016-2017 season. Killian Tillie was offered a second two-way contract in August 2021, his last opportunity to shine in the NBA. “I really wanted to stay in Memphis, I love the staff and the team. I hope to get more minutes and find a real contract in the future,” he confided to the site Basket-infos.com only four months ago.
If he was little used at the beginning of the season, his luck finally turned at the end of November when the league was facing an explosion of Covid cases. The Grizzlies decimated by players sitting out games, Tillie was offered more and more playing time. He put in a string of good performances. In one game, for instance, against the Houston Rockets on December 11, he scored 12 points and took 3 rebounds in 17 minutes on the floor.
Finally performing well and free of his injuries, he was offered his first long-term contract in the NBA on January 2. “I always believed in it,” he told the American site Spokesman.com a few days before signing his contract. “I never thought my injuries were going to stop me from getting there. I worked hard on it and took care of myself, and now I’m more mature and stronger. ” At only 23 years old, Killian Tillie’s best years in the NBA are certainly ahead of him.
This story was originally published in French on French Morning, here.