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Ravell Call, Deseret News
Utah Utes forward Donnie Tillman listens during the national anthem before an NCAA basketball at Vivint Arena in Salt Lake City on Saturday, Dec. 9, 2017.
Most freshmen don't come in and feel at ease about communicating and talking and lifting teammates up. So it's kind of playing the part. —Larry Krystkowiak

SALT LAKE CITY — This is the place, as far as University of Utah freshman Donnie Tillman is concerned.

“I really love the program. I love everyone here. The team is great,” he said. “One day, I might live here. This is a beautiful state.”

For Tillman, who grew up in Detroit but played his high school ball at Findlay Prep in Henderson, Nevada, the move to college basketball has been relatively smooth.

Entering Saturday’s game at BYU, the 6-foot-7, 225-pound forward is averaging 10.7 points and 6.2 rebounds.

And there’s more.

“He’s got an enthusiasm. If you watched practice today, he’s talking,” Utah coach Larry Krystkowiak said while noting Tillman’s maturity. “Most freshmen don’t come in and feel at ease about communicating and talking and lifting teammates up. So it’s kind of playing the part.”

It’s something, Krystkowiak explained, that’s kind of hard to define. He said certain people have “it,” along with a little bit of swagger and an ability to communicate.

Utah (7-2) at BYU (8-2)

Marriott Center, Provo

Saturday, 9 p.m.

TV: ESPN 2

Radio: ESPN 700AM

Tillman acknowledged that he’s “definitely getting more comfortable” as the season progresses.

“I just really know my spots,” he said.

Doing his job, talking and taking his chances are part of the equation.

“I’m just trying to really improve defensively right now,” Tillman said. “Talk more, communicate, just get the team going. I think that would be my biggest role.”

Through nine games, Tillman has come off the bench to be the team’s co-leader in rebounding (along with senior Tyler Rawson) and third leading scorer. He’s shooting 53.2 percent from the field and is first in offensive rebounds (17) and third in blocked shots (five).

“I think it’s just all the extra time in the gym, that’s all — and just watching film,” said Tillman, who credits Krystkowiak and the rest of the staff for preparing the Utes well. “I’m just listening and doing what they say and it’s working out for me.”

Krystkowiak noted that Tillman is ultra-competitive and a strong kid.

“He wasn’t a typical freshman body coming in, and so I think that put him ahead of the game a little bit. A lot of times freshmen have to get stronger and figure out that,” Krystkowiak said. “That’s never been an area of concern for him. He’s got himself in better shape and hopefully some good basketball lies ahead for him.”

Paul Washington, who was Tillman’s high school coach last season, isn’t surprised by his rising success. He saw it coming.

“Donnie does it all. I mean, he was one of our star players last year at Findlay Prep, and we finished No. 3 in the country,” Washington said. “He can play inside, he can play outside, he can dribble, he can shoot. He’s an old-school Mark Aguirre. He can kind of do it all.”

Washington noted that Utah definitely got a steal in getting the highly recruited Tillman. He gushed about the his ability to dunk and shoot from midrange. Tillman, he continued, is very aggressive and a good player.

Tillman’s decision to play at Findlay Prep proved to be a good one, according to Washington. Donnie and his mother, Donna, moved to Las Vegas for his 10th-grade season and stayed there through 12th grade.

The level of competition played by the national power is quite beneficial.

“You can’t beat that. You can’t get that anywhere else,” Washington said. “So with our schedule and stuff like that, you know, it’s a lot better than the local high schools. He made the right decision.”

All the accompanying hype, though, is something Tillman tries not to pay any attention to — even if he did just turn 18, he said, after making note of his fairly recent birthday. “It’s exciting, but i just know I can get better. That’s really it.”