For most WNBA Draft prospects, there are defining moments that will be looked back upon when their names are called on draft day.
In Naz Hillmon’s case, that moment will probably be the 50-point game she recorded nearly one year ago against the Ohio State Buckeyes. Hillmon broke a Michigan Wolverines record for points scored in a game, and, according to ESPN, it had been many years since anyone — man or woman — had even come close to that mark.
To Wolverines head coach Kim Barnes Arico, though, Hillmon’s incredible performance wasn’t surprising. The 6-foot-2 center has been a model of consistency for Michigan, and her 50-point game simply represented an apex of a career chock-full of gaudy stat lines.
“They double-team her, triple-team, do whatever [they] have to do, and she still managed to do that,” commented Barnes Arico after the game, later saying that she “gets to see Naz every single day, so this isn’t the first time [she’s] seen her do this.”
It’s true — Hillmon has set a high bar for herself, making regular appearances on both Big Ten and national award watch lists. Her status as a WNBA Draft prospect was cemented years ago, with every consecutive double-double she records only further boosting her resume. Let’s look at the numbers and break down just how good Hillmon has been for the Wolverines.
Honors and statistics
Hillmon was ranked as the No. 59 recruit in the country by ESPN’s HoopGurlz in 2018, though it became clear very quickly that she’d exceed that projection. She was named the Big Ten’s Freshman of the Year and Sixth Player of the year in 2019, leading her team in both points (13.1) and rebounds (seven) per game.
Hillmon was moved into Michigan’s starting lineup as a sophomore, increasing her averages to 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds en route to unanimous All-Big Ten First Team honors. As a junior, Hillmon averaged 23.9 points and 11.4 rebounds and shot 62.3 percent from the field. For her efforts, she earned the first All-American honors in program history (USBWA, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic First Team and Associated Press Second Team) and was named the Big Ten Player of the Year by both conference coaches and media. Hillmon rounded out her list of accolades as a finalist for the Katrina McClain Award and the Wade Trophy.
As a part of USA Basketball, Hillmon has won three gold medals in international play. Her first came in 2018 in FIBA’s Americas U18 Championship, which was followed by another gold medal in 2019 in the FIBA U19 World Cup. Most recently, Hillmon won gold with Team USA in the 2021 FIBA Women’s AmeriCup competition.
How she helps the Wolverines
The 2022 WNBA Draft class has its fair share of bigs whose outside games and offensive versatility are their calling cards. Colorado’s Mya Hollingshed, for example, is a prolific jumpshooter who can also take it off the dribble, while Georgia Tech’s Lorela Cubaj and Louisville’s Emily Engstler do a little bit of everything for their respective teams on both ends of the floor.
Hillmon, in contrast, has a game characterized by highly physical, back-to-the-basket play. While the game of basketball seems to be moving towards positionless players and maximum floor spacing and away from deliberate low-post tactics, Hillmon stands as a reminder that centers who do the vast majority of their damage in the paint are not entirely a thing of the past.
It helps, of course, that Hillmon is among the best in the country at what she does. According to Her Hoop Stats, she has ranked no lower than in the 93rd percentile in points per scoring attempt (1.28, 1.18, 1.32 and 1.21) in each of her four seasons as a Wolverine, while she’s ranked no lower than in the 97th percentile in offensive rebounding rate (17.9 percent, 14.8 percent, 16.2 percent and 14.9 percent). And while Hillmon put herself on the map nationally with her 50-point game, fans of the Big Ten know that she’s far from a one-hit wonder; since the start of her junior campaign, Hillmon has scored 20 or more points (21 times) on more occasions than not.
Barnes Arico, who has publicly marveled at Hillmon’s consistency despite facing everything opposing defenses can throw at her, has designed Michigan’s offense to cater to its star center. During the 2020-21 season, about 20.5 percent of Michigan’s halfcourt possessions came via post-up, which ranked 16th in the country (Synergy Sports); thus far, in 2021-22, that number has increased to a whopping 25.4 percent. Only the Kansas State Wildcats dedicate a larger portion of their halfcourt offense to post-ups (28.5 percent).
In typical Hillmon fashion, she has risen to meet her coach’s challenge. Barnes Arico has praised everything from Hillmon’s wingspan and rebounding to her unselfish, uplifting demeanor — it isn’t rare to hear Hillmon deflect credit to her teammates, even when she’s the one drawing two or three defenders on every play.
With all of this taken into account, it’s easy to see how the Wolverines have become one of the strongest programs in the country: on the broad shoulders of their best player. Hillmon will more than likely be selected early in the 2022 WNBA Draft, but until then, she’ll continue posting high-efficiency double-doubles, to the surprise of neither her teammates nor her opponents.
Watch her play
Big Ten play is officially underway, and while most of the conference’s games are exclusive to the Big Ten Network or Big Ten Plus streaming service, Michigan has a few games on its remaining schedule that will be broadcast on national TV. The Wolverines will play the No. 10 Maryland Terrapins on Jan. 16 and the No. 6 Indiana Hoosiers on Jan. 31 — both games potential Big Ten Tournament championship previews — and finish off their regular season on Feb. 27 against the Iowa Hawkeyes. Each of those games will be televised on ESPN2.
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 season are current through Jan. 4, 2022.