2021-22 WBB Preview: The Relentless Brilliance of Naz Hillmon
Naz Hillmon is already the greatest player in Michigan WBB history. What's in store for her final college season?
The women’s basketball team takes the court tonight at 7 ET for an exhibition against Grand Valley State. You can watch with a BTN Plus subscription. The men get under way with their own exhibition tomorrow night, though you’ll have to cough up another fee to watch that one, too.
Before the season kinda-sorta tips off tonight, let’s dig into why All-American forward Naz Hillmon is the greatest player in program history.
Before breaking down Hillmon’s game, let’s revisit a previous post to put her career in context. She’s in the midst of rewriting the school record book:
“Nazilla” would’ve been a more ball-dominant player on past (read: worse) Wolverine squads and seen more minutes from the beginning of her career. She had her best season shortened by a third due to a once-in-a-century pandemic. And yet, with a full season to play, she’s among M career leaders with:
1,533 points (ninth, Flaherty is first with 2,776, Thome second with 2,081)
17.4 points per game (fourth, Peg Harte 21.0)
602 field goals made (ninth, Flaherty 984)
60.3 FG% (first, Thome is second at 60.0)
329 free throws made (fourth, LeeAnn Biles 484)
765 rebounds (ninth, Trish Andrew 928)
8.7 rebounds per game (second, Pollyanna Johns 9.6)
It’s killing me that the record book doesn’t track offensive rebounds and double-doubles. Alas.
At a listed 6-foot-2, Hillmon is an unusual All-American in today’s game: a paint-bound true power forward who overwhelms with technique instead of having a major size discrepancy against most opponents.
While many of the country’s other top players are noted for stuffing the stat sheet (see: UConn’s Paige Bueckers, Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, Iowa’s Caitlin Clark) or tower over their competition (South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston, NC State’s Elyssa Cunane), Hillmon isn’t the prototype. Instead, she’s developed a few aspects of her game to an incredibly high level, dominating with nuance and exhausting persistence.
Hillmon is arguably the best post scorer in the country. In 2020-21, she finished with the fourth-most post-up possessions of any player with 246, according to Synergy. That remarkably high volume should make it more difficult to maintain exceptional efficiency, yet Hillmon also generated the fourth-most points per possession (1.19) among D-I players credited with 50 post-ups or more.
Only 6’6 Kansas State center Ayoka Lee and a couple fellow Big Ten stalwarts were in the same league as Hillmon at combining volume and efficacy in the post. In this chart, PPP is points per possession, TO% is percentage of post-ups that ended in a turnover, and %SF is the percentage of post-ups that ended by drawing a shooting foul:
Hillmon was one of only three among the top ten to shoot at least 60%. She drew easily the highest rate of shooting fouls while turning the ball over only 11% of the time, fifth in that sample.
She did this in what I’d judge wasn’t the most post-friendly environment last season. Michigan only attempted 25% of their field goals from beyond the three-point arc, ranking 258th out of 343 D-I teams, per Her Hoop Stats. They only hit 30.7% of those triples, ranking 185th. This didn’t exactly dissuade defenses from collapsing into the post when Hillmon got the ball.
Hillmon is prolific in the paint anyway because she’s developed an array of post moves that work off of each other, helped by her ability to finish with either hand. Here are two plays from the same game; first, she catches the ball on the left block, rips the ball through to face up, and continues baseline for a reverse layup with her dominant right hand:
Only a few minutes of game time later, she gets the ball on the left block, rips the ball through to face up, takes a hard step to the right, then spins back for a lefty finish:
Hitting a spin move to the right from the right block in the second half felt downright cruel after the above. It’s no surprise that opponents often resort to hacking her, even while in foul trouble, instead of attempting to match her footwork.
There isn’t a misplaced step. Hillmon maneuvers with such decisiveness that there’s often no time for help to arrive — see the defender in the bottom right corner in the second GIF. Hillmon’s quickness is accentuated by her fast reading of the defense. She knows help is coming from that corner and sets up her move to spin away from it.