2021-22 WBB Preview: Replacing Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown
Michigan loses two starters from last year's Sweet Sixteen squad. How does Kim Barnes Arico fill their roles? Emily Kiser and Danielle Rauch are poised for breakouts.
Previously: Putting Naz Hillmon’s Greatness In Context (free post)
While Michigan enters 2021-22 with the most talented roster in the history of the program, Kim Barnes Arico spent much of media day discussing two departed players.
Akienreh Johnson and Hailey Brown graduated after decorated collegiate careers capped by starting on the best team in school history. If Barnes Arico’s team is going to continue on its upward trajectory, she must assemble a rotation that can replace their critical contributions on both ends of the floor.
What Michigan Lost
While Johnson and Brown were both emotional leaders, Barnes Arico showed little concern about this team’s ability to replace them in that regard. Naz Hillmon is a senior star they can rally around, four other players are in the senior class, and KBA mentioned junior Maddie Nolan in the same breath.
There are more tangible losses. Johnson was the team’s best perimeter defender, an effective rebounder, and she nearly matched starting point guard Amy Dilk in assists. While she didn’t score with great efficiency, she could be relied upon to create shots, a crucial skill when Hillmon is ready to pounce on any rebound.
Brown filled the ideal complementary role to Hillmon as the starting lineup’s other post player. She guarded the opponent’s top post scorer, keeping Hillmon out of foul trouble and allowing her to attack the glass. On offense, she led the team in three-pointers made and attempted, spacing the floor and punishing opponents for sinking into the paint.
Brown also formed a dangerous high-low passing combination with Hillmon, showing nice touch on post-to-post passes, a staple of the offense.
The two combined to average 19 points, ten rebounds, four assists, a steal, and a block per game. The numbers understate their contributions on defense, too. Their shoes won’t be easy to fill.
Replacing Hailey Brown
At media day, Barnes Arico lauded senior Emily Kiser, who averaged 12.5 minutes per game last year as Hillmon’s backup after returning from an ankle injury that cost her eight games to start the season. Kiser will move next to the team’s star in place of Brown.
“We have one of [the replacements for Brown and Johnson] in Emily Kiser, who’s always been a little bit of a backup to Naz, but this year she’s stepping into a different position and can shoot the ball exceptionally well, maybe face up four [players around the three-point line] and spread the floor for Naz.”
Kiser is 6-for-21 on three-pointers and 30-for-42 from the free-throw line in her three seasons at Michigan. Her touch looks good and she shows confidence in her shot. If she can hit threes even in the 32-35% range, that should let the offense continue to function much like last year’s.
She’s also been a deft passer, dishing out 19 assists with only six turnovers last season, both impressive numbers for a post player getting limited minutes. She makes this tough catch and pass look easy.
Kiser graded out as a very good on-ball defender last year, limiting her marks to a 46.3 effective field goal percentage with an eye-opening 30.8% turnover rate, according to Synergy. While that’s on a small sample, she looks like she can be a defensive contributor, and she possesses good shot-blocking length at 6-foot-3.
After a season of flux, the bench should provide solid depth for the frontcourt spots. Six-foot-four center Izabel Varejão is back after a season lost to COVID travel restrictions. She showed great potential as a freshman in 2019-20, averaging over five points in 14 minutes per game with gaudy rebounding and block rates.
Second-year 6-foot-3 forward Cameron Williams was a five-star recruit to ESPN despite coming off a high school knee injury. Between recovery, the lack of a preseason, and M’s depth up front, Williams barely saw the floor as a true freshman.
At media day, Barnes Arico called her an “incredibly, incredibly strong post player” who’s “stronger than she's ever been.” While those quotes give off bully-ball vibes, Williams’s recruiting profile indicates she has plenty of skill:
USJN-April 2019: Skilled interior performer attacks from the high post, finishes plays in traffic; utilizes either hand to deliver in traffic; battles on the glass, initiates the fast break, superb in transition; quick footwork, versatile defender; superb front court prospect in the class of 2020. (Olson)
Battle-in-the-boro-July 2018: Skilled left-handed front court prospect delivers effectively in the paint; superb hands, catches in traffic, scores vs. contact; delivers at the charity stripe; active on glass, outlets and finishes in transition; an elite forward in the class of 2020. (Olson)
Whitney Sollom is another true sophomore with great size at 6-foot-4 (and a half, according to KBA). Barnes Arico said she “can run, can catch, [has a] real great hook shot, great touch.” Her scouting report out of high school also indicates she can play next to Hillmon:
Under Armour Nationals-July 2019: Agile face up-4 attacks from the perimeter, mismatch creator in the front court; catches in traffic, attacks the glass; face up game extends to the arc; versatile defender. (Olson)
Yet another sophomore, Elise Stuck, is also capable of playing in the frontcourt; she’s a versatile player at 6-foot-1 with skill honed as a big-time high school scorer in Charlevoix.
Finally, Hillmon is also expanding her game. She played power forward for Team USA in June’s Women’s AmeriCup and averaged 12 points while displaying more range on her shot. She’s been working with the point guards this offseason, according to KBA, in an effort to improve her handle.
Even if Hillmon plays the same role as last year, this team has plenty of versatile options to put around her, plus the emerging depth to give her more breathers than she was afforded before. If Kiser is hitting threes at a solid rate, the transition from Brown will be relatively seamless.