How Naz Hillmon Fits With The Atlanta Dream
The greatest player in program history went 15th overall in last week's WNBA Draft. How can she carve out a role at the next level?
Last week, Naz Hillmon became the highest-drafted Michigan women’s basketball player in WNBA history and the first player selected from the program since 2005. The Atlanta Dream selected Hillmon with the 15th overall pick. The previous best for a Wolverine player was 23rd overall (Tabitha Pool in 2005 and Stacey Thomas in 2000).
Before examining how Hillmon fits with the Dream, let’s discuss how WNBA rosters work.
Not Enough Teams, Not Enough Spots
The NBA has 30 teams and a roster limit of 15 players. There are, give or take, 450 NBA players under contract during the season. They also have the G League, a 30-team developmental league with 10-13 players on each roster. If you’re a top-tier men’s basketball player, there are ~750 pro openings to fill before looking overseas.
There are far fewer opportunities for women’s players to remain in the United States. The WNBA contains only 12 teams. Rosters are capped at 12 players and some teams only carry 11 because of the difficulty fitting players under a limited salary cap. There’s no developmental league. That’s 144 roster spots if every WNBA team is at their full capacity. The league has pushed back on calls for expansion.
Despite being drafted 15th, Hillmon is a second-round pick, and usually that designation carries a high risk of not making a team. There are, quite simply, not enough spots available for the best players in the USA, let alone the world. It’s not unusual for a player to be released by one team and become a major contributor for another within a matter of weeks.
Even the best women’s players often play overseas to supplement relatively meager WNBA paychecks — Russia, in particular, pays better. While there’s been a player-led push for salaries that’d allow them to stay home year-round and not need a second source of income, the league has a long way to go to make that happen.
A Look at Atlanta
Atlanta went 8-24 last season and enters a full-blown rebuild in 2022-23. In the last 14 months, the Dream has replaced their ownership group — ousting disgraced former Senator Kelly Loeffler — as well as their general manager and head coach.
They didn’t bring back leading scorer Courtney Williams or frontcourt contributor Crystal Bradford after they were involved in a fight at an Atlanta nightclub. Projected franchise centerpiece Chennedy Carter was suspended midway through the season for “conduct detrimental to the team” after verbal altercations with teammates on the bench, then traded to Los Angeles.
This franchise has been through it.
Now that Atlanta has more stability at the top, Hillmon steps into an ideal situation for a talented second-rounder. The Dream have roster spots to spare and their short-term focus will be on developing young talent like 2021 first-round PG Aari McDonald, 2022 #1 overall pick SF Rhyne Howard, and Hillmon.
It certainly sounds like Atlanta plans on keeping Hillmon around:
The path to early playing time is difficult, however. The Dream have a rising young starter at center in Monique Billings and power forward Cheyenne Parker is a double-digit scorer. They signed two free agents to the frontcourt, forward Nia Coffey and center Kia Vaughn.
There may be a spot at the end of the rotation, though. The primary competition for minutes appears to be Megan Walker, who was picked up off waivers in January. Walker was the #9 pick in the 2020 draft and has disappointed in stints in New York and Phoenix, shooting only 31% from the field. The Dream aren’t invested in her beyond this upcoming season.
It’s rare but not unheard of for a second-rounder to make an instant impact. In the last ten seasons, only six second-rounders and one third-rounder have made the All-Rookie team — but four of those players were selected in the last two seasons.
Hillmon’s WNBA-Ready Skills
Here’s my attempt at a WNBA-focused scouting report on Hillmon, beginning with the skills that should immediately translate to the next level.
Rebounding. Yes, Hillmon is undersized for a post-oriented WNBA player. She rebounded at a high level against the biggest and best opponents Michigan faced, though, and she posted the best offensive rebounding numbers in the draft class by a wide margin. Her instincts and body control are too good for her not to continue impacting games on the boards.
Inside scoring. Shooting a career 60% on two-pointers while facing double- and even triple-teams on a regular basis is good, in my opinion. Hillmon has an advanced repertoire of moves in the post and great touch on her interior shots. She can score out of post-ups or as the roller on high screens. She’s also added efficiency by drawing more fouls and shooting better at the line in the last two seasons:
Hillmon added about a two-shot foul per 40 minutes to her output in her final two seasons while also improving 11 percentage points at the line, resulting in about two more points per game on free throws alone.
Effort. Hillmon is relentless. It’s the first thing mentioned in most scouting reports. Her conditioning is remarkable; she can play at full speed while handling a high minutes load. A not-insignificant number of Hillmon’s putbacks occur when opponents are caught off guard by how hard she’s going for the ball.
That effort also translates to practice. She never stopped expanding and honing her game at Michigan. I have little doubt that’ll continue in the WNBA.
Defensive versatility. It’s difficult to project Hillmon’s post defense because of how she was utilized at Michigan, playing next to a paint-protecting center (Hailey Brown, Emily Kiser) who usually drew the toughest post matchup to keep Hillmon out of foul trouble and allow her to wander far away from the basket to pressure the ball. That said, when Hillmon did get matched up one-on-one in the post, she acquitted herself well:
She had the athletic ability and court awareness to play at the top of Michigan’s 1-2-2 press. While not the best perimeter defender — she sometimes sags too far into the paint — she puts in a high effort to contest shots when matched up with perimeter-oriented power forwards and she moves her feet well to stick with drives.
Hillmon may have trouble with the bigger scoring threats at center in the league. I think she has the versatility to play power forward on defense, which would require either playing next to a center who can shoot threes or Hillmon expanding her shooting range. Speaking of which…
Hillmon’s Areas to Improve
Range/face-up game. The WNBA is becoming a more perimeter-oriented league — just look at the franchise history of three-point attempts for the Dream after their bombs-away debut season. Hillmon needs to add an outside shot to maximize her impact at 6’1. She was 0-for-7 on threes in her career at Michigan.
That said, she teased expanded range with 2-for-3 shooting beyond the arc in the exhibition matchup with Grand Valley State:
In the season, those shifted to the occasional face-up attempt from midrange:
She scored 63 points on 76 face-up possessions out of post-ups, according to Synergy. There’s work to be done on this aspect of her game; too often her drives ended in turnovers from dribbling into extra defenders.
Passing. This is a particularly important aspect of Hillmon’s game as she develops her outside shooting — high-level passing is a great way for a post player to punish defenses for not following them to the perimeter. She averaged a respectable 2.5 assists per 40 minutes as a senior. Her assists mostly came in two ways. One was the skip pass to an open shooter out of a double team:
The other was the post-to-post feed:
Those came with a lot of turnovers, though: 4.0 per game, the most of her career. Hillmon predetermined reads, which led to either forced passes or hesitating when she realized the play wasn’t there — those moments of uncertainty allowed opportunistic defenders to swipe the ball away.
Hillmon has occasional moments of brilliance as a passer. This is the type of play she needs to make if she’s going to be a power forward that doesn’t take many jumpers:
It’s there, she just has to make fewer mistakes. No longer being the focal point of opposing defenses should help.
While it may ruin my objective facade, I have to say: it’s near-impossible to watch Hillmon for four years and not expect her to succeed. If it comes down to anything within her control, it’s usually going to work out.
I see Hillmon earning some early-career minutes as a bench player willing to do the little things and able to score points without demanding the ball. There’s an opportunity to crack Atlanta’s rotation and the team can afford to be patient with their young players.
Hillmon’s size/shooting combination and the remarkable level of play at the WNBA level — that lack of spots does concentrate the talent — will make it difficult for her to progress beyond the level of a solid starter. The last time the second round of the draft produced a future All-Star was 2015.
I still expect to see Hillmon contributing in the league for a while. While she has to adjust her game for the WNBA, there are also ways the transition could help her effectiveness — she’ll operate in a lot more space now that she’s not the interior superstar surrounded by limited shooting. Her improved free throw shooting and the hints at expanded range help make me a believer.
Much like the franchise, I believe Atlanta got a steal. Hillmon’s fall to the second round reflects the gap between what she currently is as a player and what the league wants her to be. I expect her to bridge that gap. She may not be conventional but that’s yet to slow her down.