WBB: Putting Naz Hillmon's Greatness In Context
The senior-to-be is already the best player in program history. Now "Nazilla" is poised to destroy the school record book.
It’s easy to get people into Michigan women’s basketball these days.
Why should I watch?
Where to start? Michigan beat Tennessee in the NCAA Tournament last year and took Baylor to overtime in the program’s first Sweet 16 appearance. The 2020-21 season was definitively their best ever despite facing serious COVID- and injury-related obstacles.Kim Barnes Arico is already the most accomplished head coach in program history and recruiting at an increasingly high level. A higher number of their games are broadcast on something more accessible than BTN-Plus than ever before.
The number one reason to follow the Wolverines, though, is Naz Hillmon. As part of the season preview, I plan to write a series of posts on Hillmon. It’s rare to have an athlete return in any sport with the opportunity to so thoroughly rewrite the program record book. She’s already the best player in program history; now it’s a matter of how high she’ll set the bar.
In later newsletters, I’ll get into why Hillmon is so productive and fun to watch. Today, let’s begin by contextualizing her standing in Michigan WBB lore. The official site hasn’t yet updated the program record book with 2020-21 stats, so I went ahead and did that myself, at least for Hillmon’s unbelievable junior season.
I need to brush up on my history so I’ll qualify this: in addition to being the greatest talent to come through the program, Hillmon also may be its most important player. She led the team to its deepest postseason run and has a shot to upend Maryland et al for its first Big Ten title. If not for the pandemic wiping out the 2020 edition, she’d be part of the only the second senior class (following the 2021 grads) to make four straight NCAA Tournaments should the Wolverines, as expected, earn a bid this season.
I can’t find a WNBA mock draft or list of top 2022 prospects that doesn’t have Hillmon in the top three. She’s generally listed second behind Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard, as she is at The Athletic. That’d make her Michigan’s highest-drafted player by a healthy distance.
Hillmon is already the most decorated player in program history. She is Michigan’s:
first Big Ten Player of the Year
second Big Ten Freshman of the Year (Stacey Thomas, 1997)
second Big Ten Sixth Player of the Year (Katelynn Flaherty, 2015)
second player to be selected All-Big Ten first team three times (Flaherty, 2016-18)
sixth player to make an All-Big Ten first team even once
all-time leader in Big Ten Player of the Week honors (four)
only three-time gold medalist in WBB, I’m pretty sure
National player of the year honors could be her next breakthrough. That’s about all she has left to accomplish at the individual award level as a collegian.
Hillmon enters her senior season in position to rewrite Michigan’s career record book, which is remarkable in a couple respects: she came off the bench as a freshman behind All-B1G first-team center Hallie Thome and played only 22 games—as opposed to the usual 32-35—in the COVID-shortened junior year.
“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.
Hillmon might even work her way onto the career lists in some less obvious categories: her 142 career assists puts her 69 away from a three-way tie for 24th and she needs 17 blocks to make the top 25. She has season bests of 77 assists and ten blocks, the latter of which came during last year’s abbreviated schedule.
Again, Hillmon shouldn’t be prevalent on these lists because she’s played one full-length season as a starter. Again, she’s on them anyway. Her single-season marks include:
24.0 points per game in 2020-21 (first, Flaherty second at 22.9)
62.8 FG% in 2018-19 (second to Thome’s 63.1; Hillmon also has the 3rd- and 8th-best seasons)
132 free throws made in 2020-21(!) (third, Jennifer Smith 210; Hillmon is also t-9th)
277 rebounds in 2019-20 (seventh, Cyesha Goree 367)
11.4 rebounds per game (second, Trish Andrew 11.5)
It’s entirely possible Hillmon could hold all of these records with a strong 2021-22 and more. She would’ve broken Flaherty’s single-season scoring record (774) if she’d been able to play 33 games at least season’s 24.0 PPG clip; ditto Cyesha Goree’s rebounding mark if she’d played 32 games. Finishing third in free throws made in a 22-game season, meanwhile, is downright absurd.
Hillmon dropped a 50-piece on Ohio State last season to shatter Dianne Dietz’s single-game scoring record of 45 points that had stood since 1983. She owns two other records and has her sights on a couple more:
20 field goals made (first, Dietz second with 18; Hillmon is also t-4th and t-7th)
100 FG% (min. 8 attempts) (first, tied with three others at 8/8)
12 free throws made (tied for seventh, Carol Szczechowski first with 18)
22 rebounds (second, Theresa Conklin 24)
Michigan has never seen anything like Naz Hillmon. Don’t make the mistake of letting the opportunity to watch her senior season pass you by. Athletes of this caliber in any sport don’t come through too often; to have one charting new territory for both individual and team success only makes it more special.
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The most extreme example: talented backup center Izabel Varejão didn’t play because she spent much of the season stuck in Brazil under travel restrictions.