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Michigan’s Naz Hillmon Plays Bigger Than Her Size

In the latter stages of the first half of a matchup between Michigan and Baylor last month, Wolverines guard Leigha Brown fed the ball inside to Naz Hillmon.

The 6-foot-2 Hillmon was guarded by NaLyssa Smith, a 6-foot-4 big who very likely will hear her name called first or second in this April’s WNBA draft. Hillmon dribbled once, twice, and attracted the attention of another big, Queen Egbo, who came over to help.

With a drop step, she dispatched both Bears and finished at the rim.

“She faces double teams and triple teams every night, and people are really keying on her,” Michigan head coach Kim Barnes Arico said after the game. “So it’s something we focus on in practice a lot. We do a lot of different drills where she’s facing multiple bodies all the time, and we’re trying to get movement off of it, we’re trying to get cuts off of it, just to still be able to get her touches.”

That strategy has proved successful for player and team alike. Hillmon, who was named Wednesday to the midseason Wooden Award watch list, is averaging 20.1 points per game so far this season, leading the Wolverines to a 12-2 mark and Big Ten title contention — no easy feat in a group that includes Indiana, Maryland and Iowa.

Michigan isn’t a one-woman team, not when it features the savvy Brown and Amy Dilk, whose return from injury this week should help the Wolverines space the floor more. But the extent to which Michigan rises or falls with Hillmon is clear in an activity Barnes Arico gives the team during practices — simply instructing “Naz is out, figure it out.”

So how is she dominating? Perhaps differently than you’d expect from a big of her height, undersized among typical fives.

Let’s start with the raw physicality that allows her to do it — she’s 6-foot-2, but her arms aren’t.

“Yeah, my reach is taller than I am,” Hillmon told me as we chatted in a back corridor of Mohegan Sun Arena last month. “I don’t know exactly what it is, but my reach is tall.”

Still, without Debbie Antonelli and her tape measure nearby, we’re forced to measure the effects of Hillmon’s reach instead. And that includes a hyper-efficiency around the rim, even against taller defenders, usually two or three at a time.

According to CBB Analytics, Hillmon is getting 76.1 percent of her shots at the rim this season, far above the national average of 24 percent and a significant bump over her 67.4 percent from last season. She’s making 66.9 percent of those shots, despite facing defensive game plans designed to keep her from doing just that.

“I just think that my coach has really put me in some great positions, obviously, having me for three years, this being the fourth, really found out where my sweet spots are,” Hillmon said. “And she’s been able to make sure that I’m in those positions … and my teammates are also getting me the ball in those spots.”

This reach has manifested itself in other ways as well. She grabbed six offensive rebounds against Baylor and their standout bigs, and she’s in the 96th percentile nationally in offensive rebounding percentage at 13.9, getting the Wolverines vital extra possessions. Some of that is simply a gift for knowing where to be on the floor. But a lot of it comes from the way she plays.

“I just know that one of my biggest strengths is my motor,” Hillmon said, “and just trying to get to the glass at any point in the game, whether that’s offensive or defensive.” 

Sometimes that aggressiveness can work against her — she committed her fourth foul against the Bears while chasing a rebound with Michigan up 45-36 in the third quarter, and a 9-0 Baylor run immediately followed. Her fifth foul, which disqualified her from the game, didn’t reduce her intensity any — Hillmon was the first one to leap from the bench, and Barnes Arico trusted her to be the one instructing the team with 44.5 seconds left in overtime. 

And she did experience a rough game this week, shooting just 4-for-14 against surprising Nebraska in a 79-58 loss

WNBA talent evaluators are widely split on Hillmon, and a lot of that has to do with what the league expects from its 6-foot-2 players these days: namely, a perimeter shot. Hillmon is quick to acknowledge that she’s looking to expand that part of her game, though she has attempted only four threes this season, making none.

“I mean, we’ve got a long way to go,” Hillmon said. “But I think for me, the biggest thing is that I’m actually shooting them now. Last year I didn’t, and before this year, I’d only shot one. I haven’t necessarily made them this year, but just having that confidence to shoot some of them there in the game. I mean, it’s a long season, I’ve got a lot of time, but those hours into the gym, they’re making me more comfortable with it.”

It wouldn’t take much of a leap to see Hillmon’s game resemble another undersized big in the WNBA, Napheesa Collier. In the last year of her UConn career, Collier shot just 28.3 percent from deep, taking only 53 threes all season. But in the WNBA, the 6-foot-1 Collier has routinely outperformed her height and become one of the most valuable players in the league for the Minnesota Lynx — and has developed proficiency from deep. One WNBA talent evaluator sees Hillmon’s game progressing similarly.

Hillmon said she doesn’t have a ready comp for herself, but when I mentioned Collier, she thought there was something to it. She’s working hard to stay in the moment, she said, but of course when mock drafts drop across her timeline, she looks to see where she is, whether she’s been included in the top four.

Collier, in part due to her size, was selected sixth. It worked out OK for her and for Cheryl Reeve’s Lynx.

“That’s a big one,” Hillmon said of Collier. “I mean, she’s a great player. So people are comparing me to her? That’s awesome for me.”

Howard Megdal is editor-in-chief of The Next, a women’s basketball site, and founder of the women’s sports newsletter The IX.

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