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The Pandemic Hasn’t Stopped These Four Rising Stars In College Basketball

It’s not like Naz Hillmon was struggling prior to the 2020-21 season.

In her sophomore campaign, the 6-foot-2 Michigan forward averaged 17.4 points per game on 56.7 percent shooting from the field. She was a finalist for the 2020 Katrina McClain Award, given to the nation’s top power forward.

But the Hillmon we’re seeing this year is next level. She’s averaging 25.9 points per game, third in the nation, on 65.1 percent shooting from the floor. She scored 50 points in a game against Ohio State, including 31 in the second half, leading her coach, Kim Barnes Arico, to say this: “I’ve coached some really great players — really, really great players — in my time. No, I’ve never seen a performance like that.”

And no, this was not a one-off. If you wanted to generate a heat map representing dominance at the rim, it would look a lot like these from CBBAnalytics.

CBBAnalytics

Nor is she a one-dimensional performer. Hillmon is 12th in the country in offensive rebounding percentage. She has cut her turnover rate from 17.6 to 12.1 percent, and she’s more than doubled her block percentage from 0.8 to 1.8.

Put simply, Hillmon has managed to find another level. In normal times, this would be noteworthy but unsurprising — as college players develop experience, learn their systems, build strength in the weight room and get shooting reps in games, their skills often sharpen.

But the players who are doing it this year aren’t improving in a normal season. I don’t think I’m breaking any news here when I tell you that COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on college basketball.

Hillmon is a prime example: After her 50-point in late January, her school’s athletic department shut down for several weeks after a rash of COVID-19 cases. She didn’t play from Jan. 21 until Feb. 11. No matter: She’s scored 21, 31, 23 and 27 in her four games since.

So yes, this is a look at some huge leaps forward by some of college basketball’s brightest stars. But it feels like something more than that. Finding ways to improve, in a disrupted season and during a challenging time, speaks to a player’s ability to deal with adversity. WNBA teams are going to remember this when it comes time to draft.

Speaking of drafting, there’s little reason to think anyone other than Charli Collier of Texas should be at the top of the WNBA draft this spring should she come out (though Finnish power forward Awak Kuier will be in the mix as well), A season for the ages from Collier, on a team that’s struggled at times to provide the support to make her even better, has only reinforced her already elite trajectory.

The scouting report for playing the Longhorns starts with figuring out a way to slow Collier at all costs. This is exacerbated by a backcourt that has run into difficulty finding Collier at her best spots — the Longhorns are 306th in the country in assisted shot rate, and with the team hitting just 30.8 percent of its threes, spacing is at a premium.

Even so, the 6-foot-5 Collier is dramatically more efficient from the field this season, up to 51.1 percent after shooting 43.2 percent in 2019-20, with a rebounding percentage that’s 29th in the country, reflecting a top-50 mark on both the offensive and defensive boards. Now imagine what those numbers would look like in an offense with more consistent point guard play and an ability to get her open looks.

On the perimeter, few can match the level of improvement we’ve seen from Chelsea Dungee of Arkansas, already an elite scorer but who has taken her ability to find the right shot, not just the first shot, to another level this season.

A second-team All-SEC member last year, Dungee is a lock for the first team this year, thanks to elevating her field-goal percentage from 37.3 to 43.6 percent overall, including an increase from 32.7 to 39.5 percent from beyond the arc. And she hasn’t given up her opportunistic forays into passing lanes at the defensive end, with a steal percentage of 2.2 percent, up slightly from last season.

Notice, however, how much of her dramatic improvement has come not beyond the arc, but at the rim:

CBBAnalytics

At a solid 5-foot-11, Dungee has taken her game to a place that will get the senior’s name called early on draft night and helped to make Arkansas a dark-horse pick to win it all.

Speaking of teams that have a real chance to win it all, Maryland is in that mix, at the top of a hyper-competitive Big Ten conference — and sophomore Diamond Miller’s leap forward is a big reason why.

The athletic 6-foot-3 Miller has upped her field-goal percentage from 40.9 as a freshman to 49.5 percent as a sophomore, even as her field goal attempts per game are up almost 80 percent and her attempts from three have nearly doubled. That has not come at the expense of driving, either, with her free throw attempts climbing from 2 per game last season to 5.2 this year.

As Maryland head coach Brenda Frese told The Washington Post in January: “Her ceiling is ridiculously high. She’s a three-level scorer. And then when you think about two-and-a-half more years of adding strength in the weight room and she kind of gets her emotions in check. … it’s crazy to think what the endgame is going to be for her and getting to the next level.”

Sounds like someone who’s going to be on this list next year, too — hopefully under more traditional circumstances.

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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