June 27, 2022 

Loves the food, hates the traffic: Naz Hillmon is fitting into Atlanta nicely

'Naz is someone who really knows herself'

When WNBA Commissioner Cathy Engelbert called the name of the 15th draft pick in the 2022 WNBA draft, Atlanta Dream owner Renee Montgomery declared it the “steal of the draft.”

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This second-round pick coming to the Southside? Michigan Forward Naz Hillmon.

Originally from Cleveland, Hillmon was a star in Ann Arbor, leaving the state with a long list of accolades. The WBCA, USBWA, Sports Illustrated and The Athletic’s All-America named her to their first team in her senior and junior year. In her senior year, she tacked on first team nods from the Associated Press and Wooden. She’s the first player in program history to receive any All-America honors.

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She was named MVP of the team 4 years in a row, is the only man or woman in Michigan basketball history with 2,000 points and 1,000 rebounds and led her team to their first-ever Elite Eight appearance in 2022. Hillmon holds just about every record Michigan women’s basketball has to offer.

As she developed as a superstar up north, the maize and blue community fell in love with her. Her team garnered consistently huge crowds, with over 6,000 in attendance during their hosted March Madness games. Alongside eager fans at every game, Hillmon also inspired her teammates.

A postgame clip of Michigan teammate Danielle Rauch circulated Twitter after their loss in the Elite Eight, which powerfully spoke to Hillmon’s impact.

“I got to play with the greatest player in Michigan Women’s Basketball history, and she’s also my best friend,” said a tearful Rauch.

And this love, from both fans and teammates, has followed her to Atlanta. At games around the country, Michigan fans come out to support Naz, eager to get a picture and see her play.

“Naz is Michigan women’s basketball,” Michigan fan Matt Schmid told The Next after snapping a picture with Hillmon. “I flew down here today from Michigan just to see her play.”

Atlanta Dream forward Naz Hillmon (00) takes photos with Michigan fans at game at the Gateway Arena in Atlanta, GA on June 24, 2022. (Photo credit: Gabriella Lewis)

Her love from teammates and coaches has also followed her.

“Defensively, Naz is good for us. She’s a high level communicator, she understands the game, she has a high level IQ,” Head Coach Tanisha Wright told The Next. “Naz is someone who really knows herself. She’s very self aware in terms of her game, and because of that it allows her to be confident in who she is, and what she does, and what she brings to the table.”

Despite only a few months in the ATL, Hillmon has already developed close bonds. Forward Kia Vaughn, a 14-year league vet, has been dubbed “mom” or “grandma” by Hillmon and teammates. Hillmon quickly named Vaughn an important mentor, and Vaughn is a charter member of the Naz fan club.

“I think she’s incredible. For a first year out her mindset for the game, you know, just her natural instinct, and her working abilities. Sometimes, they come in, they have big heads, and you can’t tell them anything. As much as she knows… she’s open to critique,” Vaughn told The Next. “One of the main things I always complimented her on was her ability to be able to talk… A lot of teams don’t have those post players that talk naturally, and loud, and vocally. I think it’s gonna help her stay in this league a very long time.”

But not everything about Atlanta has been new for Hillmon. One relationship she was already familiar with is her close friendship with 2022 number one draft pick Rhyne Howard.

Hillmon and Howard played together for USA Basketball and have been inseparable since being drafted to Atlanta. They even coordinate game day fit themes.

“We’ve both said we wouldn’t want to do it with any other rookie because of the bond that we have and the friendship that we have,” Howard told The Next. “We already have great chemistry and then for everyone else to feel like family, you can’t find that everywhere.”

And although there’s obviously gratitude that they’re playing together, it was a bit of a surprise that Hillmon ended up alongside Howard in the A. After many draft projections had her going in the first round, she fell to the second round. Although Atlanta was high on Hillmon, they were pleasantly surprised they were able to draft her so late in the game.

But despite falling a few places on draft night, a future in professional basketball has been on Hillmon’s mind for as long as she can remember.

Her mother, NaSheema Anderson, was drafted by the ABL’s Nashville Noise in 1998. Still, just 15 games into their season, the ABL announced its end, dashing Anderson’s professional career. Fortunately, her daughter has lived to carry on her legacy.

“It was really nice to have that role model. One, because it was giving me the opportunity to know that I can possibly do it,” Hillmon told The Next. “Just having someone to know: she did it, I could do it.”

In a sport where college often feels like the goal and the WNBA a second thought, which many college players are part of, Hillmon’s professional mindset sets her apart.

As her coaches and mentors said, she has qualities few rookies have and are difficult, if not near-impossible, to teach. And although Hillmon is far from a stat stuffer, this wise mindset translates to her impact on the court.

Aside from being the designated player to complete a complex pregame handshake with every starter, she is a tenacious defender that comes off the bench to bring a jolt of energy to her team. That being said, her offensive production is limited, and she doesn’t always finish on easy looks.

Midway through the season, she’s averaging 3.5 rebounds, one assist, 2.9 points and 13.6 minutes a game. She’s played every game but one, and in the past five games when the Dream have been down five players, Hillmon has stepped up, increased her minutes, and continued to show out.

Although Hillmon is a smart, rising star, the WNBA’s infamously competitive talent pool means everyone is vulnerable. Hillmon’s lack of statistical productivity means her future seasons could be in flux. There’s no way to know what Hillmon’s career will look like now, but fans from Ohio to Ann Arbor to Atlanta hope she’ll continue to develop and flourish in the league.

And Naz feels the same way.

“I would love to stay in Atlanta and be a part of something that’s changed the tide as they rebuild it,” Hillmon said. “And [be] a reason why people want to come to Atlanta and build championships.”

Written by Gabriella Lewis

Gabriella is The Next's Atlanta Dream and SEC beat reporter. She is a Bay Area native currently studying at Emory University.

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