September 6, 2023
Naz Hillmon’s reliability is a Dream come true
‘She doesn’t act like a second-year player’
ATLANTA — Whether it’s a game, practice, film session, or team meeting, Atlanta Dream head coach Tanisha Wright knows what she’s getting from Naz Hillmon. In just her second professional season, the forward has emerged as a gritty, energetic, defensive-minded communicator, already earning the respect of her teammates and coaches.
“Naz is a pro, she came [into the league] as a pro,” Wright told the media ahead of Atlanta’s blowout win over Phoenix on Aug. 28. “I think that’s one of the best compliments you can give young players. You know what she’s going to give day in and day out.”
The Dream selected Hillmon with the No. 15 overall pick in the 2022 WNBA Draft, and she was quickly labeled the ‘steal’ of the draft by owner Renee Montgomery, fans and evaluators alike.
“It was tough at first, sitting at the draft, expecting to be a first-round pick, and falling to the second round,” Hillmon told The Next. “Talking to my agent, talking to my family, it’s not about where you get picked up, it’s about the situation — and I walked into a great situation here in Atlanta.”
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During her rookie season, Hillmon did whatever was asked of her in a pinch. After Nia Coffey and Monique Billings were sidelined with injuries, she went from playing less than ten minutes a game to handling a bulk of the Dream’s minutes at the post position.
“One thing Coach [Wright] talks about is being a pro, so it’s important to always be ready and try to find a way to contribute to the team, whether I’m starting or playing a couple of minutes,” Hillmon told The Next.
Eventually, Hillmon had a breakthrough: on July 24, 2022, she set a new rookie franchise record with 14 rebounds in a loss to the Seattle Storm.
“I knew coming in that I had to do everything I could on defense and everything else will fall in place,” Hillmon told the media.
This season, she has taken on a similarly variable role. Hillmon has played 20 to 29 minutes in four games, 10 to 19 minutes in 24 games, and 0 to 9 minutes in nine games, according to Basketball Reference.
“For two years, she’s been consistently ready when her number is called,” Wright said. “Right now, she just has a different energy about her that is really contagious to the rest of [the team] and it’s been like that for the last few games. Much needed for our team, really.”
Again, with Nia Coffey out for the rest of the season with a hand injury, Hillmon’s role has elevated and she’s taking advantage of the opportunity. Over the last six games, the 23-year-old is averaging 9.8 points and 5.8 rebounds on 54.5% shooting in 18.2 minutes per game.
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“Naz doesn’t act like a second-year player,” veteran guard Danielle Robinson said. “Her intensity is very vet-like. You saw that [against the Fever on Aug. 27]; she really changed the game for us, talking to us in timeouts, and being that energy leader for us. I don’t consider Naz a second-year player in my eyes.”
One unique aspect of Hillmon’s game is her aggressiveness, strength, and rebounding prowess, despite being slightly undersized for her position, at 6’2. She is ranked No. 1 among players her height or shorter in offensive rebound rate (8.2%) and No. 7 in overall rebound rate (11.4%), according to WNBA.com.
This past offseason, Atlanta acquired guard Allisha Gray from the Dallas Wings, and soon thereafter, Gray was starring alongside Hillmon at Athletes Unlimited, a domestic league that operates in the WNBA’s offseason, allowing them to build chemistry on and off the court.
Hillmon told The Next having offseason options other than going overseas has been a good change. “I just think, in general, more opportunities for women are awesome, and it’s going to continue to help our sport grow,” she said.
Hillmon’s rapport with Gray and All-Star wing Rhyne Howard has continued to develop throughout the 2023 season.
“I feel like they’re my sisters — we talk every day, all day; we can be honest with each other, you know, we have those arguments sometimes, but it’s always love; we want to make sure each of us gets better every day,” Hillmon said.
“Me, [Allisha], and Naz are always together, it’s like three peas in a pod,” Rhyne Howard told media on June 15 in Connecticut. “You can see our chemistry on and off the court.”
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Hillmon may not always be the first player off the bench, but in just her second season, Hillmon’s energy, reliability and contributions to the Dream’s cultural environment are already proving beneficial for one of the WNBA’s up-and-coming franchises.
As for what brings her the most joy on the court: “Just playing and seeing my teammates do well,” Hillmon said. “It’s been such a great experience being around people that you love every day. It makes “work” easy, sometimes I forget that I do this for a job because I love it so much.”
“One day when the ball stops bouncing, I don’t want to ever look back and say I didn’t take advantage of my opportunities,” Hillmon said.