ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico learned something a few years ago when Naz Hillmon was trying out for USA Basketball and needed to miss her high school graduation.
“Her school had their own private graduation for Naz. I was like, who does that?” Barnes Arico said. “I said, ‘This kid must be really special.’ And they told me at that time, ‘You have no idea.”‘
Now a junior at Michigan, Hillmon has helped the Wolverines reach some new heights this season. The 6-foot-2 forward is averaging 25.1 points per game and earned Big Ten player of the year honors earlier this week. Her 50-point performance in a January loss to Ohio State brought even more attention.
She said that took a little while to sink in.
“The end of that week is where I really felt kind of the emotions of what I just accomplished, and not really realizing it during the game, or after the game or even two days after,” Hillmon said. “There was a ton of attention – and just trying to make sure … that it didn’t slow down my progression.”
Hillmon’s individual exploits have been part of a memorable season for Michigan. Prior to that loss to Ohio State, the Wolverines were 10-0 for the first time in school history. They also reached No. 11 in the AP poll, setting a program high.
They’re currently at No. 13 heading into their first Big Ten Tournament game Thursday against Northwestern.
Hillmon has been a first-team All-Big Ten selection all three of her seasons at Michigan, but she’s taken another step in 2020-21. She’s shooting 65% from the field and has improved to 76% on free throws. She also leads the Big Ten in rebounding.
By now, the league knows what Hillmon is capable of, but she’s still scored at least 19 points – and made at least half her shots – in each of her past eight games.
“It’s definitely been tough being at the top of scouting reports, and people leaving two or three people around me,” Hillmon said. “But my teammates have done a really good job of getting me the ball when I am open and when I am single covered.”
Earlier in Barnes Arico’s tenure at Michigan, she coached Katelynn Flaherty, a sharp-shooting guard who is the school’s career scoring leader. Hillmon makes her impact in a different way; she hasn’t attempted a 3-pointer all season, for example.
“She can affect the game in so many ways. I think she is so thankful that she has teammates that do get her the ball and realize that her shooting percentage is off the charts – we have to get her touches,” Barnes Arico said. “But her ability to rebound the basketball, her ability to play on the front of the press on the defensive end, I just think is just immeasurable. That’s why I think arguably she’s the best player in the country.”
When Barnes Arico talks about Hillmon, her admiration extends beyond the court. And she says Michigan’s players feel the same way.
“We kid around the office: Naz for president,” Barnes Arico said. “Some of her best friends on our team are people that don’t play. Usually when people don’t play, they get frustrated, they get down, or they gravitate to other people that are in similar situations to themselves, where people that are the superstar tend to gravitate to people that are similar to them.
“Naz’s best friends run the gamut, and she is close with everyone.”
For Hillmon, humility seems to come easily.
“I don’t play an individual sport, so it’s not just me. It’s my coaches, my teammates,” Hillmon said. “I just know how important the team is to a team sport, and to Michigan women’s basketball. And I just truly believe that I couldn’t do it without all those people surrounding me.”