Saying that Michigan junior forward Naz Hillmon comes from a basketball family is an understatement. Her grandmother played at Cleveland State and her mother, at Vanderbilt, before embarking on a pro career. Hillmon’s uncle started on North Carolina’s 2005 championship team before a brief NBA career, and her aunt also played hoops.
A Cleveland, Ohio native, Hillmon finished her high school career with 2,057 points and 1,607 rebounds. During that time she also played for USA Basketball. After being cut from the U16 team on the last day, Hillmon turned her heartbreak around and was named to the U18 team two years later. She won a gold medal with the FIBA Americas Cup, and another the following year as part of the U19 team.
Hillmon came off the bench during her freshman year, and was the team-high scorer. She was named Big Ten freshman of the year, Big Ten sixth player of the year, and was named to the all-conference first team. She had eight double-doubles and eight 20-point games that season.
As a sophomore, Hillmon started and ranked in the Big Ten top five in both scoring and rebounding, averaging 17.4 points and 8.7 rebounds per game. This year she is on the preseason watch list for three awards.
Hillmon’s family is extremely supportive, and came to every game before the COVID-19 pandemic. A self-professed people person, Hillmon would like to coach basketball after her own professional career is over.
You grew up in a basketball family in a basketball state. Was there ever a chance you wouldn’t play basketball?
In seventh and eighth grade I ran track, but nothing too serious – just enough to get the legs moving. I think it was destined to go right into basketball for me.
Who put the ball in your hands, and how old were you?
Honestly, from a young age, my parents didn’t push it on me; I just wanted to be like the rest of them. So at a very young age, I’d say 5, I started playing around. My first organized games were in fourth grade.
How have you managed to avoid burnout over the years, since you started playing so young?
I think just being super competitive and wanting to be better every year is a big thing for me. I just wanted to see how much I could grow. That’s one of my biggest things every year is knowing I have things to work on. I also think it’s the community I create. In all aspects of basketball – in college, in high school, in AAU, I made families out of the teammates I’ve had, and with their families. Having a family outside of your circle means a lot to me. I’m a family person, and relationships are very important to me. So that, and carrying on my family legacy and competing against them, as well. Especially my mom. She’s had so many accolades in high school and college, and I’m just trying to catch up to her. So the combination of being competitive with myself, with my mom and that family aspect that I’ve found in basketball is why I haven’t had burnout from year to year.
Has having strong women as role models influence your outlook in sport, and life in general?
I definitely do think it played a strong role in that, because I didn’t have to have someone outside of the house be my hero. My mom and my grandma being my heroes – people I see work hard every day. Putting themselves to the side so I could pursue my dreams definitely played a huge role in me wanting to be successful and give back to them. My dad too, of course, but we’re talking about powerful women. I want to be able to give back to them when everything is all said and done. They’re a huge inspiration to why I want to be the person I am and why I strive for greatness on the off the court.
At what point did you know that basketball was for you?
It was love at first sight. Because honestly I wouldn’t say I was good until high school, and then looking back I wonder, was I really that good then? I don’t even know if I really loved basketball – maybe I loved going on trips and having my mom be there with me. That definitely gave me a shove in that direction. It was love at first sight but was it really about basketball or about the relationship I was building with my mom.
Resilience is one thing about you that stands out when reading about your past experiences. From being cut by USA Basketball at a 16-year-old to making the team two and three years later and winning gold medals. Where does that resilience and self-belief come from?
I think my parents have put a lot of confidence in me. When I talk about that story it gets a little emotional because the first time I went out I wasn’t invited I didn’t think I was good enough. And when I was cut I cried, and my dad was like, look at you: you didn’t even want to go because you didn’t think you were good enough, and now you’re crying because you didn’t make this team that you didn’t think you were good enough for.
Making it that far was a confidence boost for me. It was another thing I was trying to catch my mom in, and really believing, because it was just so close. Reflecting on that – not wanting to go because I thought I wasn’t good enough to crying because I didn’t make the team – those were two extremes.
I did have a bunch of people backing me and telling me, you were right there. At that point it was why not? I’ve seen what the layout was like and I know what’s expected of me. I’m very glad I went back.
Coach Barnes Arico had you come off the bench in your freshman year. What did you learn from that experience, and how did you grow?
I always credit (former Michigan center) Hallie Thome, who was here my freshman year, for being that leader for me. She was so helpful on the sidelines, a great role model to look at on and off the court. She was everything a freshman could ask for. Her taking me under her wing and being able to see her for the first five minutes (in the game) was invaluable. On the bench you see a lot of different things than you see when you’re in the game. Trying to be that spark…..just trying to jump in wherever I could another situation came in not knowing how many minutes I’d play or whether I’d start just helped me grow into myself. It gave me an opportunity to learn from someone else. That was a big part of why I wanted to come to Michigan is that I knew Hallie was here. I knew I wasn’t going to take her spot, but that I’d learn from a Big Ten caliber player like herself.
You seem to have a growth mindset. What parts of your game are you working on now?
I’m working on expanding my shooting range; I definitely have to have teams respect my high post shot. Also find ways to get my teammates shots. I’m on a lot of people’s scouting reports, so I’m going to be double- and triple-teamed, so how do I get out of that and find that man that’s open. I think we’re going to be a stronger team if we have scorers in all positions. Whether it’s me extending my range so that other people can work inside, or getting people the ball when defenses want to come and double down on me.
The Big Ten created an Anti-Racism, Anti-Hate Committee after the killing of George Floyd. You are part of the education subcommittee. Can you discuss what you’ve been working on through that committee, and what actions you’ve taken over the last six months to combat social injustice?
First, I was excited to be a part of the coalition and I love that the Big Ten was taking steps in the right direction to have a voice in something that some call so political, and that say should not be in the sports world. We were actually able to choose what subcommittee we wanted to be in. At that time education was really important to me because there were so many people saying ‘I don’t know,’ ‘I don’t understand.’ For so long we were told not to talk about social injustice with our friends.
Right now my subcommittee is working on partnering with high schools or middle schools in having some type of student athletes read about black history that isn’t at schools right now. We’re in the early stages of it right now. We’re working on having maybe PSA’s go out to educate people…just a few small things here and there, we’re still working it out in the first year. But some things that we can keep going in years to come. I definitely want to be on this committee next year when we can have more concrete direction. There’s a lot of talk, a lot of excitement in our committee. We’re just really trying to educate people on social injustice, Black history or minorities in general.
What have you learned about yourself through this experience? What still needs to be done?
I’ve realized how many people will listen. I know that earlier in my life I wasn’t one to speak out about these issues. I’m not even going to lie about it. I would talk to my parents about it, but not my teammates or people I don’t know. I’ve learned that people will listen, and because I have such a big platform right now I can get out the information that I want to, and finding a way to be a positive influence on and off the court. So I’ve learned that people will listen and that I should be speaking. That I have the right to be in this conversation, and that I should continue to educate myself and others during these times.
What has the COVID pandemic taught you this year?
I would say that COVID has – I don’t want this to be cliché – but it’s taught me patience. It taught me patience and sacrifice. There have been a lot of sacrifices made, whether that’s not going home for breaks, not seeing my family as often, or not going to see friends who haven’t been COVID-tested. For a long time we didn’t know when our first practice would be, when our first game would be. So during that time my mindset was, I don’t know when we’ll play, but I have to be patient, I have to stay in the gym and keep my mind ready for whenever that time is. I don’t want that to be in a negative light when I say sacrifice, but it’s doing those little things to make sure we’d have practice and have a season. And patience as far as being ready for when your number is called, and never getting too high or too low.
What has basketball taught you about life? What has life taught you about basketball?
I’d say basketball has taught me how to work with people from different backgrounds. You can come into our gym and see that everyone has a very different personality. But somehow, some way you get 14 girls to come together from different walks of life. Working with them has helped me to understand, OK, not everyone is going to think like me, look like me, act like me, but I have to learn how to interact with them. And it doesn’t have to be that we interact only because of basketball. We can get into something on a deeper level outside of our main focus from being here.
As far as what basketball has taught me about life, I‘d say being competitive puts you ahead, for sure. Believing in yourself and being competitive in what you do drives you harder in everything you do, including life. My competitive nature and confidence came from basketball, and it worked itself into life.
What do you want your legacy to be at Michigan, and in basketball?
I’m always hesitant to answer this because I truly do believe this…..of course I want to break Katelynn Flaherty’s points record and have the highest number of rebounds. But I really want to be remembered as a great teammate. I think playing a part in everyone’s life who’s been a teammate with me is important. I don’t want anyone in 20 years to think, I played on the team with Naz and she was really good, but I didn’t talk to her. Or, she wasn’t that nice. Being remembered in that light will always go further than just how I played.
I know you’re a people person and I saw you want to be a coach. What level do you want to coach at?
I want to go to the highest level possible and I think so many women have made a way for me to get to the NBA, if that’s possible. I would love to get there. I’d be so excited if there was a way I could come back and coach at Michigan. I’d love that, honestly.
What songs are on your playlist right now?
One song that’s on my playlist right now is a song called “U Move, I Move,” by John Legend. It’s very slow.
You don’t ever have to apologize about R&B to me – I’m an R&B head. Keep going.
It’s funny because I usually like the older music. I guess for hype music right now, like a pump up song, I’m listening to “Element” by Pop Smoke – that’s a good one. And then everything else is like oldies.
Like, how old is old?
Like Alicia Keys, like Mary J Blige.
Well I guess that’s not too old, but it’s not like, right now. I’m a 2000 baby.