Naz Hillmon prepares to shoot a free throw.

Naz Hillmon putting maturity and heart on display with AU Basketball

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: Jade Hewitt Media
W.G. Ramirez
Mar 16, 2023

Poise and maturity come with time for professional athletes.

For Naz Hillmon, who arrived in Dallas for the second season of Athletes Unlimited after her rookie season in the WNBA, there’s no time like the present.

“Her mindset and her maturity as such a young player and a young person and just seeing her as a captain, I just think that says a lot for someone who’s 22 years old,” two-time WNBA champion Jordin Canada said. “I’ve actually joked with her a few times about her not choosing me to be on her team.”

No surprise there, considering Hillmon came into Week 4 with a 6-3 record (3-3 as a captain), and has slowly reminded folks about the bright young star who hailed from Cleveland and starred at the University of Michigan.

“Her mentality at such a young age isn’t necessarily of her time,” veteran Theresa Plaisance said. “I feel like she’s very mature and she has a really great head on her shoulders. So being able to play with Naz and also see how she is in a basketball setting as a leader, I thought it was gonna be really interesting just to see how she ran stuff.”

Hillmon, whose team lost its Week 4 opener on Wednesday, has scored in double figures in seven straight games and eight of her first 10 this season. She’s averaging 16.3 points per game.

But there’s more to the mindset of the 2021 Big Ten Player of the Year who starred for the Atlanta Dream last summer.

Her compassion for others has become quite relevant, either as a captain at Athletes Unlimited, a friend to those she’s met while in Dallas, or the cause she’s playing this season, the Black Heart Association.

“I just think the whole environment here, it’s just been really great,” Hillmon said. “They’ve got a really good group of girls here, on the court and off the court. I love the competition. I love that we do some things outside of basketball. So I’ve had a really good experience so far.”


In 2021, Zaharius Hillmon collapsed during halftime of a basketball game. The then-senior from Shaw High School suffered cardiac arrest, and a contracted trainer with the team performed CPR. After being rushed to the hospital, doctors found Hillmon had a congenital heart defect that previous physicals didn’t reveal.

Naz Hillmon’s brother – who was in a coma for a short time and ended up having open heart surgery – has since recovered and is living a happy and healthy life in college, playing basketball in recreation leagues.

“He lives his life as he did prior to without the organized basketball piece,” Hillmon said.

Nevertheless, the overall concern for her brother led Hillmon to delve deeper into educating herself about heart disease.

Per a 2018 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the leading cause of death in Black men and women.

When Hillmon arrived in Dallas for AU, she was late in submitting the organization she would be playing for and had to choose from a list provided.

“I was super happy and grateful that the Black Heart Association was up there,” Hillmon said. “Going with Black Heart Association was definitely important to me … I think just having that education piece is so important for everybody, and I think especially in the black communities, making sure you’re getting your consistent checkups or you’re going to get CPR-certified or anything in between that could help your case or someone close to you or around you.”

Hillmon said she is hoping others will learn the importance of heart health, especially for Black women, when she feels the No. 1 thing we hear about is breast cancer research.

“I’m sure there are plenty of other organizations, in terms of health, that need to be looked at and talked about,” Hillmon said. “But I felt like we stick to either when it’s a celebrity or an athlete, or that most prominent thing that everybody wants to talk about …. Everybody has breast cancer awareness month. Football has got it in October, and basketball has got it in February for Kay Yow. But there are a lot of people out there that need to have more recognition. We need to talk about it more, there need to be more classes.

“At this point, like to even play this sport, once you get to the college level, there needs to be CPR-certified, CPR training. There are a lot of things that need to go into it, the first thing is having that awareness.”


Hillmon was still a senior in Ann Arbor when the inaugural Athletes Unlimited season tipped off in Las Vegas, but she was tuned in. Hillmon said she was streaming games, and once she figured out the rules and points structure, she was dialed in. She also felt she could benefit from the league if ever given the opportunity to join forces.

Thus, after her agent reached out, and a call from Player Executive Committee member Ty Young followed, she was all in.

“Especially since I didn’t go overseas this year, and I feel like I hadn’t played in forever,” Hillmon said. “I didn’t want to just walk right into the W season (this year), hadn’t played basketball since the last time, so I really wanted to get back into it. I feel like I had the itch to get back on the court, it’d been so long. That’s probably the longest time I hadn’t played organized basketball since I started playing. But also just watching it last year.”

Since her arrival, Hillmon has been working on her mental game as much as the product she puts on the floor.

At Michigan, she went from getting the ball every single time down the floor, with a majority of the plays surrounding her. Then she got to the W, where she didn’t play much the first half of the season, averaging 13.4 minutes per game. At AU, she wanted to strengthen her mental game, which in turn would help her resurrect the confidence she played with while dominating Big Ten competition.

Hillmon said she’s benefitted from not only the coaches and facilitators on hand, but also from being a captain.

“It’s just more so the feedback … on ways to get better while I’m here, on and off the court,” she said. “We have some really bright minds here in our facilitators. But I think also getting some feedback from the other players. There are quite a few vets here that you can learn a ton from, and I feel like I’ve benefited from them.”

And with a resurgence in her game, she’s felt her confidence return when she’s on the court.

Throw it in a metaphoric blender, and you have the poise and maturity of a seasoned veteran trapped inside a 22-year-old rising star who has earned the respect of her peers as captain, as a player, and as a person.


W.G. Ramirez is a 35-year veteran sports reporter in Southern Nevada, serving as a correspondent for Athletes Unlimited. Follow him on Twitter at @WillieGRamirez

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