Naz Hillmon

The Captain's Journal: Naz Hillmon

© Athletes Unlimited, LLC 2023 / Credit: MK Ridgway
Savanna Collins
Mar 09, 2023

A rookie with a veteran’s mind.

Ask anyone who has competed with Naz Hillmon at Athletes Unlimited and that is one of the many praises you’ll hear about her.

Hillmon rounds out her first year as a pro with Athletes Unlimited Basketball coming off of a record-setting rookie year with the Atlanta Dream. Throughout 2022 she showcased her apt rebounding and midway through the season earned a starting role.

Here, she’s Captain Hillmon: drafting teams with ease, scribbling practice plans in her blue notebook, and building attack plans for opponents.

Draft Day Eve

Usually, the Captain’s Journal begins on draft day but for Hillmon it really starts on “Draft Day Eve.”

Take last week for example. Hillmon had an inkling she might be captain after Week 1 and started to plan Saturday night just in case. It’s a good thing she did because she moved into the No. 4 spot on the leaderboard from Sunday’s game and had to draft her team that evening.

This week, she had more time to plan with her facilitator Seimone Augustus. Hillmon and the four-time WNBA Champion/three-time Olympic Gold Medalist have been paired for two consecutive weeks.

Augustus said with Hillmon’s leadership her job has been “quite easy over the last two weeks, but fun as well.”

“Coming into the draft, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, how she wanted to pick,” Augustus said.

Though you wouldn’t guess it from the speed Hillmon makes her picks, she says she gets nervous on Draft Day. It starts with a light breakfast. Then, more planning with Augustus. Together they holed up in a back room at the draft studio to talk about how to improve on the team Hillmon drafted last week and who could help her chase a 3-0 series.

“The biggest thing was we knew what we needed more of,” Hillmon said. “We needed more depth, we needed more people [that could play] different positions and put them into really good spots where they can shine.”

Building the blue squad

Hillmon has built her teams not only around her own skills that pushed her to the top of the leaderboard but also around her repeat No. 1 pick, Allisha Gray.

Gray and Hillmon will soon be Dream teammates in the upcoming WNBA season and are building a rapport that will carry into training camp. Hillmon’s intellect is the first thing that comes up when talking to Gray about playing together.

“It’s kind of hard to remember that she was just a rookie last W season ’cause she’s so wise beyond her years,” Gray said. Both rosters have been built around these two and Gray thinks she’s begun to understand what her captain is looking for.

“Naz wants players like her. She works hard, unselfish, wanna see you win, positive,” Gray said. “I think that that’s what’s in her mind when she’s drafting.”

Gray is definitely onto something because when asked what excited Hillmon about this week’s team, it’s many of those attributes.

She describes her blue team as one who can play on both sides of the ball and really get after it. The pride they take in defense, toughness, and effort are what stand out as their strengths after two days of practicing together.

This is the other side of, 'Okay, now that my basketball talents have already been displayed, now my mental side is really put out there.'

Seeing a different side

Hillmon says she eventually wants to coach and that this experience has been the opportunity to start to identify who she is in that role. Over the course of these two weeks, she’s started to discover her philosophy and style.

She’s found that she always puts the person before the player and she expects others to put in the same effort that she does.

“I think that’ll be the icing on the cake for a lot of players,” Hillmon said. “You wanna play for somebody who works hard for you.”

While Hillmon directs practice with confidence, she leaves space for collaboration. Point guard Natasha Cloud had ideas that they walked through. Guard Lexie Brown chimed in about defense when the team circled up.

Hillmon is surrounded by great basketball minds and holds her own with the best of them. It’s something she’s proud of and explained how the setting of being an AU captain put her in the position to make decisions and showcase her IQ to her team.

“Whereas I felt like sometimes in the ‘W’ you have so many veterans [and] they put out what’s supposed to be happening. They make sure that you know what’s going on,” Hillmon said. “And now in this setting, I feel like a little bit of the vet because I’m telling my team what I want, what I wanna see from them.”

You would think she's been in the league like 10 years playing for a very long time, but she hasn't. That's the beautiful thing ... Think about where she's gonna be in five years with that type of mindset and maturity.
Seimone Augustus

“Turn the page”

Team Hillmon’s first challenge of the week was the orange team, Team Smith.

The priority discussed at practice was on their bigs, which includes the dominant NaLyssa Smith, Theresa Plaisance and Crystal Bradford. Hillmon knew this trio would be their biggest adversary and planned to attack them in transition and lean upon the spot-up shooters she drafted.

They split the first and second quarters and Hillmon’s blue squad led 41-38 at the half. In the locker room, Hillmon wrote three points of focus

  1. Transition
  2. Pace
  3. Turnovers

The two teams were tightly matched. There were 14 ties and 14 lead changes in the game that came down to the final minute. Tied 86-all, Team Smith came out of a timeout and Clarendon drove to the basket to score with 2.0 seconds remaining. Team Smith secured an 88-86 victory. 

Hillmon stood at the front by the whiteboard as the team huddled postgame. She talked through how they might have had a different outcome. Not giving up defensive assignments, quarter wins. She took responsibility for moments she could have played differently, “I should have been there up top.”

“I have to figure out what works best for those who are on the team and put that in,” Hillmon said. “I feel like that’s what the first game is about, finding what worked, what didn’t work, using it or don’t.”

After the loss the team wasn’t down — they were determined.

Hillmon drafted what she describes as a “high energy” team on purpose. They’re important when you win but even more so when you lose.

“We’re good. We’re gonna bounce back. I mean, I love this team. Lot of great energy and they’re not gonna hang their heads down, so look out for us for game two.”

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