Making the Most of a WNBA Offseason
Naz Hillmon shares how a unique combination of opportunities worked for her
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WNBA rookies are given less than a month when transitioning from college to the professional level, with only two weeks between the NCAA Tournament and the WNBA draft, and, after that, not much longer to move and figure out a new city, a new team, and a new style of play. The process goes by in a blur, and players barely have time to focus on what’s in front of them, let alone plan ahead. As a result, the offseason that follows may be the first time they have a chance to take a breath, reassess their strengths and weaknesses, and strategize how to continue to improve. Many players choose to work on their game and supplement their income by playing overseas, but increasingly others are finding opportunities in the United States just as appealing. One prime example is former University of Michigan standout Naz Hillmon. After playing for the Atlanta Dream last summer, Hillmon decided to spend her first offseason working as an analyst for the Big Ten Network (BTN) and playing in the US-based Athletes Unlimited (AU) professional league. We take a look at some of the benefits Hillmon gained from these experiences and discuss how they might impact her play in the upcoming WNBA season.
Enhanced skills, strength, and conditioning
Hillmon was a legend at Michigan, finishing her career as the school’s all-time leader in rebounds (1,063), double-doubles (52), and free throws (487). She’s also the only player in Michigan history (male or female) to reach 2,000 career points and 1,000 career rebounds. But in the WNBA, the 6-foot-2 forward was an undersized post, who needed to continue to get stronger and develop her mid-range and perimeter game. One of the many upsides of working for BTN was that it provided Hillmon with enough time and flexibility to still hone her skills and build her strength. Armed with a training schedule and workout plans from the Atlanta Dream, Hillmon was met with open arms from friends, as well as the Big Ten schools she covered, to use their gyms and workout facilities as she traveled across the conference. Although at times the travel schedule was draining, Hillmon felt supported by everyone she worked with and was able to figure out a good work-training balance.
“Everybody I was working with was really helpful in terms of what I wanted to do,” Hillmon said. “We found a good schedule of, ‘okay, what are the days that you're gone? What are the days that you're here? And then we're going to get in as much as we can.’”
By the time AU started, Hillmon was not only excited to put her improved skills and strength to the test, but she was also ready to step up her conditioning. Hillmon also benefited from working with the facilitators provided by AU. These veteran players—including Seimone Augustus and Pokey Chatman—trainers, and coaches are greats in the sport, who help with player development and advise on team strategy. After being around that kind of expertise and playing three games a week, Hillmon is certain she’ll be in game-playing shape by the time her WNBA training camp starts.
A fresh perspective
Basketball players are used to reviewing film with their teams and coaches to see where they can improve their play or how best to take on an opponent. However, analyzing games live on air, with thousands of people watching, hastens the pace at which that skill is sharpened. Although Hillmon came into her position at BTN with an already-high basketball IQ, she hoped working as an analyst would take it to another level, allowing her to recognize different coverages more quickly, pick up on player tendencies, see where the openings are, and discern why a possession is successful or not.
“I saw broadcasting as being a pretty good opportunity to see the ball and see the game from a different view,” Hillmon said. “One that I can't control anything that's going on, but I could see reads, I could see defenses, I could see offenses.”
The analyst role not only exceeded that expectation, but also provided a few unpredictable rewards. Watching the teams’ shootarounds offered Hillmon the opportunity to observe various coaching styles up close and glean the reasoning behind why teams do some of the things they do. She was also privy to a diversity of team dynamics, which underscored the importance of how teams interact with each other and then how that affects their success. Since Hillmon plans to get into coaching after her playing days are over, this was extremely beneficial.
“Just talking to the players after shootarounds and seeing how much they just enjoyed each other, and how much they enjoyed their coach,” Hillmon said. “Then seeing how much that cohesion and that chemistry makes a difference on the court was huge.”
New and stronger relationships
The connections Hillmon developed over the offseason have been another unexpected bonus. Working with BTN, Hillmon was able to interact with a myriad of coaches—both head coaches and their assistants—and was appreciative of their advice, openness, and willingness to support her.
“Everybody was like, if you ever need anything, let me know,” Hillmon said. “I think that's so important and so special in the basketball world that so many people are willing to help you, regardless of where you're at, what you're doing, or what school you went to.”
Hillmon continued to foster relationships after she started playing for AU. The league uses a weekly draft to reassemble teams, providing players with the opportunity to be grouped with different teammates and time to understand each other’s playing philosophies and game-day mindsets. AU also hosts events where players get to know each other off the court. One particular event, “Cause Night,” especially resonated with Hillmon. As part of being in the AU league, players select a cause or organization to play for that receives funding equal to 100 percent of the athlete’s season win bonus. Cause Night is an event where players speak about the causes they chose and why, and it’s a wonderful opportunity for everyone to get to know each other on a much more personal level.
“It's been really special to really dive deep into the players’ causes and learn more about what people care about outside of basketball,” Hillmon said.
Hillmon’s roles with the BTN and AU allowed her to polish her skills, fine-tune how she saw the game, and cultivate relationships, but the biggest impact from Hillmon’s offseason may be the growth in her confidence. When Hillmon joined the Atlanta Dream last season, she was unfamiliar with its staff, setup, and system. She went in with a positive mindset, tried to be a good teammate, and did the things she’s been doing her whole life that have brought her success. But being so new, her confidence wasn’t as high as it could be.
During the offseason, Hillmon got in a lot of reps and viewed the game through a more experienced lens. For the upcoming WNBA season, she’ll also have the advantage of being familiar with the Dream’s offense, which she has been tailoring her workouts to and mastering the different scoring options that are successful within that system. Because of this, Hillmon believes fans will notice her taking more mid-range and outside shots when they watch her this season.
“Last year, I feel like I was very hesitant to take those outside shots, or I was passing them up,” Hillmon said. “I think you'll see that little to none this year.”
If Hillmon’s performances in AU are any indication how she’ll play during the summer, there’s no doubt she’ll be contributing in a much bigger way this WNBA season. Through the first three and a half weeks in the AU season, Hillmon ranks fifth on the leaderboard, averaging 16.3 points—shooting 50% from the field—and 9.6 rebounds per game. Last week, she set a new single-game record, accumulating 834 leaderboard points, with 33 points (on 15 for 19 shooting), 12 boards, and 3 assists.
With a long basketball career in front of her—even after her playing days are over—this offseason is undoubtedly going to benefit Hillmon no matter where she ends up. And she agrees.
“I like my route this year,” Hillmon said. “I think that it was what was best for me, especially coming right from college to the WNBA, giving my body a little bit of rest and then getting back into the swing of things. I thoroughly enjoyed my time with the Big Ten Network, and Athletes Unlimited has been awesome as well.”
Thanks for reading the Her Hoop Stats Newsletter. If you like our work, be sure to check out our stats site, our podcast, and our social media accounts on Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram.