Naz Hillmon and the importance of the sixth player

Thursday, October 17, 2019 - 6:57pm

Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon led the Michigan women's basketball team in scoring and rebounds last year despite coming off the bench

Sophomore forward Naz Hillmon led the Michigan women's basketball team in scoring and rebounds last year despite coming off the bench Buy this photo
Keemya Esmael/Daily

Naz Hillmon’s freshman season was nothing short of impressive. The now-sophomore forward averaged 13.1 points and seven rebounds per game and shot 62.8 percent from the floor, all of which led the Michigan women’s basketball team. At Wednesday’s media day, Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico went so far as to say that Hillmon was the Wolverines’ MVP last season, on a team with the second all-time leading scorer in program history. What made her season even more impressive was that she did it while coming off the bench.

It’s very rare for a team to have its leading scorer be its sixth player, and Michigan’s leading scorer this season likely will not come off the bench. The Wolverines lost three starters from last season, and Hillmon presumably will enter the starting lineup as a result. But her contributions last year showed Michigan the importance of having a sixth player who can come into the game and play at the same caliber as the starters.

“I think that’s the difference in (a) team,” Barnes Arico said. “Who’s going to come in (the game) and you’re not going to take a step back, but you almost could take a step ahead? And that’s what we were able to do last year.”

The Wolverines know that they aren’t necessarily going to find a scorer of Hillmon's caliber to fill that role, but there are certain qualities that they are looking for in bench contributors that could help the team. Barnes Arico, Hillmon and senior forward Kayla Robbins, who has come off the bench in her first three years on the team, all emphasized that the most important thing that a player coming off the bench must provide is energywhether it be through scoring, playing lockdown defense, or another way in which they can make a difference in the game.

“There’s a factor of if your starting five are struggling that sixth person needs to be a spark,” Hillmon said, “I feel like the sixth person could be a different type of energy that you get, a different style of play.” 

Added Barnes Arico: “I think that player has to have that type of attitude, like a Nicole Munger or like a Naz Hillmon, where they’re fearless, and where they’re going to establish themselves with their energy and their intensity when they come in the game.”

As to who is going to be the first player off the bench for Michigan this season, that is still up in the air. The Wolverines have a fair amount of roster turnover. Many of the candidates played limited minutes last season or are entering their first season with the team. 

Barnes Arico identified freshman guard Michelle Sidor, a 3,000-point scorer in high school, sophomore guard Danielle Rauch and junior guard Priscilla Smeenge as players who could bring intensity of the bench. She also noted freshman center Izabel Varejao as someone who could potentially earn minutes as the sixth player.

“There’s a lot of what-ifs right now just because I think that our team is very competitive right now,” Hillmon said. “Everything is very open field because those two seniors did leave.”

Of course, there is still the possibility that Hillmon returns to the role herself. While the Wolverines may need her to fill a spot in the starting lineup, both Hillmon and Barnes Arico are not ruling out a return to the bench. And Barnes Arico has every reason to believe that Hillmon would have success in either spot.

“We always talk about it and Naz always talks about, Coach, it’s not about starting but it’s about finishing the game and the impact that I can leave on the game, and what kind of kid says that? Holy cow,” Barnes Arico said. “That kind of speaks volumes to how special she is.”

No matter who earns the sixth player role, she will have the chance to have a huge impact on how far Michigan goes this season, just as Hillmon did last year.