In her past three seasons, junior forward Naz Hillmon has instilled fear into the hearts of opposing defenses, launching herself to the upper echelon of the nation’s players.
In her last outing, an emotional 81-77 loss to Ohio State, Hillmon scored 50 points, which set the record (both men’s and women’s) for points scored by a single Michigan player in a game.
Hillmon’s talent is undeniable. She’s undoubtedly their best player, but she’s not the player that moves the needle most for the Wolverines. She’s not junior wing Leigha Brown.
Not to discount Hillmon’s achievement, but the Michigan scoring record was not broken in a game Michigan won. The Wolverines were on a hot streak going into their last game with an unblemished 10-0 record (5-0 Big Ten), and despite Hillmon’s performance, the team could not leave Columbus victorious.
When only three other players are able to score points, Hillmon’s performance rings slightly hollow. Michigan could not muster any offense that didn’t involve Hillmon, and therein lies the crux of the Wolverine’s downfall to the Buckeyes: the absence of Brown.
Brown came in as a transfer from Nebraska, where she led the team in points (14.4 points per game), but her offensive explosion at Michigan has been nonetheless surprising. She’s proven to be an elite player on both ends of the court, and equally vital to the success of the Wolverines as Hillmon. Their roles are different, with Hillmon representing the strong post player that must consistently be double-teamed by opponents and Brown representing the ever-moving threat that won’t hesitate to take an unlikely shot or make a cutting pass.
Brown is not just another driver of the offense, she’s the chassis that keeps the car together. Her role is more than that of a facilitator like fifth-year senior guard Akienreh Johnson. Brown raises the level of play for the entire team by generating space, creating looks and being a scoring threat from anywhere on the court.
As an individual, Brown is the second top scorer of the team, behind only Hillmon, averaging 19.7 points per game, and averages the second-most assists (3.6) behind junior guard Amy Dilk. Combined as a scorer and passer, the Wolverines do not have a player that compares. Fellow offensive facilitators Dilk and Johnson are able scorers in their own rights, but they cannot emulate the same shooting presence that Brown has.
Since the team’s win over Northwestern, Brown has missed four games (vs. Nebraska, Illinois and at Wisconsin, Ohio State) due to COVID-19 protocols, and in those four games Michigan has averaged 70 points per game and has maintained a +11.8 point scoring margin. In the seven games that Brown participated in, the Wolverines were averaging 87.9 points per game with a +26.7 point scoring margin. Coach Kim Barnes Arico clearly hasn’t found a suitable replacement for Brown’s talents, either in an individual or as a team.
The impact that Brown has on the court can certainly be measured quantitatively, but it’s also her intangibles, the non-box score qualities, that make her a key part of Michigan’s success thus far.
Brown is a threat from anywhere on the floor. Opposing teams know this and understand that they have to cover her, thus allowing Brown to spread the floor much more than her teammates, releasing the threat of Hillmon on the inside. Her offensive prowess doesn’t inherently cause Brown’s teammates to shoot better, but it creates more open looks and space for them to perform in.
Barnes Arico noted this ability after the team’s win over Illinois, where they made 43.1% of their field goals and shot 25% from behind the arc (the season’s average so far is 48% field goal shooting and 34.5% from behind the arc).
When asked about their below-average shooting performance, Barnes Arico answered: “Leigha Brown alleviated a lot of that pressure and gave other people open looks because they were so focused on her. So now we just have to get accustomed to (Brown’s absence) and make some extra passes.”
Hillmon’s scoring ability cannot be denied, but when it comes to choosing the most diverse threat that the Wolverines have, Brown checks all the boxes. She’s a lethal shooter, leading the team in percentage behind the arc, has an ability to stretch the floor like nobody else on the team can and can cut to the basket for layups. She also possesses the defensive abilities to match her offensive ones. Brown elevates her teammates to another level, and the combination of her skills with Hillmon’s raw talent is a lethal combination.
Michigan has a talented roster, but when it comes to the impact of each player on said roster, Leigha Brown becomes irreplaceable.
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