Naz Hillmon thought this summer felt short. She might be the only person in America to think so.
But for the junior forward, she wasn’t thinking about everyone’s long summer, she was only thinking about the lack of time she spent with her teammates playing basketball. That time, in her opinion that is echoed by the rest of the team, was — for good and obvious reasons — too short.
After their first full week of official practice, the Wolverines have put those weird circumstances behind them and are looking forward to just playing basketball with each other again, even if they have to do so wearing masks.
“We’re really just trying to dive right into it,” Hillmon said. “Be smart, of course … but we’re full go right now. Just try to not let anything be a strain on us or let us let ourselves fall behind because of circumstances.”
The beginning of a season is key for establishing team chemistry and making sure new and returning players gel on and off the court. With four freshmen and a transfer, there are plenty of fresh faces looking to make an impact. While the newcomers got off to a later, slower start due to the nature of the offseason, they have quickly embraced the culture.
“Our team chemistry is great right now,” Hillmon said. “I think everybody’s transitioning very well. Not only considering the circumstances, just in general, as far as on and off the court.”
In addition to the four freshmen, junior guard and forward Leigha Brown transferred from Nebraska. After leading the Cornhuskers in scoring last year, she looks to make an impact for Michigan when she becomes eligible, most likely not until the 2021-2022 season.
She already has two years of experience in the Big Ten. Brown will now be a member of the team that eliminated her former team from the Big Ten tournament last season. This familiarity presents a unique opportunity in itself, one that her new teammates have embraced with excitement.
“Sometimes when we just chat we bring up some of those old games,” Hillmon said. “We kind of talk about what we thought of each other before. We all thought very highly of her basketball skills. We’re all kind of saying we’re happy we don’t have to guard her anymore. So that’s a running joke that we have. But it’s very interesting to see how different of a perspective you have from knowing somebody as a competitor to as a teammate.”
With the team coming together off the court, so far in practice, the biggest on-court emphasis has been defense.
Last season, Michigan allowed opponents to score 63.4 points per game, ranking fifth in the Big Ten but nearly seven points per game behind the top defensive team in the conference. If the Wolverines want to win a Big Ten championship and advance past the second round of the NCAA Tournament for the first time in school history, their defense will have to step up.
“We’ve just been really focusing and harping on defense,” Hillmon said. “Just not allowing anybody to be the weak link on the floor.”
Individually, Hillmon is working on becoming more of a multifaceted scorer by focusing on her mid-range shooting. The forward is already a prolific scorer and presence in the paint, as she uses her size and strength to power her way to the basket. In order to become an even better player, Hillmon needs to be able to stretch the court and score in different areas of the court. She has only attempted one 3-pointer in her two years at Michigan, missing it. Last season, she shot 56.7 percent from the field, almost all in the paint.
“I’ve been really trying to expand my game,” Hillmon said. “Just being able to knock down those open mid-range shots and beyond as the season goes on. So that I can pull myself away from the basket and potentially open up my teammates for some things.”
The offense will be all the more dangerous if she can diversify her offense and become a threat on the outside.
Regardless of the work they put in at practice, the season still remains somewhat of a mystery. The team is optimistic that the season will begin soon enough, but they are given little concrete information beyond that.
It was recently announced that the season’s tentative start date is Nov. 25. And this is what the team is hanging on to. Good and bad, the uncertainty has put things into perspective for the team.
“Just knowing how easily this can be taken away from us, you just have to always be on your toes,” Hillmon said. “I just kind of motivated myself by saying ‘there’s going to be basketball for me again. I don’t know when it will be, but they’ll be some basketball for me at some point. And when that time comes, I need to be prepared.’”
“I will prepare as if my next game will be tomorrow or next week or in the coming months. I never lose focus on what my goals are.”
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