Last May, while her classmates at Gilmour Academy in Cleveland were officially receiving their diplomas in front of their teachers, friends and families, Naz Hillmon was playing basketball.
She was 1,402 miles away in Colorado Springs, Colo. in the midst of trying out for the USA Under-18 Women’s National team. Just two years prior, Hillmon had been cut from the U-16 team. Having made a considerable impression, USA Basketball invited her back for another go-around.
Despite a stressful final day of cuts, Hillmon secured her spot on a team loaded with Division-1 talent.
“Honestly I thought I was going to make it the first time more than I did the second time,” Hillmon said. “It was very nerve-racking just because there is talent there that you’ve maybe seen in AAU (Amateur Athletic Union) and high school but for all of them to be at one space was different. You don’t see that often, and I hadn’t been to college yet.”
In August, she and her teammates traveled to Mexico City to participate in the FIBA U-18 Women’s Americas Championship. There, they visited the ancient Teotihuacan Pyramids and sampled Mexican street food.
“We were able to travel a little bit,” Hillmon said. “That was my first time out of the country, so being able to experience that culture and eat some of the foods was cool. There was this restaurant and some of my teammates were eating crickets. I remember that. It freaked me out.”
On top of their off-court adventures, Hillmon and her teammates won the gold medal — the program’s ninth in a row.
Even after starting only one of the team’s six games, Hillmon averaged 10.3 points and just under six rebounds during the tournament. Her role off the bench was a new experience, but one she fully embraced in preparation for life at the next level and her role as the Wolverines’ sixth-woman.
“It’s one of those things where you have to be ready no matter what,” Hillmon said. “Even in AAU, I rarely came off the bench so I had to know that when I came in, I couldn’t make the same mistakes as the group of girls already there. And I knew in that period I had to do something. I had to cheer on my team and mentally prepare myself to get in the game.”
In her first season with the Michigan women’s basketball program, Hillmon has flourished. The freshman forward leads the team in both scoring and rebounding. During the Wolverines’ current four-game win streak, Hillmon is averaging 16 points and 8.5 rebounds in just 23 minutes.
Hillmon isn’t the only Michigan contributor with ties to international basketball, though. In fact, starting sophomore forward Hailey Brown has four years on Hillmon in terms of national team experience.
A native of Hamilton, Ontario, Brown has played in 41 games as a member of the Canadian national team since 2013.
Like Hillmon, Brown’s most recent involvement with the national team came the summer before her freshman year at Michigan. Brown helped Canada win a bronze medal at the 2017 U-19 World Cup in Udine, Italy, averaging 10 points and nine rebounds in 26 minutes per game.
“That’s something I’ll remember because that’s the highest we’ve ever placed in the world championships,” Brown said. “That was definitely an amazing experience and I had the opportunity for my family to go up there with me as well, so I got to share it with my teammates, coaches and my family. That was a great memory.”
For both Hillmon and Brown, putting on their respective country’s jersey goes far beyond the medals and on-the-court accolades, though.
“You always talk about playing for the front of the jersey, not the back. And that’s the ultimate front of the jersey,” Hillmon said. “You’re not representing yourself at that point. You’re representing your nation. Not everybody gets that opportunity and you understand that.”
Brown added: “You’re representing your family, your community, your school, your teammates, coaches. As a program, we always talk about the national team players who paved the way for us to get there, so that’s something we respect when we put on the Canadian jersey.”
Aided by their prior international experience, Hillmon and Brown transitioned quickly to the college game. Hillmon has factored in significantly this season, while Brown started 27 games last season before going down with a season-ending injury. Going up against elite talent from all over the world and getting a chance to experience the unique styles of the international game went a long way in preparing them for their times as Wolverines.
“Both of these young ladies were extremely, extremely nervous because they missed summer school coming in,” said Michigan coach Kim Barnes Arico. “They thought our freshmen were going to be way more advanced than they were because they were here all summer. But the opportunities they had really put themselves ahead of even our freshmen who are allowed to be here over the summer.”
And Barnes Arico is no stranger to the international game herself. She spent two years with USA Basketball as an assistant under head coach and three-time Olympian Dawn Staley with the under-18 and under-19 teams in 2014 and 2015. Having coached women of Hillmon and Brown’s age at the international level, Barnes Arico knows just how beneficial that experience is to their development.
“I was with young kids all summer before they went into their freshman years of college,” Barnes Arico said. “Without a doubt, that experience, whether that was practicing against that level of talent every day or then playing internationally, that level prepared them for their first years of college.
“They didn’t come in as normal college freshmen.”