CLEVELAND — The 26th season of the WNBA is underway and two local rookies are looking to shake up their rosters.
Naz Hillmon is in her first season with the Atlanta Dream, a team with lots of new players and coaches looking for that groundbreaking rebuild.
Kiersten Bell has made the roster of 12 with the Las Vegas Aces, who with new head coach Becky Hammon and a handful of seasoned vets, have a chance to win it all.
Hillmon took a break from finishing up her senior year classes while at training camp to talk to us about what it means to make the cut for her first WNBA season.
"Just being in the WNBA is so surreal for me, just because I've been working so hard for forever and to finally you know, get the opportunity to say I'm in the WNBA. Obviously only 144 women compete in this league" Hillmon said.
Hillmon was picked 15th overall by the Dream, making her the highest selected draft pick from Michigan ever.
While living in Ann Arbor for the past four years and settling into Atlanta, she still considers Northeast Ohio home.
She graduated from Gilmour Academy, where she helped bring home a state title, was 2-time AP Division II player of the year, made All-State First Team her senior year and was a two-time finalist for Ohio Ms. Basketball.
These accolades carried on into her career at Michigan where she was a 4-time Big Ten first-teamer, won Big 10 Player of the Year in 2021 and was the first player in Michigan Women's Basketball history to earn All-American honors.
That, on top of taking home Female Collegiate Athlete of the Year in 2020 at the Greater Cleveland Sports awards, gives Northeast Ohioans just a few reasons to keep an eye on her rookie WNBA season.
The Atlanta Dream went 8-24 in 2021 and are looking to rebuild with Hillmon and number one overall draft pick (and personal friend to Hillmon) Rhyne Howard from University of Kentucky.
"I'm excited to be part of a rebuild because I felt I was a part of that in Michigan and just having some of the vets we had they have a lot of knowledge about what will help us and what won't help us," Hillmon said.
She feels being part of a rebuild is special, and gives them a chance to set their own goals and surprise the league with how they play this season.
"That rebuild, I feel like it just gives you a new type of energy, you have new people, new surroundings, everything's new, but you want to pick up on that and make the best energy out of that and that's exactly what we're doing," Hillmon said. "It's a lot of fun, the only expectations are the ones you put on yourself, so when you exceed those expectations, it just makes everything better, obviously, you're not just trying to get where everyone else is, you're trying to get to where you see yourself and where your teammates see each other."
Hillmon has no doubts that the Dream will soon be the team people expect to win and says that has a lot to do with all the women who made this year's training camp and roster.
For now, she's thankful for her draft day experience and ready for her rookie season that kicks off right now.
"Having to sit there whether I was a first round, second round or third round, just having to sit there no matter where I was picked up was a lot of nerves and a lot of anxiety at that point because I was just like 'Okay, I don't know where I'm going still, I don't know where I'm going still'" Hillmon said. "Finally when it got to me I was just so super thankful to Atlanta for taking that chance on me."
Hillmon couldn't finish the interview without a shoutout to Gilmour Academy's Ladies basketball team, the place where her dream started and was nurtured by teammates and coaches.
"I always try to give as much credit to my teammates and my coaches because they did put me in a position at the high school level to get me to college, to get me to one of the best universities in the world, on and off the court," she said.
The Atlanta Dream's season begins Saturday against the Dallas Wings on CBS Sports Network.