Naz Hillmon’s role encapsulates Dream’s approach ahead of rebuilding season

The cohesion and intricate crafting of the Dream’s roster took place three weeks before Saturday’s season opener inside of a hotel ballroom. It didn’t occur with No. 1 pick Rhyne Howard, a foregone conclusion, and a piece that the organization saw as a foundational talent.

The real excitement of draft night came about a half-hour later when the Dream picked Michigan’s Naz Hillmon. The 6-foot-2 post presence who carries the frame of a wing was selected with the No. 15 selection in the draft, and co-owner Renee Montgomery buzzed with excitement as she called Hillmon the “steal of the draft.”

Weeks later, the praise of Hillmon has become an organizational tagline. Those within the Dream aren’t afraid to sing the rookie’s praises. The selection of Hillmon has paid off as the team prepares to open the season Saturday against Dallas (8 p.m., CBS Sports Network). She made the opening roster, the Dream announced in a Thursday afternoon release.

“This became a great landing spot for me, and a lot of it is because they’re rebuilding,” Hillmon said during a Thursday interview. “Everything is new to everyone, and not just to me. As a rookie, it might be hard to pick up things that teams have been doing for multiple years. Everybody is learning here, and I don’t feel like I am a couple of steps behind.”

At a time when teams cut a number of talented players, including first-round selections, the Dream stood true to their draft strategy and overall rebuilding plan of meshing a new-look roster of younger talent with veteran presences. Hillmon might not have received a nod on many other rosters, but the Dream had the wiggle room that allowed for patience with a player that the team had high on its draft talent. The team viewed Hillmon as a first-round talent.

The Dream made their final move before releasing the roster by waiving former Georgia guard Maya Caldwell. General manager Dan Padover had a tough time cutting Caldwell, because real potential existed for her to make the team. Padover expects Caldwell to get another WNBA opportunity, but the Dream currently have 11 players on the roster and plan to add another post player over the weekend. Caldwell wasn’t a positional fit, but the move allowed the Dream to finalize their squad, which includes Hillmon.

“We knew, no matter what, that our second-round pick would have an opportunity to make this team,” Padover told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “We didn’t know that it would be someone who we really like and could help us for a long time. We were fortunate that Naz hit both of those (qualities).

“We are OK with the fact that she may need to change some things from college in order to be successful in the pros. We’re going to be patient when some other teams might not be.”

Hillmon’s role exhibits the plan for the Dream during the 2022 season. The Dream have won 23 games combined over three seasons, and are not afraid to say another rebuilding year is on the way. This season, though, holds a lot more optimism than those of the past. There’s a new culture, a breath of fresh air, within the group. They’re confident in the leadership of new coach Tanisha Wright, along with veteran additions Kia Vaughn and Erica Wheeler, to help mold the likes of Howard, Hillmon and second-year point guard Aari McDonald.

“It all goes back to the players,” Padover said. “We did all we could to put people in the right place, get the types of players we want, and kudos to them for buying in and working as hard as we can everyday. It’s going to be really fun for them to do what they’ve shown us the past three weeks in regular season games.”

The Dream will feature an up-and-down style of play. Wright said, to begin the season, there won’t be a lot of offensive sets. It will allow for players to have freedom in the offensive flow of the game. That’s a quality that excites a lot of players, but it also will come with some growing pains.

A lot of progress has made a good appearance in training camp, but the games present an entirely new challenge for a Dream group that is entering most of its tests with a clean slate. There will be plenty of resolve needed for the team, because results can slip quickly as shown by last season’s long losing skid, and veteran star Tiffany Hayes has yet to return from her overseas responsibilities.

“We’re expecting the young ones to grow up overnight, kind of,” Vaughn said. “We’re very lucky to have young ones who are receptive, listening and we’re going to learn and grow as the season goes on. We’re telling them as things go on in training camp, but we know we’ll have to adjust during games.”

Saturday’s opener marks a new beginning, a ceremonious one, of sorts. The Dream have had milestones of a draft and training camp to celebrate plenty of offseason strides to destroy the old organizational culture and start anew.

All of it truly starts, though, when the opening tip is corralled Saturday night. Every decision within that hotel ballroom three weeks ago can come to life.

“We can’t predict how we’re going to react (to situations), but we have to go through that,” Vaughn said. “We have to know that we’re going to get through it together, no matter what that looks like.”