March 12, 2021
‘I’m where I want to be’: Natasha Cloud re-signs with the Washington Mystics
A vital piece of business for DC, not just the Mystics, is now complete
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It wasn’t quite a champagne toast, but the Washington Mystics’ Zoom press conference on Wednesday about point guard Natasha Cloud signing a new three-year contract felt rather festive. Cloud grinned ear-to-ear nearly throughout, Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault smiled and laughed, and both made playful comments about their relationship and Cloud’s maturation over the past six years.
“I’m glad to finally get this done and be with this family,” Cloud said. “…I’m where I want to be and Coach got me where he wants me to be, so this is exciting for the both of us. This is what we both wanted to do and make a long-term commitment to each other. I love this organization; I love playing for Coach… We won a championship together [in 2019] and we’ve kind of grown together.”
That sound you hear? That’s the sound of a key puzzle piece snapping into place. Thibault called Wednesday “an important day for our team” in the announcement, and that was reflected in the fact that the Mystics staff was extraordinarily well-represented at the press conference. In addition to Thibault, assistant general manager Maria Giovannetti, associate head coach Eric Thibault, assistant coach Asjha Jones, and director of player development Sefu Bernard all attended.
The Thibaults and Giovannetti have all been with the Mystics since at least 2012 and selected Cloud in the second round of the 2015 WNBA Draft out of Saint Joseph’s University. She has been in DC ever since, though she sat out in 2020 to focus on social justice reform.
In 150 career regular-season games and 106 starts, Cloud has averaged 6.3 points, 4.1 assists, and 2.8 rebounds in nearly 25 minutes per game. But those numbers undersell Cloud’s recent contributions, as she has increased her scoring and assists in all but one season of her career and developed her 3-point shot over the past two seasons. She also made her first WNBA All-Defensive Team in 2019 and ranked fifth in the league that season in minutes per game (32.1).
In nine playoff games in 2019, Cloud averaged 13.1 points, 6.2 assists, and 3.4 rebounds while shooting 38% from 3-point range, topping her regular-season averages in each of those categories against some of the league’s toughest defenses.
Cloud was rewarded on Wednesday with a three-year contract that will pay her $190,000 in 2021, $185,000 in 2022, and $190,000 in 2023, as first reported by Khristina Williams of Girls Talk Sports TV and confirmed by a league source to The Next. This year’s figure is just shy of the 2021 maximum player salary of $190,550 and is a $73,000 raise from the salary she was slated to earn in 2020. The contract keeps the 29-year-old Cloud with the Mystics until she is 31, covering an age range in which players often produce some of their best seasons.
Although Cloud’s statistics are eye-catching on their own, her impact goes far beyond the numbers. “As the point guard, she is the engine that drives us – our pace on offense, the start of our defense, the energy at practice on a daily basis,” Mike Thibault said in the announcement. She is also one of the Mystics’ longest-tenured players and a key voice in the locker room, on the court, and in the community.
Cloud’s deal took longer to get done than many observers had expected based on both her importance to the team and the fact that the Mystics had exclusive negotiating rights. Thibault addressed that on Wednesday, saying that “things had to fall into place in order” but that both sides always wanted to reach an agreement.
“We weren’t going to agree on everything as we went through this process; it’s called negotiations,” he said. “…But, at the end of the day, we both wanted the same thing… You have to trust your relationship that you’ve built up over a period of time, and you have to trust that what we’re trying to do will work out… It just sometimes takes some time.”
With a contract finally signed, sealed, and delivered, let’s break down what it means for the Mystics in every aspect.
Despite taking a season off and the COVID-19 pandemic making it more difficult to get in a gym, Cloud said she is finding her rhythm again on the court. She played in two games this winter for Famila Wuber Schio, a team in Italy’s Serie A, and averaged 8.5 points, 5.0 assists, and 4.5 rebounds.
Cloud and Thibault both spoke about making incremental improvements to her game, including continuing to hone her 3-point shot, finishing around the rim equally well with both hands, and being able to counter opponents’ game plans to stop her one-on-one. “[I’m the] same player, just trying to get that 1% better each year,” Cloud said.
One bar for Cloud as she strives to improve her 3-point shot is teammate Leilani Mitchell, who has shot 38.8% from behind the arc in her 12-year career. Mitchell and Cloud played ten games together for the Mystics in 2016, when Mitchell signed with the team after competing for Australia in the Olympics, and Cloud is excited to resume the partnership. She envisions “the same one-two punch” at point guard as the Mystics had in 2019 with her and Kristi Toliver.
“We understand each other, we respect each other, and we play well together,” Cloud said of her and Mitchell. “…We’re extremely versatile; either one of us can bring up the ball. She’s definitely a more consistent 3-point shooter, but I’m trying to get to that level… I’m excited to be back with Leilani.”
Between Cloud, Alysha Clark, and Ariel Atkins, the Mystics have six All-Defensive Team selections on the perimeter and should give opposing guards fits with their quickness, their length, and the pride they each take in their defense. Thibault even expressed confidence in his team’s defense — a rarity for any coach — and added that it has been “an ongoing process” of developing players dating back to 2019. “Now we have a chance to put some of those pieces together,” he said, as frontcourt players such as forwards Elena Delle Donne and Myisha Hines-Allen can complement the team’s lockdown perimeter defenders.
Cloud is a natural fit to spearhead the Mystics’ defense, based on both her skills and her position at the top of the defense. She will set the tone with how she guards opposing ball-handlers, and she has never shied away from being vocal and putting her teammates in the right positions. When asked about the Mystics’ defensive potential this year, particularly with the addition of Clark, Cloud looked ready to leap through the computer screen into a defensive stance.
“We’re gonna be a scary team on the defensive end,” Cloud said. “… I’m, like, salivating because I’m so excited to get back to this. The versatility that we’re going to be able to have with our game schemes, being able to switch, being able to just really play some bully kind of defense, I’m really excited for it.”
Part of the reason that Wednesday’s announcement was so joyous is that Cloud had never expected to perform at such a high level. Cloud recounted her ups and downs in the WNBA, beginning with earning a starting job partway through her rookie season but continually feeling lost on the court. “All I was trying to do was just be a sponge… [but] I didn’t feel like I had like a grip on everything,” she said. That grip didn’t come until her third season, when the game “slowed down” for her and she started to become a leader.
“Fast-forward to 2019 and we’re in a [WNBA Finals] Game 5, where I’m being looked at as the voice in the huddles and as the calming presence on the court and as one of the go-to players,” she said. “And so when you ask me, did I think I was going to be here? No … But I’ve worked really hard to be where I am today and I’m very proud.”
Without Cloud, other players stepped into greater leadership roles in 2020, most notably Atkins and Hines-Allen. Cloud rightly said that that experience will make the Mystics better this season, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of Cloud’s leadership.
“[She’s] always had that leadership role, whether it be the point guard or the quarterback, or a leader in the classroom, a leader on the court,” Cloud’s coach at Saint Joseph’s, Cindy Griffin, told The Next last November. “… She’s a leader, and people follow.”
The Mystics don’t only follow Cloud on the court; they also follow her and build off of her work on social justice and in the community. She has been community-minded throughout her career, winning the WNBA’s Dawn Staley Community Leadership Award for her work in the 2018 season and subsequent offseason. And in the 2019 season alone, Cloud led a media blackout to raise awareness of gun violence in DC, donated school supplies and toys to celebrate “Christmas in July,” discussed solutions to gun violence with students and reform groups, warmed up for games in an Everytown for Gun Safety shirt to raise awareness, and held a school supply drive at two home games.
“My goal is to always be a champion on the court for the Mystics, but also to be a champion in the community,” Cloud said on Wednesday.
Looking ahead to this season, Cloud said that the Mystics’ community engagement and social justice efforts will resemble how they fought for solutions to gun violence in 2019. “We understand that we play in the most powerful city in the world,” she said. “And so with that comes responsibility … we made a commitment ourselves, as an organization, to commit to this and to be more than just a trend. This is our identity, this is who we are, and this is who we will continue to be.”
The rest of the roster
Cloud helped Thibault recruit free agents such as Clark this offseason, even though she had not yet signed her own contract. That level of responsibility speaks to Cloud’s stature within the team and how important she is to Thibault’s vision for the future.
The Mystics had more roster turnover this offseason than many observers expected, but as Cloud put it, it’s a “new look but same core.” That core includes Delle Donne, Atkins, and Cloud, who are all currently under contract through the 2023 season. Clark, Kiara Leslie, and Erica McCall give the team three more players under contract through 2022.
That stability “gives us a head start on everything else,” Thibault said Wednesday. “The rest of it we’re going to have to figure out as we go when we get to the end of the season… But I’m happy that we have a core group of players that our fans identify with, that have leadership capabilities, and [that] have been major anchors for our team over the last few years.”
Thibault confirmed that Delle Donne should be ready for training camp after the pandemic slowed her recovery from a back injury she sustained in the 2019 WNBA Finals, while Mitchell will be available for the full season despite being part of the Australian national team pool for the Olympics. Delle Donne, Atkins, and Tina Charles are also in the mix to represent the United States in Tokyo.
Cloud’s contract gives the Mystics nearly a full roster for 2021, with nine players signed for the season and four others signed to training camp contracts to compete for what will likely be two roster spots. One player not in the mix, at least for now, is 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, who will represent Belgium in European competitions and the Olympics this summer.
“There’s no plan to have her here at the start of the year, not by her or by us,” Thibault said. “She and I have discussed what the end of the season could look like, but she’s got national team commitments for a long time… So if she comes, and we’re hoping she does, but if she does it’ll probably be after the Olympics.” On Thursday, Meesseman confirmed Thibault’s statement on Twitter, quashing rumors that she would definitely miss the full season.
Six weeks out from training camp, Thibault is bullish on his team, even though the early days could require patience. “Some of it’s still going to be a work in progress,” he said. “We do have a lot of new people, and we won’t be the best version of ourselves on day one… The goal is, though, to be our best version when it comes time for the playoffs and be able to compete for a championship.”
Cloud’s return is likely the last and arguably the most important domino to fall for the Mystics this offseason, and she makes those championship aspirations much more likely. From her offense to her defense to her leadership and intangibles, Cloud is the heart and soul of the Mystics franchise, and her new contract ensures that she will continue to grow in that role for several seasons to come.
Written by Jenn Hatfield
Jenn Hatfield has been a contributor to The Next since December 2018 and is currently the site's managing editor, Washington Mystics beat reporter and Ivy League beat reporter. (She also writes the "Family Rivalries" series for The Next.) Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats and FanSided.