April 12, 2022
Sun add backcourt talent in 2022 WNBA Draft with a competitive training camp in mind￼
The Sun land their top target with the team's first first-round pick since 2019
UNCASVILLE, Conn. — While the first few players drafted last night were no shock to the Connecticut Sun’s draft room, Curt Miller and his Sun staff watched their team’s top overall draft target’s name continue to go uncalled. When the Aces selected Kierstan Bell from FGCU at No. 11 over the Sun’s coveted pick, the war room – a high-end suite in one of Mohegan Sun’s hotel towers – erupted with excitement.
With the 12th overall pick, the Sun selected Nia Clouden – a 5’8 combo guard – out of Michigan State University – the team’s No. 1 overall target heading into draft night. Clouden is the first Sun rookie drafted in the first round since the team selected Kristine Anigwe with the ninth pick in the 2019 draft.
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Miller said Clouden is the true combo guard the Sun were looking for after Bri January left for the Seattle Storm in free agency. Clouden can score on three levels, but also has the ability to play the point if needed. It was a home run for the Sun, Miller said.
“As every pick was announced before us, we held our breath, you know, one more time, one more time,” Miller said. “There’s always contingencies as you’re getting close to your pick, and those are in the back of your mind. But we just had a feeling as the draft was playing out that this could happen, that Nia could drop to us.”
With their top target secured, the Sun took a best player available approach when selecting 5’7 point guard Jordan Lewis out of Baylor with the 24th pick in the second round. And the Sun invested in the future by selecting 5’10 combo guard Kiara “Kiki” Smith out of Florida, who is currently rehabbing an ACL injury sustained during the SEC Tournament in March, with the 36th and final pick of the draft.
The Sun have a deep group of guards going into camp, but they’re even deeper in the front court with All Stars Jonquel Jones, Bri Jones, Alyssa Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, plus Beatrice Mompremier. The focus for the Sun during the draft was guards, Miller said.
Clouden and Lewis will now join guards Yvonne Anderson and Taj Cole and forwards Joyner Holmes and Keyona Hayes as newcomers vying for a roster spot in training camp. The Sun plan to monitor Smith’s rehab throughout the year and have her join the team for camp in 2023.
Clouden spent four years as a starter at Michigan State, averaging 20 points, 4.2 assists, and 4.2 rebounds per game in her final college season. She picked up All-Big Ten honors every year she was in college, including two First Team appearances in her junior and senior seasons. She was the Big Ten’s fifth leading scorer and top 20 in the nation this year, earning her the first All-American honors of her NCAA career.
Clouden excels at finding ways to attack the rim, but she’s also shown improvement from behind the arc and at the free throw line, especially in her last season at Michigan State. She was top five in the country in total free throws made this season, as her efficiency from the line jumped from 78 percent to 88.5 percent since her junior year.
In December, Clouden broke Michigan State’s single-game scoring record with 50 points in a double overtime loss against Florida Gulf Coast, shooting 17-of-28 from the field and 15-of-17 from the free-throw line. Amazingly, she only scored one three-pointer in her monster 50-point performance, but averaged 2.0 treys a game during the season on 39.6 percent shooting.
Clouden’s skillset as a scoring threat who can also handle the ball when needed, pushed her ahead of other prospects on the team’s draft board.
“She’s got the wiggle that we were looking for and she’s a talented player off the ball screen,” Miller said. “There’s a lot of college players who don’t play in ball screens, so Nia coming in with the experience playing off of ball screens already really jumpstarts her into her pro career.”
For her part, Clouden is not satisfied with her game as-is, she told assembled media in New York following her selection.
“I plan on trying to improve my defense and my physicality and my strength overall, just obviously because the WNBA is a league full of grown women who are bigger, stronger and faster,” Clouden said. “So, to be able to improve those things are really my main goals and improve my whole overall game, as well, and to just learn more as I experience more things in the league.”
Jordan Lewis spent five seasons at Alabama before joining former Connecticut Sun assistant and Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen at Baylor for a graduate season this year. Her scoring load naturally dipped from 17.0 points per game in 2021 to 11.8 points per game this season with All American teammates like NaLyssa Smith in the fold, but her 5.3 assists per game was among the best in the nation. After earning SEC Second-Team honors in 2021, she was named a Big 12 First Team honoree and conference Newcomer of the Year this season.
Miller called Lewis a strong two-way point guard and a talented physical defender and praised her willingness to take charges.
“She’s got that pro-style game. She can get herself to the rim, she’s a fast pusher in transition, which would increase our tempo, but she’s a really talented three point shooter,” Miller said. “What maybe is most underrated (about her) is I value her basketball IQ and the way she can run a team.”
Miller said Kiki Smith was high on the team’s draft board throughout SEC conference play before her season-ending injury. She’s been the heart and soul of the Florida Gators in their resurgence from bottom of the SEC to the NCAA tournament this season, and led the team in scoring (14.6 points), rebounds (5.5), assists (4.6), and steals (2.4). She earned All-SEC First Team and Defensive Team recognition in 2022.
“Because of the depth of our team and how difficult it is to make our team, we truly considered taking Kiki and stashing her at (pick) 12,” Miller said. “So to be able to take Kiki and stash her at 36 is an unbelievable opportunity for our franchise next year.”
Smith earned the enduring support of her Florida coach, Kelly Rae Finley, who sang her praises last month following the Gators’ first-round loss to Central Florida.
“It was easy to coach KiKi,” Finley said. “She was a joy every single day. Gosh, she never had a bad day, even when she got injured to see her bounce back against Ole Miss and to be able to take the lead… you don’t find people like that very much anymore with a resiliency, a work ethic, belief, to do whatever it takes to uplift the people around her. In doing so, she’s made our program better.”
With the core roster in place, Clouden and Lewis have a tough road ahead of them over the next few weeks to make it to opening day in Barclays on May 7. The Sun can only afford to carry 11 players this season because of cap space, so if either rookie was to make the team, the Sun would have to waive one of fourth-year guard Natisha Hiedeman, third-year guard Kaila Charles, or second-year wing DiJonai Carrington.
All three vets have the leg up in making the team, but Miller’s goal is to build a training camp that’s as competitive as possible, and does not want his returning players to feel complacent. Similar to last season, the Sun will be missing a handful of veterans at the start of camp – giving opportunity to younger players to step up into leadership roles in practice and give rookies an opportunity to prove their skills with more time on the court.
Jasmine Thomas and DeWanna Bonner, who both play for CBK Mersin in Turkey, will be late to training camp, according to Miller, along with Yvonne Anderson.
“The unintended consequence of having some of your veterans not back in camp really gives young players a chance to shine,” Miller said. “It gives young guards in our camp the ability to be on the court and to really be competing in training camp … We want people to fight for spots on the team and there’s no secret that we’re looking for some spark within that second unit with more guard play.”
Howard Megdal contributed reporting to this story.