August 13, 2023
During a trying month, Natasha Cloud adapts as Mystics’ leader
Washington’s point guard works to balance the fiery and quieter sides of her leadership
After the Washington Mystics’ shootaround in Las Vegas on Friday, point guard Natasha Cloud spoke candidly and at length with reporters about her team’s injury-riddled season. “I’ve been challenged as a leader more so than any other year,” the eighth-year player said.
The Mystics have been without starters Elena Delle Donne, Ariel Atkins and Shakira Austin and reserve guard Kristi Toliver since July 11 due to injuries. That has left Cloud and guard Brittney Sykes, the two remaining starters, to carry a bigger load and lead the team through an exhausting stretch of six games in 12 days in late July.
Before Toliver was ruled out with plantar fasciitis on June 20 — the first in the string of injuries — Cloud was averaging 9.6 points and 5.6 assists per game. Since then, she has increased her scoring to 14.4 points per game and her assists to 6.0 per game, despite losing several of her most common targets. Her usage rate has jumped 4.8 percentage points as she has had to create more of the offense. And her turnover rate has even dropped slightly, to an impressively low 12.1%, despite the extra defensive attention she has commanded.
“She’s not giving up shots anymore and she’s driving to the basket. She’s always been a tremendous passer,” Sykes told reporters on July 23. “And I think … she’s managed to figure out how to make it work for all of us, because we’re used to a Delle [Donne], an Atkins on the wing … In all this craziness that we got going on, she’s still our leader.”
“She gets everything organized,” guard Shatori Walker-Kimbrough told reporters on July 26. “… When she’s on the court, I mean, we look and we feel very much connected.”
Cloud has had to step up before, including late in the 2019 season when Toliver was injured and throughout a 2021 season that then-head coach Mike Thibault called his most injury-plagued in 50 years of coaching. This year, Cloud said, she feels better equipped to do that because she’s developed her offensive game more and adopted “more [of] an aggressive mindset within our offense.”
However, Cloud is grappling this season with how best to adapt her leadership style to fit what her team needs.
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Since June 20, the Mystics have gone 6-12, including 1-9 on the road. They’ve fallen from fourth in the WNBA standings to seventh, and they’ve lost to the Los Angeles Sparks (who are currently in ninth place), Phoenix Mercury (10th) and Indiana Fever (12th). And while their offense has actually improved by eight points per 100 possessions amid the injuries, their defense has gone nearly from first to worst in the league.
Though the Mystics are battling in games, they’re still trying to get on the same page and find consistency.
“We have three starters out, but that’s not an excuse because we still have enough in our locker room with those three people out to win games,” Cloud said. “… A lot of stuff is in our control that we’re not necessarily controlling … I feel like this last month of playing has been on us wholeheartedly.”
The losing has gotten to Cloud at times, especially with a schedule that offers few days off. “I’ve been drained this last month. It has been very hard,” she said. “Our schedule doesn’t help: six games in 12 days … It’s been brutal … We’re in kind of a storm right now, but just trying to see the light at the end of the tunnel. It has been emotionally and mentally depleting.”
As the Mystics have fought through that emotional fatigue, Cloud has recognized that her typical “rah-rah” leadership style — passionate and vocal — isn’t always resonating with her teammates. Sometimes, combined with Sykes’ similar leadership style, it is too much firepower for their teammates, and the team begins to play too frenetically. Other times, individual players might be too drained to meet Cloud’s energy.
So Cloud has had to embrace more of her “water side,” the quieter and more nurturing side of her, to lift up her teammates. The catch-22, though, is that Cloud plays best individually when she is fired up. “My rah-rah makes me who I am,” she said after Friday’s game against the Las Vegas Aces.
At shootaround, Cloud cited the loss to Phoenix on Aug. 8, in which she had seven points on 3-for-11 shooting, as a game where she played with too much water and not enough fire. “It took me out of my game,” she said. “… So I’m really trying to figure out what that middle space is.”
Mystics head coach Eric Thibault has talked with Cloud about the balance between stepping up and not trying to do too much. He wants her to keep her fire, but as a controlled burn rather than a runaway blaze.
“Tash is at her best as a leader when she’s in total command of herself, and that sets the tone for the team when she’s passionate and fiery but steady,” Thibault said before Friday’s game. “I think that’s always the sweet spot for her. And we’re never going to ask her to tone it way down or be somebody else than who she is. But that steady sense of purpose and the way she competes, I think, is how she leads best.”
Cloud has also leaned on her teammates to help her figure out when to dial herself up or down. Veteran forward Tianna Hawkins told reporters after Friday’s game that she sometimes tries to calm Cloud down when she gets too fiery.
“I’m a real calm person,” Hawkins said. “So I just try to meet her with the calmness in hopes that it’ll come down. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
“When I’m too high, [Hawkins], whether she talks to me or not, she’ll start to be calm, which then triggers me that I’m a little too rah-rah,” Cloud said. “So I might come down like a little, half an inch.”
By Cloud, Thibault and Hawkins’ estimation, Cloud struck the right balance between fire and water on Friday, finishing with 21 points, six assists and four rebounds and helping the Mystics hang with the first-place Aces for three quarters. Her six points in the first quarter were a team high, helping the Mystics stay close, and she tied the game at 68 on a 3-pointer with 4:24 left in the third quarter.
Postgame, Cloud told reporters that she had committed to having better body language on the court because that helps her team stay even-keeled. She seemed less bothered by the officials than she has been in other games: For example, after she hit a tough fadeaway in the second quarter that she thought should’ve drawn a foul, she calmly approached an official during the ensuing timeout and briefly pantomimed a push before walking away.
“The demeanor that she showed tonight is the one we need: intense, upbeat, demanding, but focused on the next play,” Thibault said postgame.
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Cloud maintained that focus even when she joined the Mystics’ injury list with under five minutes left in the game. While chasing down a long defensive rebound, she stepped on Walker-Kimbrough’s foot and fell to the floor holding her left hip. She limped to the locker room, but when she returned, Thibault had to keep her out of the next play.
“I was happy to see her come back on the bench,” he said, “and I was like, ‘No, no, no, you are not about to go back in the game. You just park it right there.’”
Cloud insisted postgame that she was fine, but she is listed as questionable for Sunday’s game against the Chicago Sky alongside Delle Donne and Austin, who both made strides in their rehab this week.
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Even as Cloud strives to fine-tune her leadership, her teammates speak glowingly about how she guides them. “She’s always that person in my ear speaking positive words,” forward Cyesha Goree, who joined the team on a hardship contract midseason, said on Friday. Goree added that Cloud will take advantage of any available time — in the locker room, during free throws or in huddles — to tell her teammates whatever she thinks will make them better.
“Tash is a great leader. I think everyone knows that,” forward/center Queen Egbo said on July 19. “Her energy is contagious. She comes into the locker room, whether she’s having a good or a bad day, and spreads positive energy. …
“A lot of teams don’t have the luxury of having a point guard like Tash who is so animated, who is so passionate about the game, who is a coach on the floor [and] off the floor. She’s always coaching, she’s always trying to teach, and for someone who’s young like me, I really do appreciate it because I’ve been in situations where you didn’t always have that and you were looking for veteran leadership. And so I feel like when I got here … I stopped looking because Tash is right here.”
Before Friday’s game, Cloud found yet another way to connect with her teammates and challenge them to finish the season strong. She noticed a quotation displayed in the elevator of the Mystics’ hotel, snapped a picture, and read the quotation aloud at the end of shootaround. “The quote was basically, ‘You can’t be what you want to be by remaining what you are,’” Cloud said.
That sentiment sums up how Cloud has led her team through a challenging month-plus of injuries, travel and losses. She isn’t satisfied with where the Mystics are, and she has pushed herself to evolve, both as a scorer and a leader, to get them back on track.
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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. Her work has also appeared at FiveThirtyEight, Her Hoop Stats, FanSided and Power Plays.