September 6, 2021
As a leader, point guard and advocate, Natasha Cloud’s presence is bigger than ever this season
The perennial underdog is also the Washington Mystics' 'mama bear' and vocal leader
If you’ve ever seen a Washington Mystics game, chances are you’ve heard of—and heard—Natasha Cloud. On the court, the 29-year-old point guard is averaging a career-high 6.6 assists per game, and on the sidelines, she is so animated that, when she missed five games this season with a sprained ankle, the training staff insisted on taping her up as if she was going to play.
“You always hear her voice, and you feel her desire to be there for the group in whatever capacity,” teammate Sydney Wiese said.
Cloud’s vocal leadership has been a constant throughout her six WNBA seasons, but this year, she’s had to take it up another notch. The Mystics entered the season with just three players who had played for the team in both 2019 and 2020—and one of those players, Kiara Leslie, was cut midseason. A never-ending string of injuries, including to stars Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, has also tested Cloud’s ability to adapt and rally a team like never before.
“She’s a really, really big part of this team,” forward Myisha Hines-Allen told The Next. “So it’s like a puzzle, and … she’s most of that puzzle.”
The Mystics selected Cloud in the second round of the 2015 WNBA Draft, and Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault said that “that same fire, that same emotion” she is now known for was part of why he drafted her. Cloud has always been a vocal and defensive-minded player and inspired her teammates to play hard, and she entered the WNBA feeling like she had something to prove because she played for a mid-major in college.
“I’ve been an underdog my whole entire life,” she said after scoring her 1,000th career point on June 8. “I came from a mid-major in Saint Joseph’s University and I had one [WNBA] team, one organization and one staff believe in me, and I’ve been with them ever since.”
However, Cloud has never looked like an underdog, starting 50 of 65 games in her first two seasons and becoming a permanent starter in 2018. She has since developed into one of the league’s best point guards, leading her team to a championship in 2019 and averaging 7.7 points and 1.2 steals per game this season while dishing out the second-most assists per game in the WNBA.
One of Cloud’s biggest strengths is her ability to push the pace in transition, and her speed and vision allow her to drive by opponents and create advantage situations in the half court. According to both Mike and Eric Thibault, the Mystics’ associate head coach, she has improved her playmaking in pick-and-rolls, getting to the rim with either hand and reading different defenses over the years.
Defensively, Cloud is relentless and excels at taking the opponent’s top player out of a game, earning a spot on the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team in 2019. She usually matches up with a scoring guard such as Los Angeles’ Kristi Toliver or Phoenix’s Diana Taurasi, whom she held to seven and six points, respectively, in recent weeks. But at 6’, her size and strength are especially valuable in a Mystics defense that does a lot of switching, and she even held her own as an emergency center for several minutes on June 18.
“I think she should be up for Defensive Player of the Year because [of] the way she makes people work,” fellow point guard Leilani Mitchell said. “… She’s playing amazing.”
As she has honed her skills on the court, Cloud has also improved her mental game. A few years into her career, she began working with Stu Singer, the Mystics’ mental performance coach, to channel her emotions and make them work for her rather than against her. Toliver, who played in Washington from 2017-19, told The Next that Cloud’s basketball IQ steadily improved in their three years together, which also helped Cloud become a better leader. Cloud was a key voice on the veteran-laden championship team in 2019, guaranteeing a win in Game 5 of the Finals and then helping her team deliver.
This season, even more has been asked of Cloud as a vocal leader and playmaking point guard, to the point that Wiese and Eric Thibault have both spoken about the pressure of those responsibilities. “It would be nice if maybe she didn’t have to carry that weight on her all the time,” Thibault said. “But luckily, she’s up to the challenge.”
As the longest tenured Mystic, Cloud has a unique gravitas in the locker room, which is laden with veteran players who are new to the Mystics. “We’ve had a lot of injuries, we’ve had a lot of new faces, we’ve had a lot of new signings, so it’s definitely challenged me as a leader,” Cloud said in August. “I’m still working on it; I’m figuring out exactly how to lead this team … [and] just trying to be the consistent voice.”
“I think 2019, it was more, ‘I’m an up-and-coming leader,’ let’s say, whereas now I think she truly sees herself as, ‘I need to be one of the pillars of this team,’” Singer told The Next. “… In 2019, there would be moments where she would or could defer … [But now] a lot is on her and Ariel Atkins as the rock, cornerstones of the team from 2019, and you can just feel it. It’s hard to even describe except for you can just feel the moments where, in timeouts or what have you, she knows that she’s got to keep her composure as best as possible.”
According to assistant coach LaToya Sanders, Cloud and Atkins have been trying to share what they learned in 2019 with their newer teammates and “bring back our culture and our expectations.” Seemingly every week, a different player points to something Cloud said that resonated with the group, and she and Charles called a players-only meeting after the Mystics lost five of their first seven games.
“It was, we need to sit down [and] we need to talk about who we are, what’s our identity, who we want to be,” Cloud explained. “… Everyone said, ‘We can do this better; we can do that better.’ And as myself, I had to take a look at myself as a leader. Like, is my body language on the court these last few games, is it what the team needs? … How can I be a better leader for this team? And I think with me being vulnerable, with Tina being vulnerable, it allowed everyone else to kind of open up.”
The Mystics had their most successful stretch of the season immediately after that meeting, going 5-1 with wins over Seattle and Minnesota. They hit a skid after that and entered the Olympic break with an 8-10 record, but Cloud urged her teammates to look at the post-Olympic schedule as a brand-new season and has helped lighten the mood throughout the season, including with her spirited pregame dancing.
Mystics players have also responded well when Cloud coaches them up individually. For example, Wiese, who was traded to the Mystics just before the season opener, said that Cloud told her within a week—before she had even learned the full playbook—that she needed to communicate more.
“She has encouraged me from the beginning, since I got here, to use my voice and understanding that every person within the team has their own unique leadership skill set,” Wiese said. “… Tash has been consistently that vocal leader, but it isn’t her load to carry alone, and so I’ve been a lot more mindful to be vocal.”
Cloud similarly wasted no time approaching Shatori Walker-Kimbrough, who played on the 2019 team and rejoined the Mystics on a seven-day contract on July 1. That day, Walker-Kimbrough told the media that Cloud had already “[given] me some talk, just telling me to stay aggressive.” Walker-Kimbrough has done that well enough to earn eight starts and a rest-of-season contract.
Most recently, Cloud challenged Hines-Allen at halftime of a game against the Dallas Wings on Aug. 28. Hines-Allen, the team’s third-leading scorer, had just three points on 1-of-6 shooting. “I just grabbed her and I said, ‘Need you. I need you. The way you played the first half, you kind of looked checked out. I need you to check in,’” Cloud recalled after the pair combined for 33 second-half points in the come-from-behind win.
Part of the reason Cloud’s teammates embrace her leadership and guidance is that they know it comes from the heart. “One of the things that I think no one can ever argue or will ever argue is how deeply Tash loves her teammates,” Singer said. “… There’s a mama bear quality to her that everybody knows and feels. And every once in a while, it’s too much for her … but 100 percent that’s who she is. She really, really, deeply cares about her teammates, and they know it.”
Just as importantly, the Mystics players and staff see Cloud live up to her own high standard every day. She works hard in the offseason, on off days and during and after practice to improve her game and is not afraid to admit when she falls short. In late August, Cloud told reporters, “I put in a lot of work this offseason. It didn’t necessarily show in the first half [of the season],” referring in part to her 33.7 percent shooting from the field. “So the second half this season, I really just focused on my routine and [coming] in every day and making sure that I’m doing what I can with my shot, with opportunities to post up, different moves that I can go to.”
Cloud’s shooting has ticked up in the second half of the season, even as she continues to face varied defensive coverages and take on a larger playmaking role due to the Mystics’ injuries. Connecticut Sun head coach Curt Miller said after an Aug. 31 game that his game plan was to force Cloud to give up the ball rather than dictate the offense, and Sparks head coach Derek Fisher was similarly wary of what Cloud could do before a game on Aug. 24:
“She’s the bus driver. I think in a lot of ways she makes this team go. Even if statistically maybe somebody else ‘outperformed’ her, when you look back at the game, a lot of times it’s her pace, her intensity and competitive spirit that drives a lot of what the Mystics are able to do. So we respect her a lot and … you have to game plan for what she does. She’s not just somebody that’s on the court; she matters.”
Throughout the season, Cloud has delivered some big performances, including 21 second-half points against Dallas on 6-of-7 shooting; two double-doubles with points and assists; and a June 8 game in which she had 11 points, eight assists and six steals.
“I think the most fun play this year was against Dallas when she hit a step-back three and … the Dallas team is like, ‘Nah, it’s not going in,’ and I’m like, ‘She’s been working,’” Atkins said last week. “So it feels good to see her shot go in because I think that’s the next step for her as a basketball player and for us as a team. Keep going under [ball screens] if you want to.”
“With the adversity that DC’s had this year, with [injuries to] other teammates and herself, she’s keeping her head on right and I think that’s the biggest growth,” Toliver said. “… She’s not going to allow outside things to affect her team. Just her poise, her confidence and, again, her level of understanding and feeling comfortable being in that role.”
Cloud has also continued to lead off the court, including by pushing for legislation that would create accountability for discriminatory policing and commemorating the one-year anniversary of George Floyd’s murder. She has supported her community and social justice for several years but reached new heights in her activism last year, when she sat out the season to fight for social justice.
Sitting out in 2020 was mentally and emotionally draining for Cloud, but along with creating social change, the experience helped her develop new ways of managing her emotions and engaging people with whom she disagreed. In an Instagram Live video with Singer last August, she said that, instead of immediately being combative, she had learned to ask herself, “Is that the way I really want to approach this? Especially in social reform, is this a way that’s productive to getting the solutions that we need? Is me coming at people, is it necessary? In some instances, it is. Other instances, it’s not the best way to approach things.”
Even though she was away from the Mystics for much of the summer, she still led that team behind the scenes, too. When Hines-Allen—inspired by Cloud’s outspokenness—came up with the idea of a march for racial justice on Juneteenth, Cloud helped her make it happen. Cloud then stayed in touch with her teammates in the WNBA bubble and advised them on how to respond to the police shooting of Jacob Blake in August 2020.
“She’s in the front of everything, basically,” Hines-Allen said recently. “So it’s just like, on the court, you’re gonna hear Tash, you’re gonna see Tash; off the court, if she’s passionate about it, you’re gonna hear from her …
“With Tash, it doesn’t stop. … She still is in the community and helping others and helping me, too, helping me first continue to grow as a leader.”
Now back on the court and having grown from her experience last year, Cloud has been indispensable this season—yet her coaches and teammates see even more potential in her. Mike Thibault said Cloud can continue to learn her teammates’ communication styles and build chemistry, as she hadn’t played with most of them before this season. Eric Thibault wants Cloud to be a more consistent shooter and recognize what her team needs from her each night, much like how she responded against Dallas when her team needed her to be the go-to scorer.
Mitchell added, “I try to remind her just to be aggressive because she very much obviously wants to set up the team as a point guard, but it takes us to another level when she’s looking to score herself.”
The beauty of Cloud is that she is always striving for self-improvement, whether it comes as a leader, advocate or point guard, so it is a safe bet that she will continue to push herself and her teammates forward.
“I feel like every year, she grows even more and even more, and it’s like, how is she able to do that?” Hines-Allen said. “But in every facet of her life, she’s grown so much. … She just continues to show people there’s no limit to what someone’s capable of doing or what she’s capable of doing because she just continues to grow.”
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.