March 1, 2022 

What Tianna Hawkins and Natasha Cloud’s dominance in Athletes Unlimited means for the Washington Mystics

Hawkins and Cloud demonstrated their growth on the court and found joy off of it during the five-week season

Tianna Hawkins and Natasha Cloud seemingly wouldn’t let the Athletes Unlimited basketball season end on Saturday night. With 11 seconds remaining in the season’s final game, Cloud assisted on her team’s go-ahead basket, but Hawkins made a layup three seconds later to force overtime. Both players had their fingerprints all over the ensuing three overtimes, with Team Hawkins finally pulling out a 116-111 win over Team Cloud.

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Only then could Athletes Unlimited crown its inaugural champion, based on points accumulated throughout the season for individual statistics and team wins. Hawkins took those honors with 6,836 points, while Cloud finished second out of the 45 players with 5,919 points. In the moments after the championship presentation, the Washington Mystics teammates stood together with medals around their necks, embracing the two other Athletes Unlimited captains as a highlight video played.

“These five weeks have been nothing short of amazing,” Hawkins told reporters on Sunday. “They’ve given us an opportunity to play basketball in a unique way and a unique style, and … I’ve learned a lot about myself in these five weeks. I’ve been able to step out of my comfort zone and some great things have happened in these five weeks, and I’m forever grateful for that.”

Before Athletes Unlimited began in January, Hawkins had worked in the offseason to develop new skills and get stronger, and she displayed the game and confidence that come with hard work in Las Vegas. She averaged 23.8 points, 11.1 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 steals and 0.9 blocks per game, shooting 57.1% from the field and 34.6% from 3-point range. She had 11 double-doubles in the 15 games, more than twice as many as the next-closest player.

Hawkins owns the league’s single-game scoring record with 43 points on Feb. 5 and the single-game rebounding record with 18 on Saturday. Her 43 points came against Team Cloud, in just 34 minutes and on 19-for-26 shooting.

Hawkins also tied for the most points earned for team wins and got more points for being voted game MVP than any other player. Combined with her individual fireworks, that left Hawkins over 900 points clear of Cloud on the leaderboard—a larger gap than the one separating Cloud and Odyssey Sims in sixth place.

Cloud had topped the leaderboard for part of the season, hoping to equal her wife Aleshia Ocasio’s 2021 Athletes Unlimited softball championship, but she settled for second after an impressive season of her own. She was the league’s ironwoman, playing 38.5 minutes per game, and she averaged 18.3 points, a league-leading 8.9 assists, 6.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals per game. She also shot 40.5% from 3-point range on the season and recorded the league’s first triple-double with 17 points, 10 assists and 10 rebounds on Feb. 12.

“I am super proud of them,” Mystics star Elena Delle Donne said of Cloud and Hawkins on Feb. 5, two weeks into the Athletes Unlimited season. “Their highlights have been awesome. I feel like they’re going to be competing for MVP. … It’s really cool what they’re doing out there.”

“It’s been good playing against Tash. We’ve had some battles,” Hawkins said on Sunday. “I think most of my overtime games have been against Tash, which is crazy. But that just speaks volumes on our competitive nature.”

For both Hawkins and Cloud, the Athletes Unlimited season challenged them as leaders and as students of the game. They were frequently captains, a weekly honor that went to the top four players on the leaderboard and allowed them to draft their teams. Hawkins targeted “a good point guard that could keep us organized” and “people that I knew that had good energy” on both ends of the court. Cloud, meanwhile, paired well with Connecticut Sun guard/forward DiJonai Carrington, who ended Athletes Unlimited as the league leader in points and steals per game.

The captains were also responsible for their teams’ practice plans and in-game coaching, which pushed Hawkins to be more vocal. “In the past, I’ve been more of a leader by example,” she said. “And so with this experience, in a great way, I’ve been forced to step out of my comfort zone and use my voice more.”

Cloud has long been a vocal leader, so that responsibility wasn’t new for her, but she also grew from being a captain and having to manage the game. “Being an AU captain is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done,” she tweeted on Feb. 12. “Practice plans, scouts, plays, defensive schemes, in game management/substitutions all while playing … I have a whole new appreciation for coaches … I’m very far from perfect. But this experience is gonna make me better, and that’s the most exciting part.”

Beyond their growth on the court and as leaders, the Athletes Unlimited season was significant for Cloud and Hawkins—and several other players—because it reminded them of how fun basketball can be. The games were highly competitive, but players also got to show out, bond on and off the court, inspire the next generation and determine the direction of the league. Many of them even got to have their families nearby, as Athletes Unlimited helped players like Hawkins, who has a six-year-old son named Emanuel, with the travel logistics and provided childcare.

Cloud, coming off of a trying 2021 season with the Mystics, tweeted, “This is the most fun I’ve had hoopin in a min” in Week 1 of Athletes Unlimited. And Hawkins, who was waived by the Atlanta Dream on Jan. 13 before signing with the Mystics on Feb. 1, said on Sunday, “Having this experience at AU, I’ve been able to find my joy with basketball again.”

For Hawkins, Cloud and the other Athletes Unlimited players with WNBA contracts, the hope is that they carry over what they showed over the past several weeks to the WNBA. Cloud’s 3-point shooting, for example, was an area of focus for her this offseason, and she excelled at it in Athletes Unlimited. WNBA teams sometimes sagged off of Cloud last season on the perimeter, and her pairing a consistent 3-point shot with her already elite passing would be huge for the Mystics’ spacing.

“Watching her, I’m like, ‘Oh, yeah, it’s about to be a fun season,’” Mystics guard Ariel Atkins told reporters on Feb. 6. “She’s shooting that thing well and she’s leading … and her game has grown.”

Hawkins likely won’t score 43 points in the WNBA this season, but she wants to bring the confidence and leadership that got her there to training camp. The Mystics signed her in part because she has always been a great teammate, according to head coach and general manager Mike Thibault. But that can go to another level if she is more vocal, especially given her familiarity with the Mystics’ system after playing six seasons with them from 2014-20.

“I’m looking forward to going to training camp with a lot of confidence and just build off of what I’ve been doing,” Hawkins said. “… When you’re a captain, you have to coach, you have to draw up plays, you have to teach your players and stuff like that. So, going into training camp this year, we have younger players or we have players that are new to the team and … I’m able to help teach them the offense and … give them a better understanding of what is being asked of them.”

And although Hawkins and Cloud didn’t seem ready for the Athletes Unlimited season to end on Saturday, there is a silver lining: They’ll be teammates in the WNBA again, able to combine on pick-and-rolls and drives and kicks rather than going head-to-head. Hawkins had thought she might re-sign with the Mystics when she arrived in Las Vegas, but she didn’t tell Cloud until it was certain.

“I think it was before a game—I went up to Tash and I was like, ‘I’m coming home!’” Hawkins recalled.

Cloud didn’t understand what Hawkins meant at first, but when she caught on, she was elated: “Oh my gosh, TT, yes, yes, yes, yes!”

“So from that day forward, it’s just been great,” Hawkins said. “We’ve been talking trash to one another but also knowing that, look, this is preparing us for later on, when we get together for training camp.”

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, Power Plays and Princeton Alumni Weekly.

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