Nia Clouden is going through a transition in her basketball development. The former prep phenom at St. Frances Academy and prolific scorer at Michigan State has realized her professional dream as a member of the WNBA’s Connecticut Sun this year.
The pro game is different, though, in that everyone is supremely skilled. The 5-foot-8 rookie is practicing and playing against the best players in the world daily. The pace is quicker. The players are taller, more athletic and rugged.
She’s on a veteran team that’s two victories away from advancing to the WNBA Finals, so she has a great vantage point to learn about a winning culture at the highest level, as well as the amount of work necessary for her to become a consistent, dependable contributor at the pro level.
The Baltimore Banner caught up with Clouden, 22, of Owings Mills, after a recent practice, as the Sun prepared for the remaining games of their hard-fought semifinal series against the defending champion Chicago Sky. Chicago evened the best-of-five series Wednesday night at 1-1.
Banner: Before basketball came into the picture, what were your first professional aspirations?
Clouden: When I was a kid, at different times I wanted to be a scientist, a rock star, a comedian, a dentist and an architect.
When did you catch the hoops bug?
I was about nine or 10 years old, and my dad loved watching basketball. So I’d sit and watch the NBA games with him. That’s when I was like, ’That looks like fun, I think I want to play.’
Who were some of your favorite players that you watched as a kid?
Obviously with him being from Baltimore, I was a big Carmelo Anthony fan. And once I saw Kobe [Bryant] play, I fell in love with his game. Those were my two favorites.
When did the realization hit you that you weren’t just good, but that you were better than most of the young ladies in your age group and that you might have an opportunity to do big things in the sport?
I was in the eighth grade playing AAU ball with a local team called the Maryland Lady Tigers, which is now called Team Thrill. Things started getting more serious in terms of the national rankings, and my name was being mentioned along with the top players in my class from around the country. I was playing really well and all of a sudden, people started talking to me about the colleges I should be considering.
You walk into St. Frances as a freshman, and we’re talking about an exceptional prep program that consistently competes for state championships, that has produced the likes of the legendary Angel McCoughtry, among many others. How was the transition to high school ball?
Before St. Frances, I was playing for fun, but playing there is serious because you’re being prepared to play in college. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still playing for fun today, but high school was an adjustment. My coaches, mentors and teammates pushed me very hard. We practiced hard. We played hard. It’s a small school, so you get a lot of individual attention from your coaches and teachers and I had a great experience there.
When did the college recruiting start to heat up?
During summer workouts after my freshman year. A lot of college coaches would be there to watch the older players, and beginning with my 10th grade year, that’s when the recruiting started getting serious.
What were the top schools you were considering?
I narrowed my list down to Michigan State, West Virginia, Rutgers, DePaul and South Florida. But once I went on my visit to Michigan State my junior year, I knew that was the place for me. I cancelled the remainder of my recruiting visits. In hindsight, I should have gone on that next scheduled trip to Tampa to visit South Florida and taken a little vacation. But I didn’t want to waste anyone’s time.
How was the adjustment to playing college ball in the Big Ten?
The coaches and players at Michigan State really helped to make it smooth. They did a great job of showing me the necessary work ethic, how to prepare, the consistency that was needed to have an impact on the college level. And you must learn time management because you have to balance and juggle all of your academic and athletic commitments.
Nothing gets handed to you on the college level, so I had to find my own niche that would help the team and facilitate me getting some playing time. I was one of our better players at penetrating and getting to the rim, so the best way for me to see the court was to get into the lane and dish the ball, creating scoring opportunities for my teammates. As I got older, I was able to expand on that, shoot the ball more, and then the coaching staff gave me some more free rein.
Not many people can say that they scored 50 points in a Division I college basketball game, but you can. That highlight reel of what you did against Florida Gulf Coast got me so hyped up, I was doing jumping jacks at my desk! Talk about being in a zone like that.
It was a crazy out-of-body experience. That was one of the most fun games I’ve ever played in. We knew they played at a fast pace, and I knew that I had to put up numbers if we were going to be successful. But, yeah, you said it, I was in a zone, and it seemed like every shot I put up went in. I couldn’t miss.
Now comes the biggest adjustment of all. Your dreams of making it to the WNBA have been realized. But making it there and staying there for a prolonged career are two entirely different things. What are you thinking about and working on to make sure that you can establish your place in the league for years to come?
Coming from college to the WNBA, there’s so much to learn. This is an entirely different level of basketball. You’re practicing and playing against the best and most elite players in the world. The game is bigger, faster and stronger.
The things you can get away with in college, you can’t do that stuff here. The physicality of the game is different, there’s a lot of contact. I’m a smaller player, so I’m working on getting stronger and improving my defense because everybody is so gifted offensively.
Have you struggled in any way with the mental side of walking in as a prolific scorer who could easily drop 30 a game in college, to now being a role player getting inconsistent minutes?
I was struggling during training camp and that begins to weigh on you mentally because this is a make-or-break situation. It doesn’t matter where you get drafted in the WNBA, you can get cut. As the season progresses, you have to remind yourself that they must see something in you, that you have to come to work every day with the goal of improving every aspect of your game.
I can’t hang my head because I understand why I’m not playing as much and there are positives in that. I’m playing on a veteran team with some incredibly talented, accomplished pros that I can learn from. We’re one of the last four teams standing and we have a shot to play for a championship this year. That’s not a bad deal, I’m in a great environment to learn and grow as a rookie.
When did you have a moment on the court where you felt like pinching yourself, where you looked around and said, ‘I can’t believe I’m here right now?’
There’s two that immediately come to mind. The first is when we were playing Seattle at home. Sue Bird is obviously an iconic figure in our sport who played her college ball at UConn. She’s about to retire this year after a legendary career and this was going to be her last game in Connecticut. The place was packed, and I played some good minutes. I’m playing defense against Sue Bird and in my head, I’m like, ‘Oh my God, is this what’s really going on right now?’
The other moment was when we were playing Chicago and Candace Parker literally touched me. In my head I’m like, ‘Oh my God! Candace Parker just touched me!’
I loved watching them play when I was younger, so to share the court with them now is just special. But I can’t get caught up in the celebrity worship because my job now is to go out and help my team beat them.
For those who aren’t paying attention, your sneaker game is fire! What are some of your go-to favorites?
Off the court, I wear Jordans and Yeezys. I’ll coordinate those to match my outfits. When I’m on the court, I like to wear bright, vibrant colors and my favorites are the Kobe’s and Kyrie’s.
When you blast off over the next few years and become one of the top players in the league, that signature shoe deal is going to come calling. I already have your marketing slogan picked out, based on one of my favorite songs from one of my favorite hip-hop groups, Gang Starr. You ready for this?
Yeah, let’s go.
Above the Clouds!
Ooooh, that’s a good one. I’m going to have to shout you out when that happens.