Mohegan — Connecticut Sun rookie Nia Clouden was two games (and 27 days) into her new job on May 14 and trying to steal the ball when she collided with Liz Cambage of the Los Angeles Sparks.
Cambage is a 6-foot-8, 216-pound center
Clouden is a 5-9, 139-pound guard.
Welcome to the WNBA, rook.
“My whole body cracked,” Clouden chuckled.
Clouden and Connecticut host the New York Liberty on Wednesday night (7, Mohegan Sun Arena, ESPN2). New York (6-10) and the Sun split their first two games.
It’s not easy getting acclimated and comfortable at a new job no matter the profession, especially in pro sports where one is constantly evaluated by their coaches and judged by fans.
There’s no set timetable for how long a WNBA player needs to evolve. For every Ariel Atkins, Napheesa Collier or Arike Ogunbowale who succeeded as rookies, there are others who need more time to develop.
Connecticut head coach and general manager Curt Miller thought that post Brionna Jones was going to have her breakout season in her third season (2019). He was off by a year as she took off in her fourth season and earned Most Improved Player honors last year.
Allie Quigley thought her career was over after she was cut by the Seattle Storm after the 2011 season and didn’t play in 2012. The Chicago Sky signed her in 2013, every fifth team in as many seasons. She blossomed in her sixth season (2014), earning the first of back-to-back Sixth Woman of the Year honors, and became a starter in 2017 when she was 31 years old.
The Sun (12-5) drafted Clouden with the last pick in the first round of April’s draft (12th overall). She earned All-Big Ten first team honors her junior and senior year at Michigan State and averaged 35.9 minutes, 20 points, 4.2 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 30 games as a senior.
“The biggest transition on the court was just the speed of the game, the physicality,” Clouden said about adjusting to the WNBA. “Everybody (is) bigger, faster, stronger (than in college). … I didn’t think it would be as hard of a transition as it was. And then I get out there and I’m getting hit by every screen. I feel like I’m getting beat up but, yeah, it was kind of shocking.
“There’s ups-and-downs, especially early on. There were days where I just felt like I was doing terrible.”
Connecticut waived reserve point guard Yvonne Anderson on June 15 and signed off-guard Jazmine Jones. Among the reasons Miller made the move was to get Clouden more minutes at the point and see what she could do. She wouldn’t need to play heavy minutes, either, playing behind starter Natisha Hiedeman, who took over that role when longtime starter Jasmine Thomas tore her ACL on May 22 during the fifth game of the season, and the versatile Alyssa Thomas, who plays at power forward but can just as easily run the point.
Clouden has averaged a modest 11.3 minutes since then over three games. She had seven points and four assists in 16 minutes during a 105-92 win over the Atlanta Dream on June 15.
“We’ve been really pleased with how she’s run the offense,” Miller said. “Some of the fourth quarter minutes that she’s been able to provide us through this stretch have been very encouraging about her future. Not only can she play the off-guard, we now know she can handle herself at the point guard position at this level.”
Clouden said, “It’s been challenging (as a rookie) but everybody around me has been making my life easier because we have a lot of vets here. They’re always in my ear telling me to stay ready, telling me other stuff that I need to do.
“From the beginning of the season to now, I just feel like I’ve been playing better just because I’ve been feeling more comfortable and more confident.”