WASHINGTON, D.C. — Natasha Cloud developed one of those reputations that coaches, teammates and fans rave about.
At various times the alumna of St. Joseph's University and Cardinal O'Hara has been described as a "vocal leader" and "energy-giver" and "confidence-builder."
Still, after starting 40 of her first 65 games since being selected by the Washington Mystics in the second round (15th overall ) of the 2015 WNBA draft and looking like the point guard of the future, Cloud, 26, didn't make any starts in 2017. Looking for more scoring, Washington brought in veteran point guard Kristi Toliver to join newly acquired superstar Elena Delle Donne.
Cloud played just 24 games and her average minutes played dropped to a career-low 18.6 minutes.
Enthusiasm and team spirit are great intangibles, but in a 12-team league where only 144 players have a job, having great intangibles without the accompanying on-court production means that player is always at risk of being replaced.
With her contract expiring after the 2018 season, Cloud knew it was time to reestablish herself as more than just a role player and hype woman on the bench.
"As much as you don't want that to be on your mind, it is," Cloud said before the Mystics played the Atlanta Dream in the WNBA semifinals on Friday. "The reality is my contract is going to be up.
"I want to perform because I do want to stay in D.C. This is two hours from Philly. I've found a family with this team."
To that end, Cloud picked an ideal season to have a breakout campaign.
During the 27-game regular season, Cloud averaged career highs in minutes (26.5), points (8.6), assists (4.6) and rebounds. She shot career highs in field goal percentage (38.6), three-pointers (43.6) and free throws (77.8).
Challenged by Mystics coach Mike Thibault to improve her shooting during the offseason, Cloud returned to St. Joseph's to work out – often under the guidance of Hawks assistant men's coach Jeff Arnold.
"I'd get on the court after I lifted and take shots, about 400 or 500," she said. "Then I'd go home, take a little nap and go back for a second workout. I was getting close to a thousand shots every day."
Cloud returned with an improved game, still, she had assumed she would return as the backup to Toliver. Thibault, however, had planned to move Toliver off of the ball, but to do that, he needed Cloud to lose the mentality of accommodating role player.
"Natasha had kind of talked herself into thinking my job is going to be gone," Thibault said of Cloud. "I said why do you think that?
"It's your job so don't let anybody take it from you. It was like an eye-opener for her. She responded. She's one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. She did what was asked of her and improved her shooting. She's improved at controlling the tempo of the game."
The Mystics traded former first-round pick Tayler Hill to Dallas after two games to move Toliver to the two-guard and open up the chance for Cloud.
"Coach told me at the beginning of the year that he had so much confidence in me and my development. He made decisions around the team based on that confidence.
"His confidence in me has definitely boosted my confidence in myself. With the work I've put in during the off-season, I have confidence on the court.
"Coach and my teammates have put me in positions to do some good things. I want to perform to the best that I can so that I will stay with this team."