Left pretty much on her own with three of her teammates benched due to season-ending injuries, another retiring her green jersey for a maroon one through the transfer portal and five rookies, senior guard Nia Clouden has had her hands full leading the charge for Michigan State women’s basketball this season.
But, for the senior guard, it’s nothing new.
“I think I’ve had that kind of pressure my whole life playing basketball,” Clouden said. “I’ve been blessed to be one of the best players on every team I’ve been on and I’ve always kind of been looked at to (lead the pack), but yeah, still pressure (on me).”
Clouden was one of those athletes who grew up naturally gifted in the sport she loved. Not many are blessed that way, and Clouden both recognizes and cherishes that.
She got into the sport around the age of nine by just throwing a ball above the door in her house, before her parents eventually graduated her to the hoop that hooks over the door.
She later went to hoop at the local YMCA in Owings Mills, Maryland, her hometown, where she played with a group of boys her age in order to face that true five-on-five competition basketball draws. Her dad eventually even got her an outdoor hoop, where she’d play pickup games with the boys in the neighborhood and practice her shot range in a more regulation-size court fashion. Clouden’s always been a shooter.
She said she stopped playing outside when she hit high-school, around the age of 13 or 14, because she knew she was gifted and her aspirations for her athletic career were growing. Things were getting serious and watching the NBA and WNBA got the gears spinning with ideas.
“I remember, I was 11-years-old and I was working with my trainer,” Clouden said. “I was telling him I wanted to go to the WNBA. ... I really looked up to Maya Moore at the time, and watching her play … made me want to.”
Thankfully, Clouden had the support system to back her up. The message from her trainer at age 11 was simple: Put in the work to see the results.
“When I was younger, I used to not take things too seriously,” Clouden said. “I used to play like I was too cool or whatever. … He was telling me to put in the work to actually do that and get in the conversation, because there’s a lot of steps in-between where I was and (reaching my goal).”
Since becoming a Spartan, Clouden has been a dominant presence. She’s started in all 114 games she’s played. She’s a prolific athlete, currently ranked second in school history for career-points with 1,833, surpassing Aerial Powers, the highest WNBA draft pick to ever come out of MSU, and holding the school record of most points scored in a single women’s basketball game after a 50-point performance at Florida Gulf Coast on Dec. 20, 2021.
This season alone, she was placed on approximately three preseason and four midseason watch lists apiece, as well as having received Big Ten Honor Roll, Big Ten Player of the Week and Preseason All-Big Ten conference honors. She is the No. 22 women’s basketball player in the nation according to an early November ESPN report, and WNBA scouts have made multiple appearances in order to watch her play.
The list is definitely longer than that.
“It's interesting, of all the seniors we have for Senior Day, she's our only four year kid,” Michigan State Head Coach Suzy Merchant said before their game against Michigan. “I think, as a coach, the thing I appreciate most about Nia is ... her consistency. I've never had to talk to her about her attitude or her effort. It's the same, every day, and ... I think that can be a lost art in players when they get distracted. ... People can talk themselves into a lot of things and Nia has not.”
“She's brought) class (to this program),” Merchant added following their game against Michigan. “She's a class act, full of integrity and work ethic. She's a self-made player. She was not a five-star coming out of high school. Really good recruit, but just really has grinded it out and stayed the course. I really appreciate players who get better each year.”
Clouden is one hell of a decorated player, and she’s right: She is naturally gifted. She came into MSU as a slasher, someone off the bounce that could pull it over and get herself to the rim. She had the three-ball shot, even though it took some time to get comfortable. She's only proven she'll be a top draft pick in mid-April.
“When you see kids do it like that, the right way, through work ethic and commitment to getting to be the best version of themselves and leading their team, you really appreciate it as a coach,” Merchant said. “Consistency and willingness to go through a process isn't always what kids want to hear nowadays. ... Nia has had a great career (so far).”
“It’s good to see, kind of like a benchmark, something that you can look back on,” Clouden said. “Seeing all of the little steps in my basketball life that I’ve gone through to be able to get here, (but) I’ve still got a long way to go. Getting this kind of recognition is a really big honor and I really appreciate seeing all my hard work paying off. I’ve been doing this since a child.”
And she’s nowhere near done yet.
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