Is Michigan State guard Nia Clouden one of basketball’s most underrated players? Spartans head coach Suzy Merchant seems to think so.
“I think Nia has garnered some opportunity that she should have been on some of those national lists,” Merchant said of Clouden’s absence from national award lists last March. Clouden had just powered the Spartans past Big Ten Tournament No. 2 overall seed Indiana in an improbable upset, despite earning sparse recognition outside of Big Ten circles for the greater part of the 2020-21 NCAA season.
Originally hailing from Owings Mills, Md., Clouden is one to let her game to the talking — and it speaks volumes. The 5-foot-8 guard has become the Spartans’ go-to player, leading the team’s offense in both scoring and distributing more often than not without ever shying away from big moments, with Michigan State’s run in the 2021 Big Ten Tournament the latest example.
While Clouden’s lack of national recognition to this point may upset Michigan State faithful, there’s little doubt that she’s made a solid case to be drafted to the WNBA next spring. Let’s take a look at some of Clouden’s most impressive achievements as she continues to build that case.
Honors and statistics
Clouden has climbed the ladder of the Big Ten’s top players, gradually receiving more and more recognition in each of her first three seasons at Michigan State. The No. 42 recruit in the class of 2018 (as well as the No. 14 point guard), Clouden earned an honorable mention All-Big Ten nod after averaging 12 points and 3.9 assists per game as a freshman.
From there, Clouden earned Second Team honors as a sophomore and First Team honors as a junior, raising her scoring average to 14.5 points and 18.7 points in her second and third seasons, respectively. Prior to her senior season, Clouden was named to the Preseason All-Big Ten Team by conference coaches and media, and this time around, she’s also been named to preseason watch lists for national awards such as the Wade Trophy, Naismith Award and Wooden Award.
Internationally, Clouden has participated in trials for the Team USA U16 National Team in 2015 and the Team USA U19 World Cup Team in 2019.
How she helps the Spartans
Clouden’s role for the Spartans is that of a scoring lead guard. While she’s not always the one who initiates the team’s offense — the arrival of 2021’s No. 23 overall recruit DeeDee Hagemann has kept the burden of shot creation at manageable levels for Clouden — she’s certainly the Spartan’s go-to scorer, having once again upped her scoring average to 19.2 points through 11 games. The highlight of Clouden’s season thus far was a six-game stretch in which she dropped at least 20 points in each game, shooting better than 50 percent from the field in four of them.
This kind of consistency is nothing new for Clouden. According to Her Hoop Stats, her usage rate has sat comfortably at slightly above 25 percent for two-plus seasons now, and she’s always excelled at earning easy points at the free throw line; Clouden has ranked in the 76th percentile or higher in free throw rate in each of her collegiate seasons, and she currently leads all of Division I in total free throws made (64).
As the Big Ten Network’s Autumn Johnson noted in her preseason player rundown, Clouden’s main strength is her speed. A quick first step and a reliable pull-up jumpshot make her a major threat off the dribble; she’s not the biggest or most physically imposing guard, but she has a penchant for creating shots out of seemingly nothing, so she’s right at home with the ball in her hands and the game on the line.
Other parts of Clouden’s game are still developing. Her 3-point shot, in particular, is something Merchant mentioned as a potential area of improvement, given how much the team relies on Clouden at the end of games and the NCAA moving the women’s 3-point line back prior to the 2021-22 season, but Merchant’s star guard has actually shot the ball better than ever as a senior. Clouden is currently knocking down 43.2 percent of her 3-pointers and scoring 27 percent of her points from behind the arc — both career-highs — and Synergy Sports ranks her catch and shoot efficiency in the 97th percentile.
Clouden’s bread and butter, however, will always be her scoring off the dribble. Michigan State puts her in pick and rolls on over 37 percent of her possessions, according to Synergy Sports, and she ranks in the 93rd percentile of pick and roll scoring thanks to her tight handle, fearlessness attacking the rim and quick pull-up jumpshot. Michigan State’s backcourt may look different than it did last season, but Clouden’s role remains the same and there’s still no doubt who the Spartans will get the ball to when they’re in need of a bucket.
Watch her play
Big Ten play is right around the corner, but the Spartans’ most immediate order of business is the West Palm Beach Invitational. Michigan State will take on Florida Gulf Coast on Monday, Dec. 20 and West Virginia on Tuesday, Dec. 21. Both games will tip-off at 11 a.m. ET and will be broadcast on FloHoops.
Afterwards, every remaining Michigan State game will be streamed on Big Ten Network Plus, with a handful of games being televised on the Big Ten Network. Of particular interest are a game against national powerhouse Maryland (Thursday, Feb. 3) and a rivalry matchup against Michigan (Thursday, Feb. 10).
All statistics and team records for the 2021-22 season are current through Dec. 14, 2021.