Natasha Cloud, LaToya Sanders to skip 2020 WNBA season

Two members of the Washington Mystics' 2019 championship team announced on Monday that they will not play this season.

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The Washington Mystics’ LaToya Sanders (center, in red) competes for the jump ball to start Game 5 of the 2019 WNBA Finals. Her teammate Natasha Cloud (behind her, in red) looks on. Photo credit: Domenic Allegra

On Monday afternoon, Washington Mystics head coach and general manager Mike Thibault announced that point guard Natasha Cloud and forward LaToya Sanders will not play in the 2020 WNBA season. Cloud cited her need to advocate for social justice, among other factors, while Sanders indicated that the decision is “what’s best for my health and family.”

Cloud posted her statement from the team’s announcement on Instagram, explaining the sense of responsibility she feels “to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball.”

This has been one of the toughest decisions of my career. But, I will be foregoing the 2020 WNBA season. There’s a lot of factors that led to this decision, but the biggest being that I am more than an athlete. I have a responsibility to myself, to my community, and to my future children to fight for something that is much bigger than myself and the game of basketball. I will instead, continue the fight on the front lines for social reform, because until black lives matter, all lives can’t matter. #TogetherWeStand #BLM #illbeback #2021
June 22, 2020

One night earlier, Cloud seemed to hint at her decision on the ESPYs Pre-Show, which was hosted by ESPN’s Cassidy Hubbarth and Elle Duncan. When Duncan asked what she thought of Atlanta Dream point guard Renee Montgomery’s decision to sit out the 2020 season, Cloud responded, “We’ve kind of been on the same wavelength.” She added that she has been talking regularly with Montgomery lately and appreciates having someone to have “those hard conversations with and just bounce ideas off of.”

Cloud has also been putting those words into action—something she has been known for throughout much of her WNBA career. Last month, she wrote an article for The Players’ Tribune titled “Your Silence Is a Knee on My Neck” in response to George Floyd’s death at the hands of police. “There’s only one thing that’s on my mind,” Cloud wrote. “Right now, if we’re being really real? As a black person in America, there’s only one thing that could possibly BE on my mind. And that’s fearing for my life.”

Most recently, Cloud helped organize a march on Juneteenth in which players and coaches from the Mystics and the NBA’s Washington Wizards walked to the Martin Luther King, Jr., Memorial and read a list of names of people who have died due to police brutality or racial injustice. Cloud told The Athletic’s David Aldridge that she had not thought about basketball for the past two weeks except for when she was on required WNBA calls.

“When we take that uniform off, we are Black men and women,” Cloud told Aldridge. “We don’t get to take our skin color off … So when we’re talking about the game of basketball, today, right now, I could [not] care less. Our calling right now is to use our God-given platforms, to use our voices to collectively come together for something greater than all of ourselves combined.”

Although basketball is rarely on Cloud’s mind these days, there’s no denying that her absence will be felt this season. The Mystics have considerable depth, but point guard is likely the spot the Mystics could least afford to lose. Last season, Cloud set new career highs in points (9.0), assists (5.6), steals (1.0), and blocks (0.2) per game, and she was even better in the postseason. In nine playoff games, Cloud averaged 13.1 points and 6.2 assists while shooting 38% from 3-point range.

In her absence, free agent signing Leilani Mitchell is the only true point guard on the roster, though the Mystics will need to add at least two players to get back up to the WNBA minimum of 11.

Those additional players will also have to help replace Sanders, who like Cloud has played for the Mystics since 2015. Sanders said in the team’s release, “This was not an easy choice to make, but after much thought and conversation I do believe it is what’s best for my health and family. I wish my teammates and the entire Mystics family the best this season and I will continue to watch and support them.”

Neither Sanders nor the team gave further details on her decision-making process. However, Sanders battled anemia during the 2018 WNBA season and has had several injuries throughout her career. She has also previously opted out of playing in the WNBA to be with family, including when her father was terminally ill in 2012, so this decision is not a complete shock when viewed from that angle.

Last season, the 6’2” Sanders started all 34 regular-season games for the Mystics and averaged 6.1 points on 51% shooting from the floor. She also recorded 5.5 rebounds, 1.9 assists, and 1.4 blocks per game and frequently guarded the opponent’s top interior player, despite giving up several inches to the likes of Connecticut’s Jonquel Jones (who also opted out of the 2020 season on Monday) and Las Vegas’ Liz Cambage.

The Mystics will definitely miss Sanders’s contributions on both ends of the floor as well as her leadership on and off the court, but the team’s frontcourt depth makes her absence slightly easier to stomach than Cloud’s. One of the biggest challenges for Thibault this season was going to be figuring out how to play all of his forwards.

In that sense, Sanders’s absence makes the rotation slightly clearer, leaving the Mystics with 2019 WNBA MVP Elena Delle Donne, 2019 WNBA Finals MVP Emma Meesseman, 2012 WNBA MVP Tina Charles, Tianna Hawkins, and Myisha Hines-Allen in the frontcourt.

It’s not certain yet which Mystics players will ultimately be in Bradenton, Florida, for the 2020 season, as they have until June 25 to opt-out of playing. However, Meesseman is reportedly flying to the United States from her home country of Belgium on June 25.

To complement the roster as it currently stands, the Mystics will likely add at least one more ball-handler. Current free-agent point guards include veteran Brittany Boyd, Atkins’s former Texas teammate Brooke McCarty-Williams, and rookie Te’a Cooper. Perhaps the Mystics could also call on Shey Peddy, who played spot minutes in 15 games with the team last season before getting cut and moving into a new role as a video and analytics assistant.

To fill Sanders’s spot, a like-for-like replacement is certainly an option, but the Mystics may look more broadly than a veteran, defensive-minded forwards. They could bring back their 2020 second-round draft pick Jaylyn Agnew, a 5’11” wing who Thibault “kept praying” would be available when it was the Mystics’ turn to pick. On draft night, Agnew said she sees herself as someone who can space the floor and give Delle Donne, Charles, and Meesseman more room to operate inside, and Thibault might opt for that spacing over signing yet another forward.

However Thibault fills out the roster, the Mystics are probably no longer a favorite to repeat as champions this season without Cloud and Sanders. However, they should not be counted out as contenders given all of the talent that remains. The WNBA will play a shortened 22-game regular season and a full postseason starting next month at IMG Academy in Florida.

All statistics are courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.