Most players dream of making highlight reels by slamming home a dunk like Brittney Griner or hitting a game winning three-pointer.
Kiah Stokes isn’t like most players.
“I love to block shots,” the Liberty center said. “I think it’s equivalent to a dunk in the men’s game. It gets the crowd hype, so I think if I can have a good block it does the same thing.”
And block shots she does. In New York’s 64-57 win over Connecticut on Thursday, Stokes had her strongest game of an already stellar rookie campaign, notching a franchise-record eight blocks in 30 minutes of play. Just 13 games into her rookie season, she has already emerged as one of the premier defensive players in the league.
The Liberty center has recorded 37 blocks and averages 2.64 swats per game, both league-highs. The next-best shot blocker, MVP frontrunner Elena Delle Donne, has just 31 blocks this year. In all, Stokes’s contributions have helped the Liberty allow an Eastern Conference-low 71.5 points per game — second in the entire league — and climb into a tie with the Sky for first place in the conference.
Perhaps Stokes’ success on the Liberty should not come as a surprise. After all, the team’s head coach Bill Laimbeer was ferocious on the defensive end during his playing days with the Bad Boy Pistons and remains Detroit’s franchise leader in rebounds today.
But when asked what advice he has given his rookie this year, Laimbeer had little to offer.
“Not that much advice,” Laimbeer said. “Her natural ability is so talented. She’s a basketball player—she understands the game of basketball five-on-five, which many players don’t. She does.”
Instead, Stokes’ success can be traced to her four years in college at Connecticut. She started only four games during her senior season, but as Laimbeer noted, she established herself as a “defensive stopper,” averaging a team-high 3.8 blocks per game for the National Champion squad that led the country in defense. At Connecticut, she honed her strengths in individual and team defense, as well as defensive positioning, that Laimbeer said has made her such a strong defensive player.
Although Stokes’ adjustment from college to the professional game has seemed flawless, with Laimbeer even calling it an “easy transition,” Stokes has encountered challenges during her rookie season.
“[The WNBA] is definitely a lot faster than the college game, which is surprising coming from UConn where we play really fast,” she said. “Everyone can jump higher, and they’re stronger. I knew everyone was going to be physical and strong, but they take it to another level.”
While Stokes excels on the defensive end, she still has much room to grow on offense, averaging just 5.7 points per game. Last year’s UConn team featured scorers like Breanna Stewart and Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, and Stokes attempted just the eight-most field goals on the squad. Laimbeer said that now, however, the Liberty are looking to Stokes to contribute more on the offensive end.
“Obviously, I would like to score more points,” she said. “As long as I can put more points on the board as well as keeping my defense, that’s what I’m looking to improve.”
Laimbeer characterized such growth as “a work in progress” and said that it “doesn’t happen overnight.”
Liberty center Tina Charles, the 2012 WNBA MVP who also played at Connecticut, has noticed that Stokes possesses a work ethic that can enable that improvement to happen.
“She really wants to get better,” Charles said. “She’s always the last person in the gym working on her game, just gaining confidence. She’s always listening. She’s coachable. She has respect for everyone around her … I think she has a long time in this league.”
Stokes will look to continue to improve on the offensive end. Until then, one thing is for sure: if you’re hoping to catch a highlight during a Liberty game, keep an eye on Stokes swatting shots down low on defense.