Kia Vaughn Making Her Case for Most Improved

Kia Vaughn has stepped up in a big way for the Liberty this season
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NEWARK, N.J. � Last year, if you really wanted to find out what was to become of Kia Vaughn, you could�ve just asked Leilani Mitchell�s back.

�You�d get hit with a screen in practice and you�re like unnghh,� Mitchell said after her New York Liberty team downed the Atlanta Dream on Wednesday. �It cracks your back, and you�re like �Dangit.��

Long before Vaughn took over the lane for the New York Liberty, she was busy making sure that people knew � even though she wasn�t yet playing much for the Liberty, and the only people who�d really seen what she could do lived 5,700 miles away in Israel � that she wasn�t going anywhere.

This year, to the relief of the rest of the Liberty, the center from the Bronx is finally getting the chance to beat up on somebody else. After averaging less than 10 minutes and four points a game for her first two WNBA seasons, Vaughn�s scoring 11.6 points per game and pulling down 7.2 boards a contest in her third. Tasked with the challenge of filling the void left by the losses of Taj McWilliams-Franklin and Janel McCarville, she�s done nothing but shine. And on Wednesday, with 14 points against the Dream, she added yet another game to a season that just might earn her Most Improved Player honors when it�s all over.

In an environment that seems almost perfectly suited for a breakout season, with two teammates who�ve already won the award (Nicole Powell in 2005 with Sacramento and Leilani Mitchell in 2010 with New York) and a coach that�s already coached two Most Improved Players in his career (John Whisenant coached two winners in Sacramento, including Powell), Vaughn�s ascent has her looking like an early favorite to take one of the game�s treasured prizes.

�A lot of tremendous players have won that award,� Powell said. �There�s tremendous competition for the award, and to receive that this year in the league, with so many players who are playing better, would be a real honor for her. And I think she deserves it, because she�s put in the work.�

It�s a good thing, too. Because from the start of training camp, the Liberty has needed her. Badly.

The minute that New York lost McWilliams-Franklin and McCarville � the former to free agency, the latter to a season-long suspension -- the Libs had to find a way to make up for a combined 11.3 rebounds and 19.4 points per game. A hard task for any single player, but the Liberty was not short on options.

�We said, �Kia, this is our team and we need you to step up,�� Powell said. �We don�t mince words here, and Coach said, �Kia, we need you.��

Whisenant, a 30-year veteran of the game and first-year coach and GM in New York,

Vaughn is averaging 7.2 rebounds per game in 2011
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had a feeling Vaughn would respond. As a GM with Sacramento, he�d followed her development at Rutgers. He�d kept tabs on her a little when she excelled abroad in Israel for the Ramat Hasharon club during the 2010 WNBA offseason. And he knew, after arthroscopy chased away the cartilage loitering inside her knee this past offseason, that she�d be ready.

�I can�t say enough about Kia,� Whisenant said. �She�s done extremely well. She�s worked hard from the very beginning to get herself in tip-top shape. This is her time. This is her time to shine.�

�She gets out there, she�s not afraid of anybody,� Mitchell said. �She knows we need her, and she�s ready to be the player we need her to be.�

But if Vaughn�s worked hard to get herself to this point � and, by all accounts, she most certainly has � she�s also had a lot of help. With young players, especially young players who end up spending their youth stapled to the bench, confidence comes and goes.

Mostly, it goes.

�You can�t play this game without confidence,� Whisenant said it. �So if you�re hesitant or tentative � �should I or shouldn�t I shoot it, should I or shouldn�t I do whatever on the floor� � I think having been a coach for a lot of years, I�ve seen a lot of those [examples], and I see that as something we try to correct.�

And Vaughn�s dealt with tests of confidence before. She all but vanished through the first half of her senior year at Rutgers, culminating (see: crashing) with a scoreless effort against DePaul in January before she found herself again against Connecticut a month later. From that point on, she regained the form that made her one of the best players in school history.

She then promptly spent two years on the bench in the WNBA.

But Vaughn staved off a collapse by drawing on her international experience. And on the future. And, of course, her team. And by doing so � by focusing on what she had around her � she built a foundation for this breakout season.

After all, talent isn�t enough. To really make it in the league, a player needs the right concoction of team and town, cast and coach, said Liberty guard Essence Carson, Vaughn�s teammate since Rutgers University.

�It takes a village to raise a child,� Carson said. �Positive energy, positive results.�

Then there�s Whisenant, who�s proved himself to be the sort of coach that rolls breakout seasons off the assembly line. He doesn�t demand much, outside of an unwavering commitment to defense and the simple request that every time you get the ball, you already know what you�re going to do with it. Always.

But above all, his team says, Whisenant wants his players to be themselves. It�s easier said than done, certainly. But while he crams his team into a defensive structure, he lets them open things up on the offensive side and remember exactly why they started playing basketball to begin with.

Inside that system, players once forgotten are given the chance to flourish.

�He is a player�s coach, because he lets you play,� Vaughn said of Whisenant. �He doesn�t like players who are timid. I watched my first two years, and I was thinking a lot, based on what I�m capable of doing I could do and what I could put my mind to. I was over-thinking the game, instead of just playing. He allows to me to just play, and if he allows them to play they become who they are at the end of the day.�

�Part of the reason I�m doing this is I enjoy this development of players,� Whisenant said. �That is what drives me in coaching.�

So Whisenant laid the groundwork. And Vaughn took care of the rest.

�I played not against her but against her teams overseas,� Mitchell said. �I saw her working out. She really worked on that elbow jumper. Last year she didn�t really shoot. She would hesitate. But I think that�s really become her shot.�

�One of the reasons Kia doing so well is her skills are great, but now she�s able to think about the game,� Powell said. �She�s slowing down the game. She�s improved tremendously in how she approaches the game mentally.�

A few minutes before Wednesday�s game, the lights went down and the crowd went up and in the center of it all was Vaughn, standing in the spotlight. Vaughn was in charge of animating the crowd of a few thousand kids filling the seats at Newark�s Prudential Center as part of the WNBA�s Camp Day.

Within seconds, she had the crowd going.

Then the show really began.

�I�ve always said that once I get out there, I�m gonna blossom and become who I am,� Vaughn said. �I�ll be who I need to be.�