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Rookie Report: Rookie of the Year Race Heats Up

It seems slightly crazy that we’re already at the point of the season where Rookie of the Year is an award worth pondering. It feels like just yesterday that Jewell Loyd was walking onto the stage at Mohegan Sun Arena as the top pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft. But with only a month left in the season, it’s time to start looking at the best rookies and determining which players should be atop the rookie ladder.

This week we’ll take a deeper look at Liberty rookie Kiah Stokes. The 6-foot-3 center out of Connecticut has excelled in head coach Bill Laimbeer’s system and is a vital part of what has made the Liberty the top defensive team in the league. She leads all rookies in blocks per game (2.19) and has already set the franchise record for blocks in a game (8).

“She’s brought a great defensive presence,” said Liberty assistant Herb Williams, “shot blocking, rebounding, being able to guard a variety of players – from small forwards to centers. We’ve just got to get her to shoot the ball a little more. She can shoot it, she just wasn’t asked to do it for a while, so it’s just something you’ve got to try to bring out of her. She’s a very intelligent player, very skilled and she should have a great career.”

Stokes displayed her scoring ability Tuesday night in the Liberty’s 84-63 win over the Chicago Sky, dropping 13 points and pulling down 11 rebounds. But nights like Tuesday have not been the norm thus far for Stokes on the offensive end. Even still, her defensive presence has helped the Liberty dominate inside the paint all season long.

“She’s the type of player who could have zero points,” Liberty guard Epiphanny Prince said of Stokes, “but impact the game with her rebounding, her ability on defense and she’s able to score, too. So that’s a big plus for us, because she’s not just a one-sided player.”

1. Jewell Loyd

It may have taken her a little while to get going, but the No. 1 pick in the 2015 WNBA Draft has come on strong as of late. Through 23 games, Loyd leads all rookies in minutes per game (25.5) and points per game (9.5). Loyd’s continued strong play will go a long way in Seattle’s fight to sneak into the playoffs. They’re currently only one game back of the No. 4 spot out west.

2. Kiah Stokes

Stokes has earned the trust of her teammates, and assistant coach Herb Williams praised her ability to always be in the right spot defensively. She’s transitioned “seamlessly” to the professional game, according to teammate Carolyn Swords. She is playing the second-most minutes of all rookies (24) and leads all rookies in rebounds per game (6.4) and blocks per game (2.19).

3. Natalie Achonwa

Natalie Achonwa has put together a solid rookie campaign after sitting out the 2014 season recovering from an ACL injury. She missed some games in the middle of the first half of the season while playing with the Canadian national team, and that is the primary knock against her campaign at this point. She’s been solid frontcourt asset for a Fever team that is clawing away in a tightly contested Eastern Conference playoff race.

4. Dearica Hamby

Dearica Hamby started the season about as strong as any coach could hope for from a rookie — especially one that has only been playing basketball for a handful of years. Hamby has started 16 games for the San Antonio Stars and has continued to rebound and run the floor well, just as she did during her illustrious career at Wake Forest. Hamby is fourth among rookies in points per game (7.1) and second in rebounds per game (4.8).

5. Ramu Tokashiki

The award for most surprising rookie has to go to Storm forward Ramu Tokashiki. The four-time Japanese league MVP has turned plenty of heads during her short time in the WNBA. Sue Bird says she’s one of the most athletic bigs she’s ever seen, and noted at the All-Star Game that Tokashiki can dunk with ease. Tokashiki, 24,  is the third-leading rookie in points per game (7.1) and fourth in minutes per game (19.3).