One of the biggest setbacks to the Liberty’s postseason plans actually came back on August 26, when second-year center Kiah Stokes landed awkwardly hauling in a rebound in the 2nd quarter at San Antonio, and exited the game with a hip injury. She would miss the rest of the regular season, returning for the one-game playoff against the Mercury, but did not have the time needed to regain form of one of the most daunting post players in the WNBA.
Just two years into her pro career, Stokes is already known as a premier defender, and is now seeing her offensive game evolve as well. With only 61 games under her belt, Stokes has already blocked 105 shots, good for 5th all-time in New York Liberty history, and she finished the 2016 season ranked 6th in the league with 1.4 blocks per game. Also an elite rebounder, Stokes saw her rebound per game average jump up to 7.4 per game last season, the 7th-best mark in the league.
Her defensive and rebounding presence has a huge impact on the way New York operates on both ends of the floor, but particularly on the defensive end. The Liberty led the league in opponent field goal percentage last year (.413) and for the 2nd year in a row boasted the strongest interior defense in the WNBA, holding opponents to just .504 on shots inside of five feet, thanks in large part to the length and timing of Stokes. New York was also 1st in defensive rebounds per game (27.9) )and rebounds (38.6).
Stokes also saw her scoring average jump last year, up to 6.9 ppg from 5.8 ppg as a rookie. That increase came in large part thanks to increased efficiency, as Stokes shot .641 from the field, with 2.3 offensive rebounds per game, which helped New York finish 4th in 2nd chance scoring (12.6 ppg).
While there may have been some disappointed with the inability to see what her growth could have meant to a lengthy playoff run (one of Stokes’ best games as a pro came in game 1 of last year’s Eastern Conference Finals when she had 21 points in a win over the Fever), there was much progress made to her game, increasing expectations for her future.
With Stokes and Charles, New York boasts the top rebounding duo in the WNBA, a factor that plays a large role in how the team executes and functions. Stokes has demonstrated that she is just scratching the surface of her full potential, her progression into year three is one of the most exciting things to monitor for Liberty fans in the coming months.
June 19 @ Indiana
Hauled in a career-high 14 rebounds in a road victory, also scoring 8 points with a couple of blocked shots
June 24 vs. Chicago
Scored a season-high 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting with 7 rebounds and 2 blocked shots in a Liberty win at The Garden
June 29 @ Minnesota
Nearly posted a double-double, finishing with 9 points and 11 boards as the Liberty posted a comeback win at Minnesota
DEFENSE STILL REIGNS
With Kiah Stokes once again helping hold down the defense in the paint, the Liberty was one of the top defensive teams in the league as New York once again led the league in defensive field goal percentage (.413) and proved to be the toughest team to score on in the paint in the WNBA. New York saw its opponents shoot just .504 on shots inside of five feet, the next closest team would be Minnesota at .540, and the league average was .571. Controlling the paint proved to be key all season, as the Liberty saw 18 of its 21 wins come when it won points in the paint.
BATTLE OF THE BOARDS
Head coach Bill Laimbeer places an emphasis on rebounding to team success and the Liberty has proven to be one of the best rebounding teams in the league across all metrics so far this season, thanks in large part to having a pair of elite rebounder in Tina Charles and Kiah Stokes. Charles led the league in rebounds per game (9.9), but Stokes ranked 7th with 7.4 per contest. Overall, New York outrebounded 23 opponents with a 17-6 record in those games, while the Liberty was just 3-6 when being outrebounded.
RODGERS AND STOKES JOIN USA BASKETBALL SELECT TEAM
Liberty center Kiah Stokes and guard Sugar Rodgers were both selected to the 11-member USA Basketball Women’s Select Team in July. They received the opportunity to travel to Los Angeles to train with the U.S. Olympic team in preparation for an exhibition between the two squads at USC’s Galen Center on July 24. After a couple of days of training under the guidance of the U.S. National Team Coaching Staff, Rodgers and Stokes helped the Select Team battle the National Team in a hard fought 88-84 loss. Stokes had two points and four rebounds for the Select squad and Rodgers finished with three points and two boards.