Liberty shot-blocker Stokes contender for rookie of year
NEW YORK (AP) New York Liberty rookie Kiah Stokes visited the White House on Tuesday for a ceremony honoring the NCAA champion Connecticut basketball team.
On Wednesday, the contender for WNBA rookie of the year was back in New York for practice, gearing up for the playoffs.
Stokes has transitioned from defensive role player for the three-time defending champion Huskies to multifaceted spark plug off the bench for the resurgent Liberty, who face the Washington Mystics on Friday in Game 1 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series.
''She came in and played like a veteran from the start,'' said New York coach Bill Laimbeer. ''I think that's a UConn upbringing, they've played so many big games. Her defense has been spectacular for us all season long.''
Stokes led all WNBA rookies in rebounds (8.3 rpg), field goal percentage (.564) and blocks (1.5 bpg) in August. She finished fourth in the league in blocks this season.
The 11th pick in the WNBA draft, the 6-foot-3 Stokes can block shots with either hand. She's helped the Liberty (23-11) set the franchise record for wins and clinch the top seed in the East for the first time since 2002.
Connecticut Sun coach Anne Donovan previously coached at Seton Hall and often faced UConn and Stokes. This summer, she's watched Stokes average 5.8 points, 6.4 rebounds and 2.0 blocks in 25 minutes per game with the Liberty.
''She has my vote for rookie of the year,'' Donovan said. ''Our first game against them, I believe she had seven blocks. It was a block party.''
Actually, it was a franchise-record eight blocks on July 16.
''She could've easily been a starter - for whatever reason, Bill brings her off the bench - she just does a great job as a defensive presence and offensively she's shown that she's capable,'' Donovan said.
Heading into the playoffs, Stokes is the lone rookie on the Liberty ticket promotion that features veteran teammates Swin Cash, Tina Charles and Epiphanny Prince on the videoboard outside Madison Square Garden.
Here are some things to know about the 22-year-old Stokes, whose father Greg was a star player at Iowa in the 1980s:
MENTOR: Stokes is absorbing offensive and defensive lessons from Liberty assistant coach Herb Williams - the former Knicks assistant coach - and leading scorer (17.1) and rebounder (8.5) Charles.
''Tina's in my ear and giving me pointers - if you want the ball in the block, make a strong move,'' Stokes said. ''It's all right if you miss a shot. Look to score because we can't play 4-on-5.''
Charles, who also played at UConn under taskmaster Geno Auriemma, is impressed with Stokes.
''She's our DeAndre Jordan,'' Charles said of the Los Angeles Clippers' star and shot-blocker. ''She's special, I don't think she knows how special.''
FAMILY TRADE: Stokes averaged 25.0 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5.1 blocks her senior year at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa. She decided not to play 30 miles away in Iowa City, where her dad was an All-American under coach Lute Olson and George Raveling before playing for the Philadelphia 76ers.
Stokes saw limited action early in her UConn career, and at one point Auriemma suggested she stay home during Christmas break.
But Stokes persevered and set the Huskies' single-season record for blocked shots (147) - breaking Rebecca Lobo's record - and finished with a triple double (10 points, 11 rebounds, 10 blocks) her senior season.
''(Coach Auriemma) will not let you slack off,'' Greg Stokes said. ''So to be able to endure all that for four years, she can handle anything the WNBA could throw at her. I think that's why she's having so much success. I'm very proud of her.''
CLUTCH TIME: After missing the playoffs last season, New York stepped up its defense with the addition of scrappy guard Tanisha Wright, 6-foot-6 Carolyn Swords and Prince. Stokes has contributed on both ends in key wins, posting 10 points on 5-for-5 shooting, seven rebounds and four blocks in the 80-75 overtime victory against Atlanta on Sept. 1 - including four points and three boards in OT. Stokes had a career-high 13 points and 11 rebounds in the win over Chicago last month.
New York has held teams to the fewest points in the league (71.1) and lowest field-goal percentage (.393).
''She's bailed us out a lot with her ability to not only block shots but to alter shots,'' Cash said. ''Sometimes people get so caught up in only the offensive prowess. She's been a big piece of the reason why our defense has been so stellar.''