Womhoops Guru

Mel Greenberg covered college and professional women’s basketball for the Philadelphia Inquirer, where he worked for 40 plus years. Greenberg pioneered national coverage of the game, including the original Top 25 women's college poll. His knowledge has earned him nicknames such as "The Guru" and "The Godfather," as well as induction into the Women's Basketball Hall of Fame in 2007.

Friday, September 30, 2016

WNBA Feature: Kiah Stokes Has Become the Defensive Glue of the New York Liberty

Guru note: Longtime freelance colleague Andy Lipton out of Queens has offered this article to the blog 

 By Andy Lipton

New York -- It’s time to drop some ink (or its the digital equivalentover center Kiah Stokes.  

During her college days at the University of Connecticut (UConn) and her professional career with the WNBA’s New York Liberty, the headlines have usually been reserved for Stokes' longer acclaimed teammates.  

In the world of basketball, headlines tend to go to scorers and point guards.  Once in a while a defender or rebounder gets the press.  Dennis Rodman comes to mind.  But that was probably due more to his oversized personality.  

Back in her collegiate days at UConn, which concluded in 2015, Breanna Stewart, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Moriah Jefferson, and Bria Hartley got most of the ink.

During her two years with the Liberty, it’s been Tina Charles, Epiphanny Prince, and Swin Cash.

Yet Stokes has been an integral part of the Liberty’s resurgence the lastwo years with her defense, including shot blocking, and defensive and offensive rebounding.

This season she led the team in blocks (and sixth best in the league in blocks per game) and was second on her team in rebounding at 7.4 a game (and seventh in the league). 

And despite not taking many shots at 4.3 per game seven teammates topped her - Stokes averaged 6.9 points a game in this year’s regular season, the fourth most on her team, and led her team by far in shooting percentage at 64%.

Stokes doesn’t look fast, but somehow, whether through timing, anticipation, agility, or quickness, or a combination of those – not really sure which – Stokes gets to the ball to block shots and rebound, and stays with the player she is defending.

The WNBA coaches recognized her contributions and abilities last year during her rookie season putting her on the WNBA All-Defensive Second Team and the All-RookieTeam.  

The Liberty picked her in the first round in the 2015 draft, eleventh overall, and it was quite the pick.  

Especially since Stokes started only four games in her senior year and three games her other three years at UConn.  

It reminds me of center Swen Nater, who backed up Bill Walton at UCLA in the 1970s. Nater never started a game at UCLA but became a first round draft pick in the NBA draft.

Stokes can block shots with either hand and the blocks are deft deflections.

She has also brought a winning pedigree to the Liberty and its unquantifiable intangibles.

  Stokes won a state championship during her junior year in high school and won three NCAA championships at UConn

 The Liberty had excellent seasons her two years with them, with regular season records of 23-11 (the best in franchise history) and 21-13 and made the playoffs those two years after missing the postseason the preceding two years.

In high school, Stokes was a scorer.  

In her junior year she averaged 19.9 points per game and in her senior year, 25.  

Although the Liberty encourages her to shoot more when she is open, the offense is not geared to her.  The shot has to find her.  The offense does not allow her, to any significant extent, to find her shot as the offense is geared for Tina Charles and the guards.

The one and only Red Auerbach the legendary Boston Celtics coach, when asked why the Sixth Man, John Havlicek, wasn’t starting, said it didn’t matter who started the game, what mattered was who finished the game.

Stokes didn’t start a game this past season for the Liberty, but in close games she was usually in the game at the end and for most of the fourth quarter. She played 24 minutes a game on average, third highest on the team.

Coach Bill Laimbeer has consistently praised her play in his postgame press conferences.

The Liberty’s 21-13 record was third best in the league and tied for third-best in wins in franchise history, despite having finished their last 8 games at 3-5.  

Stokes missed the last seven games of the regular season due to a hip injury.  Stokes was cleared to start playing a day before the Liberty’s single elimination playoff game against the Phoenix Mercury this past Saturday, after not playing for about a month.

But the Liberty suffered a one-and-done under the new WNBA format when the eighth-seeded Mercury upset the New Yorkers in Madison Square Garden.

The Mercury, the WNBA chamons two years ago, had a 16-18 regular season record and won a single elimination game against the Indiana Fever to advance to play the Liberty.  The Liberty had a 2-1 record against the Mercury during the regular season and the loss was in overtime.

The aging veteran Mercury team had time to recover after their win against Indiana on the preceding Wednesday night before facing the Liberty.

And as the aging Mercury proved, after Wednesday's upset win at Indiana in the opener last Wednesday, they are a very savvy and skilled team, with players who have played together for a number of years, and that on any one night, they can win.  

A longer series in a compressed time frame might have worn them down.

A longer series would also have benefitted Stokes, giving her an opportunity to get in better condition.  She only played 10 minutes in the game against Phoenix.


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