Does Kiah Stokes enable the Liberty to be who they want to be?
Re-signing Stokes for 2021 offers more questions than answers
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Kiah Stokes #41 of the New York Liberty handles the ball against the Indiana Fever on September 10, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via GettyImages.
Kiah Stokes had a vacillating type of conclusion in the Bradenton Wubble. Her final 48 hours of the 2020 WNBA season included the highest of highs and the lowest of lows. To start, against the Mystics on Saturday, she scored 15 points off five three-pointers, the most three balls she’s scored in a game in her five-year career.
But with 19 seconds left in the fourth quarter, the shot clock turned off, a one-point lead, and the ball in her hands a day later, Stokes’ impulsive mid-range miss cost the Liberty their last game of the season, falling to the Dallas Wings in a 82-79 nailbiter.
On Sunday morning in between the two games, the team announced they had extended Stokes’ contract, re-signing her through 2021.
Damiris Dantas was also extended by the Minnesota Lynx on Thursday, three days before the season’s end, but comparing the two situations would be comparing apples and oranges. Dantas, a six-year veteran, is on the verge of completing her best statistical year in the league, making leaps in field goal percentage, rebounds, and points per game.
Stokes, however, saw a steep decrease in her efficiency, mostly the result of a drastic shift in her game. How would a 6’3 center known for her defense and offensive rebounding become a three-point shooter to fit head coach Walt Hopkins’ offense? It doesn’t happen overnight. Stokes showed glimpses of what she could be, but was it enough?
According to General Manager Jonathan Kolb, it was.
“Coming into the season, we were gonna figure out who we want to roll with us,” he told reporters before Sunday’s game. “As the season went on, it was quite clear that Kiah Stokes needs to be a part of what we're doing. She's a major piece. She enables us to do what we want to do and be who we want to be.”
It’s not fair to judge Stokes on those final 48 hours in Florida, but instead, it’s worth examining holistically what she brought to the Liberty this season. Does her growth and development in 2020 provide enough of a sample size for what the Liberty hope she can provide in 2021? Is re-signing Kiah Stokes to a contract extension a sign that the Liberty are confident enough in what they’ve seen?
Kolb made the case, explaining that the shift in her game helps rather than hinders. I’m afraid I haven’t seen enough evidence.
The journey to expand her game
Kiah Stokes #41 of the New York Liberty shoots three-point basket against the Connecticut Sun on September 1, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.
All Kiah Stokes knew was how to play on what she deemed was “Tina Charles’ team.” Around the league before this season, coaches have recognized her as a shot-blocker and an offensive rebounder. After three years under Bill Laimbeer and one under Katie Smith, Stokes was going to have to adapt not only her game but also her role as a teammate. With seven rookies to begin training camp, she was forced to find her leadership style.
During training camp, she told reporters that being a leader was something that she wasn’t used to. She’s always been one of the youngest. A lot was placed on her shoulders, but she accepted and embraced the challenge.
“Something I’m not used to doing because I’ve always been one of the younger players on the team, but now with rookie players on the team it’s going to be a lot harder,” she said. “But I’m looking forward to the opportunity, to the role... Just knowing that we have to step up. Everyone on the team from the rookies to Layshia our oldest player, we need to take it a step further because we are going to need it for sure.”
On media day in mid-July, Stokes shared exactly what was going to be expected of her. The new coaching staff led by Hopkins and well-renowned assistant Shelley Patterson needed all of the bigs including Stokes to be comfortable handling the ball and shooting. Amid obvious discomfort, Stokes saw the benefits. “Going into last year overseas, my coach was really into being comfortable with the ball, shooting more,” she said. “But also trying to continue that and then improve it here with Walt and the coaching staff.”
There was a lot for Stokes to learn including guard drills according to teammate and close friend Kia Nurse. In addition to shooting threes, she was using her body and her mind in ways she hadn’t before. “That's not something that she was typically used to and not something she was asked to do on a daily basis on other teams,” Nurse said on September 10.
After the Liberty’s first game of the season, where Stokes momentarily shocked WNBA twitter making her first career three-ball, head coach Hopkins noted that this wasn’t a fluke. From what he had seen in practice, calling her one of the most consistent shooters in the gym, he imagined that she was going to knock down *a lot* more.
She knocked down 19 more out of 85 total attempts.
Hopkins told The Next that in practice Stokes makes anywhere from 74-77 percent of her threes. That is a level close to where Sabrina Ionescu would hit when the number one overall draft pick was with the team earlier this season.
So what is the discrepancy? “It's the mental side of it,” he said. “That's the hard part.”
And Stokes agrees. After her breakout game from beyond the arc against the Mystics on Saturday, she explained that for her it’s about confidence and the encouragement she receives from her team and the Liberty’s coaching staff. “I missed my first shot really badly so I was a little uh… but [assistant coach] Dustin [Gray] and Walt do a great job and [they say]: just keep shooting, just keep shooting because in practice I make them all the time.”
Hopkins has praised Stokes for being amenable and doing whatever the staff has asked of her. He explained how much courage it takes for someone to go out every single game and continue to play in a way that makes them uncomfortable as “it’s harder than people think.”
“You know when you're uncomfortable, you know you're able to grow,” Hopkins said before the Liberty’s final game. “It's really hard to grow when you're just doing the things that you're comfortable doing, so Stokes has been out of her comfort zone in so many ways and she's really embraced it.”
Offensive struggles were deeper than just missing threes
Kiah Strokes #41 of the New York Liberty reaches for the ball during the game against the Atlanta Dream on September 3, 2020, at Feld Entertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.
Amid shooting 23 percent from the perimeter, there’s a silver lining to Kiah Stokes shooting 85 threes in 2020. What it proves is that Hopkins’ system can work, but with the right personnel.
Per Synergy Sports before the Liberty’s final game of the 2020 season, Stokes was in the 11th percentile of the WNBA in spot-up possessions. She has been guarded on only 17.8 percent of her 73 total catch and shoot possessions. Before Sunday’s game, over 82 percent of her shots were left wide open.
Why is this significant? Before the pandemic, let’s remember who was most likely going to be the Liberty’s starting four, Australian sharpshooter Rebecca Allen. Hopkins told The Next that part of moving Stokes to the four spot in the starting lineup was to make sure that Kylee Shook wasn’t buried in the rotation. He and his staff wanted to see Shook and rightly so. “We had to play those two together [Amanda Zahui B. and Stokes], and that, trust me was not the plan.”
Having Stokes start served two purposes: it allowed her to develop as a player while also providing the Liberty with data that they need to evaluate “the strengths and weaknesses of the system.”
“What do we need to tweak, what type of player do we need on both ends of the court to play in a position Stokes is playing if it's a four or five,” he said.
Now for some math. Before the final game against Dallas, in 73 catch and shoot possessions, Stokes recorded 0.671 points per possession which amounts to 49 total points. In 2019, Allen had coincidentally 73 possessions in the catch and shoot metric as well, but take her 1.096 points per possession and that creates 80 total points from her possessions.
Remember, in 2019 Allen wasn’t even functioning in Hopkins’ system. Occasionally Katie Smith ran plays for her to ease some of the load off Tina Charles. In Hopkins’ system in a full season, Allen’s open looks are going to only increase. Applying Allen’s point per possession from 2019 to the amount and types of looks Stokes got, she would have scored close to 90 points rather than 48. Could the Liberty have won more games, possibly?
But, don’t expect Allen to have as many open looks as Stokes did. There’s a reason for that. But, the takeaway is in 2021, the opposing defenses will be forced to evacuate the paint. Even when defenses did guard Allen back in 2019, she still maintained 0.949 points per possession compared to her unguarded 1.265 points per possession.
But there are drawbacks to Stokes receiving open looks on the perimeter especially when she couldn’t convert a majority of them.
In the first play of the game against the Mystics on Saturday, Myishia Hines-Allen didn’t budge to guard Stokes in the left corner pocket. What did she do instead? She stayed in the paint within the Mystics’ zone defense to help Emma Meesseman contest and alter Paris Kea’s drive. I wonder, if Stokes didn’t flash to the perimeter and stayed in the paint, could she have gotten an opportunity for a putback? Remember, Hopkins’ system thrives on easy twos as well.
Mystics head coach Mike Thibault explained his rationale guarding Stokes in the first half. “We were going to try to let her have some of the open threes and take away Zahui B.’s so we could help a little more,” he said postgame.
That’s exactly what Washington did.
“Kiah’s really working on her three-point shooting. Earlier in the season she was mostly shooting from the corners and struggling there.”
I’ve officially retired calling Hopkins’ offense the “New Era System.” The 2020 season is over. But here’s what I’m going to call it instead moving forward: a 5-Out Motion Offense, (emphasis on the motion). The play above demonstrates an issue with New York’s offense all season long: it lacked motion. While it’s not only Stokes who was stagnant, where she watched a play unfold while standing in the left corner pocket. As a result, the defense is given the tools to pack the paint because they don’t respect her three-point shooting ability. With Hines-Allen in the paint, the Mystics defense had a higher success rate defending a drive.
Stokes also has had difficulty all season initiating the pick and roll. Kylee Shook, the Liberty’s rookie stretch post player initiates. It’s part of her game. She has her hand up and alerts the guards that she’s ready to set a screen. In the same game against Washington, Stokes stood around on the wing for four seconds of the shot clock before moving to create a play. By the time she lunged forward, Nurse threw it behind her for a turnover. In this play, Nurse was surrounded by a triple coverage of Mystics defenders. In those three idle seconds, Stokes could have bailed Nurse out, setting a screen for her to come off and take a jump shot. That didn’t happen here.
After the game against Washington when Stokes made her five threes, she did speak on what she knows she needs to improve upon. “[I’m] thankful for the coaching staff to put me in this position to try to expand my game and hopefully next season and overseas I could try to incorporate a little bit of both, a little more not just on the perimeter and not just in the post,” she told reporters. A couple of days earlier, she admitted that she aims to get more aggressive offensively.
Hopkins concurred. “It's not just the shots,” he told reporters on September 10. “She's gotten to the point now where she's not passing open looks anymore, and now it's when she gets the ball in the post, attacking down there, and when she rolls, she's actually looking for the ball and looking at the finish when she gets it.”
Shot blocking isn’t everything on defense
Tyasha Harris #52 of the Dallas Wings shoots the ball against Kiah Stokes and the New York Liberty on September 13, 2020, at Feld EntertainmentCenter in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAE via GettyImages.
Something well known about Kiah Stokes is her ability to defend. Both Hopkins and Kolb have confidence in her game defensively. In the team announcement of her re-signing, Kolb mentioned her “physicality” and “shot-blocking” ability as major reasons for her return.
Synergy confirmed that her consistency on the defensive end continued this season, but unfortunately those numbers don’t tell the whole story. Synergy doesn’t adequately measure help defense. The person who is penalized for the offense scoring is the main or initial defender rather than the helper.
And also, being a shot-blocker isn’t synonymous with being an elite defender. Those two aren’t mutually exclusive. And Mystics center LaToya Sanders explained to Lindsay Gibbs exactly why.
“Just because you block shots, that doesn’t mean you’re good at defense. There’s so many other things; like I don’t see no other (players) picking up full court, denying guards, guarding multiple positions, and switching on the pick-and-rolls. You just don’t see it,” she said.
Let’s take Sanders’ thoughts piece by piece, shall we? First, denying guards and positioning. Against the Indiana Fever, in particular, Stokes had difficulty contesting and stopping drives from Kennedy Burke and Kelsey Mitchell. In both plays below, Stokes is positioned off the midline and she sticks closer to Natalie Achonwa than she should.
What happens? By not letting go of her woman in Achonwa, both drivers get to the basket with ease. This brings me to my next point via Sanders: Stokes has difficulty helping and this is most apparent when defending on pick and roll.
Against the Mercury, Jocelyn Willoughby was guarding Shatori Walker-Kimbrough on the wing. Stokes should switch with Willoughby once the rookie gets stuffed by Kia Vaughn’s screen. But instead, Stokes stays behind Vaughn and watches while Willoughby rushes in between a Stokes and Vaughn sandwich to try to contest the shot. But alas, Willoughby is too late and Walker-Kimbrough’s three is nothing but net.
An observation of Stokes’ defense that is beyond the boxscore and the statline from synergy is that she waits to contest a shot. In the play below, she doesn’t help Neah Odom as she gets over Achonwa’s screen. And instead of putting up a hand to contest, Stokes turns her head and watches as Mitchell’s jumper lands in the net.
While blocks can be an asset on defense, examining how Stokes blocks shots illustrate the reason why there is such a discrepancy between the numbers and the eye test. Stokes’ approach to defense is more about stopping her person one on one rather than always being on the look out to stop the ball.
Here’s a block from Stokes, but she applies pressure by sticking to her woman in Hines-Allen. While her block led to a positive play for the Liberty, this is just another example of how Stokes approaches defense: stopping her person rather than the ball.
Kylee Shook on the other hand could achieve the best of both worlds in her block on DeWanna Bonner. She and Willoughby well timed their switch and Shook was able to track Bonner down to both block and alter her shot.
Speaking of the rookies, when asked what she had learned from them this season, Stokes mentioned their energy, calling it “infectious and contagious.”
“I think that's one thing that I've kind of lacked,” she said. “As you get older, you play more games, sometimes losing doesn't… it's not like the end of the world like it was at UConn,” she said. “So sometimes you kind of lose that.”
The rationale behind the extension
Walt Hopkins has been impressed by Stokes’ resilience to stick with a process that was uncomfortable. After her re-signing was announced, he called her “consistent” in terms of “her demeanor and her work ethic.” In his own words, another “quintessential teammate.” And he’s not wrong. She bought Jazmine Jones NBA 2K21 on XBOX.
While Hopkins may praise her demeanor as consistent, in 2020 her game wasn’t. But, New York’s head coach believes in her, contending that getting an opportunity to do something “for a second go-round helps with motivation and execution.”
“I know that what people are seeing in the game is that percentage, but it's certainly not skill work or a need for her to learn how to shoot,” Hopkins told The Next. “It's more just her level of comfortability and her confidence in herself and she's grown in that regard. But that's the hardest thing ever and it's hard for anyone who tries to become a three-point shooter who hasn't been in the past, it just takes time.”
How much time should the Liberty give Stokes? Right now it’s a year, but as a five year going on a six-year veteran, I worry as to who is a part of the plan and who isn’t. Kolb addressed the media on Sunday, saying the Liberty are going to be “really aggressive in free agency and in the trade market in the winter.”
If a versatile post player with veteran leadership is in the cards for the winter, who should it be? What happens to Amanda Zahui B., whose skills fit Hopkins’ 5-Out Motion Offense much better than Stokes? Zahui B. in a contract year. Do the Liberty give up on Han Xu, a 6’9 post player who shot 5-for-10 from three in 18 games total last year?
The Liberty have given Stokes a brand new skill set to fine-tune. But aside from her interpersonal skills with her teammates, and a respectful work ethic and disposition, Kolb and Hopkins ought to consider how much she really gives on the floor to the Liberty.
It all comes back to one essential question: does Kiah Stokes have the tools to consistently enable the Liberty to be who they want to be?