'The best is yet to come' for Kylee Shook

Kylee Shook has quietly emerged as a symbol of the Liberty's team culture

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Lauren Cox #13 of the Indiana Fever shoots the ball against Kylee Shook #24 of the New York Liberty on August 13, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center inPalmetto, Florida. Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

The Atlanta Dream gained its first lead on Thursday against the New York Liberty off a Monique Billings jump shot right over Kiah Stokes. Liberty rookie forward Kylee Shook watched the ball land in the net. How would she help her team respond?

After hovering toe-to-toe with Glory Johnson on the weak side, Shook trotted with her left hand up to meet Nurse back at the top of the key. After a bounce pass to Shook and a then handoff back to Nurse, Shook had created a wall with her 6’4 frame. She held back not one Dream defender, but two. Glory Johnson and Blake Dietrick couldn’t get a hand up in time, and by the time Dietrick popped out underneath the screen, the damage had been done. Nurse drained the three and the Liberty were back up 24-22.

Twenty seconds later, Shook affected the game again, but this time it came with a cost. Liberty assistant coach Kelly Raimon told The Next on August 21 that Shook is agile enough to guard smaller people on the perimeter or even take away a guard’s drive to the basket. But interrupting Chennedy Carter’s driving layup had Shook on the ground and unable to get up. Carter’s momentum from her acceleration placed her right foot right on top of the Liberty rookie’s left ankle.

Shook did not return.

Against the Mercury on Saturday, the Liberty face the highest-rated offensive team in the league, and that’s without Brittany Grinner. New York will be without Shook, and that stings. A gut punch to a team that was figuring out its pick and roll coverages on defense. Earlier this season, head coach Walt Hopkins referred to Shook as “oftentimes [New York’s] best pick and roll defender as a big,” someone who comprehends the Liberty’s drop coverage remarkably well.

In the Liberty’s second win against the Chicago Sky, Shook was struggling to defend on the block. But something clicked within her—I’ll come back to this—and that made the rest of the game incredibly arduous for Stefanie Dolson.

With less than a minute and a half left in the second quarter, Shook first prevented an Allie Quigley jumper off of Dolson’s screen. Then, she followed Quigley’s pass to Dolson on the block with her eyes, feet and an outstretched arm. Dolson lost her balance and had to receive the pass to the left of the block. By the time Dolson regained control of the ball on the dribble, Amanda Zahui B. was there to crowd her handle. Dolson had to pass it out of the post. Imagine that play without Kylee Shook?

With less than two minutes left in that third quarter, Shook got her revenge on Ruthy Hebard who had dominated the Liberty rookie in the first quarter. She pivoted to Hebard in-synch with a bounce pass from Kahleah Copper. Shook created an obtuse angle on Hebard’s left side. All the former Oregon Duck could do was haul the ball up to the backboard, and a miss. Revenge, revenge indeed. But what can Shook do with the ball in her hands?

With New York’s last possession in the third, Jazmine Jones entrusted her teammate of over four years in Shook to close out the quarter. Her buzzer-beating jumper over Dolson that followed her slipping action is a snapshot of what she can do on the offensive end. She has range, but knows how to outwit someone who’s an inch taller. She created her own shot, using angles this time on the offensive end to oust Dolson once again.

Shook isn’t just “Amanda Zahui B. squared,” another 3-and-D or just a serious defensive presence with a better reaction time than most. She’s that and, she’s the embodiment of the intra- and interpersonal culture that head coach Hopkins had set out to establish.

Kylee Shook doesn’t accept mediocrity and that’s something her former Assistant Coach at Louisville Stephanie Norman said about the Cardinals’ all-time blocks leader. “I’ve just been so so proud of her seeing that she believes in herself and that’s really all I’ve tried to get her to do from day one is to not accept mediocrity and to go for it,” Norman said during Shook’s Senior tribute video.

That sounds familiar right? When Hopkins was introduced as New York’s head coach in January, the one phrase he returned to was one he learned from Cheryl Reeve: you get what you accept.

“Kylee has been somebody who really embraces feedback and being challenged and being criticized,” Hopkins said of Shook on August 7. “I mean she's told me on multiple occasions like no I want it, like tell me, tell me there's a fierceness to Kylee that I think she's still finding a way to let that out on the court in constructive ways, but she's a tough person, and it's I mean that in the most... I feel a lot of admiration for how tough she is and resilient she is.”

Shook and Hopkins are similar. Not only do they both believe in accountability, but they aren’t afraid of taking a risk. Betting on a team with seven rookies and executing a system with them that lives and dies by the three-pointer is a risk. Shook has been audacious since she was a teenager. She drove six hours away from her home in Colorado Springs to play AAU ball in Albuquerque for the New Mexico Heat Elite.

In an interview with PBRHoops from 2014, Shook was asked where she’s looking at playing basketball in college. Her response was a bit naive, responding that she doesn’t want to go super far. Well, Colorado Springs to Louisville. That’s even further away than just five hours in the car: 15 hours in the car or around 4 hours in the air.

“Her willingness to leave [Colorado] because she knew she needed to grow, and when you look back on her from the skinny tall girl and now our strong beautiful woman, I think that's part of her personality and her journey, Louisville associate Coach Sam Purcell said of Shook. “You know that she will leave home and grow. And she's still continuing to grow.”

At Louisville, she grew. Always. If it was gaining 30 pounds of muscle in her college or getting a bit quicker, Shook made sure she didn’t stop in her quest against mediocrity. But, what’s unique about Shook is she lifts people up on her quest, rather than tearing them down. Purcell told The Next that a defining moment of Shook’s character was how she responded to not starting her Sophomore season at Louisville. She joined the starting five as a first-year, but Sam Fuehring beat Shook for the spot the following year. The way Shook responded to that adversity impressed Purcell.

“She would go work with Sam after practice where some young women who are beaten out for a starting position show resentment,” he said. “Kylee didn’t divide the team… she embraced it and looked in the mirror and understood what the team needs.”

Chennedy Carter #3 of the Atlanta Dream drives to the hoop on #24 Kylee Shook of the New York Liberty on July 31, 2020 at Feld Entertainment Center inPalmetto, Florida.Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images.

Purcell described Shook as someone who is an anchor, someone reliable who a coach could count on night in and night out. “She's just a great soldier that will fight and do whatever she does to help the team,” he said. “That’s Kylee’s heart. That’s part of her demeanor.”

Shook’s fight is fueled by her approach to leadership. While she has described herself as a bit timid and isn’t an out-going firebrand like her peer Jazmine Jones, Shook isn’t necessarily shy.

Kelly Raimon and Purcell agree that Shook is observant and she will use her voice when she sees that a certain detail has been overlooked. As primarily a visual learner, film has proven to be invaluable to Shook. Before the season began, she altered her game simply by watching how her teammate Amanda Zahui B. moves on the court. As a quick study, once she has a handle on the material, she’s going to help others when she sees the opportunity.

“When she knows things, she verbalizes it,” Raimon told The Next. “And she realizes that, so she's very good at vocalizing. I think she's one of the ones who actually does it quite frequently. Once she understands what's going on, she really talks to her teammates.”

Former teammate and current Mystics forward Myisha Hines-Allen described Shook as someone who “you want to actually hang around” and get to know.

Hines-Allen mentioned that Shook is passionate about nature and wildlife, a trait that probably comes from the hiking culture in Colorado Springs. And their former college coach Purcell agreed. “Colorado people have a vibe with hiking and it’s so peaceful and beautiful, right? So I think that's Kylee because of where she grew up.”

When asked about how Shook’s game has been progressing at the pro level, Hines- Allen was impressed by how she’s has been rolling to the basket and not only relying on her three-ball or jump shot.

“She's trying to get down low and get easy baskets down low, but that just shows you that she's coachable and she wants to grow,” Hines-Allen said. “[Shook] wants to play in this league for a long time, and I definitely think she's able to do that. She's so long, she knows how to play defense, she knows how to have your back on… if a player drives a guard to the basket, you know Kylee's gonna be there to alter the shot.”

But in reminiscing, Hines-Allen revealed a battle that she fought throughout her rookie season and that was slowing down. “That doesn’t show up on the stat sheet,” she said.

That is a central focus for Shook, slowing down and embracing contact.

“To be honest, I’m still struggling with it,” Shook said. “But no, it’s definitely much faster, much more physical, so when I do get in the post and when I do get people gathered around me, I just have to stay composed and know what I’m doing, know what I practice is going to really end up in the game, and getting reps outside of practice.”

To counter her frustrations, what has she resorted to? The most Shook method possible. She opens her eyes and gets to work. She watches more film. She watches her teammates. “When I’m on the bench, I’ll watch them and see how their impacting the game and go in and see how I can impact it in the same way,” she said.

Back to the buzzer-beater over Dolson— Jazmine Jones was shook (sorry, I had to). Once the ball landed through the net, Jones put both her hands in the air. But actually maybe she wasn’t shook per se, because this is what Jones expects from Kylee.

Coach Hopkins mentioned postgame that Jones got to Shook before he could after those difficult minutes in the first quarter against Chicago. So what did she say to her teammate of almost five years?

“What I said to Kylee is between me and Kylee and… but I know how to get to Kylee,” Jones told reporters on August 31. “I know how to make her play harder and I know what Kylee can bring to the table. I will go to war with Kylee any day of the week. And I know how to get her going and I just had to say a couple of words to her and I got her going.”

Shook calls Jones’ approach to motivation as simply tough love. She knows that Jones is never angry with her, but it’s more a push or “I know what you can do, you can do this.” Tough love seems to work for Shook, who in multiple situations has adjusted her performance in between quarters. Not only did she adjust after a meeker defensive performance against Chicago, but she found her way against the Connecticut Sun on September 1.

“You know she came in and something happened, somebody pinned her down low or she gave up an offensive rebound,” Hopkins said postgame on Tuesday. “And I yelled at her ‘no more’ and then it was like [Hopkins snaps his finger] bang. She’s been working really hard on being more physical.”

When New York played the Sun for the first time on August 22, Hopkins noted that Shook had regressed, playing a bit more hesitant and not applying the skills she had worked on and learned in practice. But around ten days later, Shook put extra work in and had a private film session with Hopkins before the rematch so she could see and talk through the situations that she got into against Connecticut in the first matchup.

Teammate Kia Nurse has liked what she’s seen from Shook and believes she’s coming into her own. Nurse appreciates how hard she works and notices that she’s at all the optional shooting times.

“She’s a great center in the sense of if we get beat, we know she’s behind us to help out and I think she’s going to continue to grow in that way,” she said. “And today you saw her ability to knock down the three and her ability also when less mobile bigs come at her to put it on the floor and get into a pull-up and get to make a play. I think you are going to continue to see what she has in her bag and it’s really awesome to see her come into her own.” 

Well, that someone who is coming into her own will be sidelined, for now.

Something that is certain amid the uncertainty surrounding Shook’s left ankle sprain is this: ever since high school, Shook’s coaches have struggled to pin a ceiling on her. “Where’s her ceiling? I haven’t seen it yet,” Shook’s AAU coach Robert Sanchez told ESPN in 2015. When asked to describe her in a few words, Purcell described her plainly: “The best is yet to come.”

When current assistant coach Kelly Raimon was asked the same question about Shook, she hesitated for the same reason. Like Sanchez, Purcell, and everyone else before her, I don’t think she’s seen it yet.