Kiah Stokes’ play has been enigmatic, emblematic of Liberty’s season

PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 23: Kiah Stokes
PHOENIX, AZ - MAY 23: Kiah Stokes /

No team, even one comprised of mostly the same players, is identical from one year to the next. Players improve and regress. Injuries happen. The rest of the league changes around them.

The 2017 New York Liberty are no exception. They have the same core as last year’s 21-13 group, led by newly crowned franchise rebounding champion Tina Charles. Sugar Rogers and Shavonte Zellous are still consistent backcourt threats. Though they lost Brittany Boyd to an early season-ending injury, they also brought in Kia Vaughn for some needed front court depth.

Yet the Liberty are struggling. At 8-9, they’ve lost five out of six games. And perhaps no player is as emblematic of the concerning, confusing downturn as Kiah Stokes.

Head coach Bill Laimbeer was honest after the Liberty’s 78-68 loss Friday to the Chicago Sky, saying Stokes’ role on the team has been significantly diminished. She is no longer a part of the identity of the team like she was last year, he says.

“The reasons why are open for debate,” he said in his postgame press conference Friday. “The impact on the game just hasn’t quite happened this year.”

Over 27 games in 2016, Stokes was inarguably a vital part of the Liberty’s success. Her seven points and seven rebounds per night off the bench were made even more impressive by her ranking third in the WNBA in rebound percentage (18.3) and second in effective field goal percentage (64.1).

This season, it’s been a roller coaster with more lows than highs. After Laimbeer called Stokes out for being out of shape in the postgame press conference following the Liberty’s lackluster season-opening win over the Stars, Stokes refocused. She struggled through the next few games before breaking out against the Wings on June 2 to the tune of 13 points and 15 rebounds. Two days later, she dropped 23 on the Mercury and tallied 14 rebounds.

Stokes, we thought, was back.

She then posted her third straight double-digit rebound game — a 17-board effort against the Dream. Stokes shot just 1-3 from the field in that game, but it didn’t matter; her role isn’t to be the leading scorer. The next game was the Liberty’s fourth win in a row, and Stokes was strong again, with a quiet eight points and six rebounds.

Since then, it’s been downhill for her and her team. The Liberty are just 2-6 since that point and Stokes’ minutes have dropped significantly — from 24.0 per game in their first nine games to 14.6 in their past eight. Remove a 12-rebound tease last week in Phoenix and she has not had a game with more than four in that span. And while she’s not the go-to option on offense, she has been nearly non-existent, making multiple field goals just once and never attempting more than four.

In the locker room, Stokes appears to be her same old self, taking time to thoughtfully answer questions after a tough loss in which she only played nine minutes, all with a smile on her face. She’s honest and forthright, not mincing words about her own performance, but staying relatively upbeat and optimistic about the road ahead.

“The league keeps getting better and better,” she told The Summitt. “I have to do what they drafted me for. Defense, rebounding, blocking shots, being a presence in the paint. Just provide some energy off the bench.”

When that’s not working out, she has to find other ways to contribute. Stokes, who knows she is a good defender, has taken it upon herself to keep challenging Vaughn in practice, as Vaughn continues to make an impact. Vaughn has played five consecutive strong games, averaging 8.6 points and 7.2 rebounds in that span. Unsurprisingly, her minutes have increased as well.

“I think that helps her confidence, keeps her motivated and gets her working hard,” Stokes said of her concerted effort to make Vaughn work each day.

As for her own playing time, Stokes knows the minutes are still there if she earns them. She just has to keep doing what everyone already knows she can do. From there, more playing time will follow.

“I just have to do that, whether it’s 5 minutes or 25 minutes,” she said.