New York will bring back Kiah Stokes in 2020 in an effort to establish a more consistent defensive front
The New York Liberty extended the contract of center Kiah Stokes on September 8, according to the league’s transaction page. A league source confirmed the deal to High Post Hoops. Stokes, who sat out of the WNBA this season for personal reasons, was initially only under contract through 2019. But she’s been around the team in recent days, and attended the home finale last Friday against Indiana.
Earlier this season, the plan was that Stokes would rejoin her team following the Eurobasket tournament where she played for the Turkish national team. Before Eurobasket, she captured a Turkish Championship on her club team Fenerbahçe alongside teammate Bria Hartley and former teammate Kia Vaughn.
But on July 8 following the completion of Eurobasket, Stokes clarified the official announcement regarding her return to the Liberty in 2019. She was very confident to return in 2020, writing on her Instagram story: “But I’ll be back next summer don’t worry.”
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When asked about Stokes earlier this season, Smith mentioned that she and the former UConn Husky have been in touch.
Before the Liberty traveled to Atlanta for their season finale, Stokes attended New York’s final home game against the Indiana Fever. She hugged head coach Smith and assistant coach Herb Williams as the team went into the locker room for halftime.
After the narrow loss to the Indiana Fever, Smith assessed her roster. When asked what she believes this team needs most going into this off-season, New York’s head coach mentioned ensuring her players are healthy— a reference to 2019 first-round pick Asia Durr — who missed 15 total games due to a groin strain.
In addition to health, Smith admitted the obvious: the Liberty still need consistent scorers and specifically a “lead guard”, most commonly known as the player at the point. With Tanisha Wright leaning toward retirement along with Brittany Boyd’s continuing struggles from three, New York needs a consistent scorer at the one.
Another issue in 2019 was the Liberty’s league-worst defense. Tina Charles remarked earlier this season that part of her team’s missing identity in 2019 was on defense. Laimbeer-ian teams pride themselves on defensive prowess, just look at the Aces. Smith realized this as well, which might be the reason for her urgency when it came to discussing Stokes’ future in seafoam green.
“I think Durr and Jo-Jo [Marine Johannès] and [Kia] Nurse and Bec [Allen] are solid for us at the wing spots, but I think we need to find another big,” she said in the postgame presser following New York’s last home game. “I know Stokes will be a great asset coming back, hopefully.”
The Liberty had the fewest blocks per game in the WNBA. And without Stokes’ presence in the paint along with Amanda Zahui B. missing a considerable amount of time due to Eurobasket, this is a statistic worthy of consideration.
But despite the center’s decline in Laimbeer’s final New York season and in Smith’s first at the head coaching helm, she is confident in her player and desires her presence on defense. In her rookie season, Stokes blocked eight shots in a game against the Connecticut Sun. “Kiah is one of the best, if not the best weak-side shot blockers in the league,” former Liberty head coach Bill Laimbeer said in 2016.
Although the Euroleague is a different speed and physicality, Stokes averaged a double-double in the 2019 FIBA tournament, scoring over 12 points and racking up 10 boards a game. And with Stokes back in the fold in 2020, maybe some of those lightning-quick layups from Courtney Vandersloot through the lane won’t be as dangerous.
“We want [Stokes] back and we always stay connected with the players that we’ve had,” Smith said after their final home game of 2019. “And we always have a good rapport. We just want her to make sure she’s taking care of herself and ready to rock and roll next year.”
It looks like Smith’s wish was Johnathan Kolb’s command. Welcome back Kiah Stokes.
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