July 24, 2023 

How Kiah Stokes has filled her defensive stopper role perfectly

Aces center Kiah Stokes has found her niche as a defender and rebounder

LAS VEGAS — Everybody wants to be a scorer. From a young age, athletes are told if they want to be a superstar you need to be a scorer. That’s why everyone wants to be the home run hitter, the goal scorer or the touchdown maker. It’s hard to do that on the defending champ Las Vegas Aces since all five starters have the ability to score 20 points a night. However, Aces center Kiah Stokes doesn’t concern herself with scoring. She relishes being the defensive stopper and rebounder and she has flourished in the role.

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“I don’t know. It’s just something that I’ve kind of just been that way,” Stokes told The Next. “I don’t know another way to explain it. Especially at [Stokes’ college team] UConn, we’re surrounded by so many different scores. I tried to find a way to stand out and I think it kind of just stuck with that. I’m sure everyone would like me to be a little more aggressive offensively. It’s a work in progress. I think that’s just what my mindset was that there’s a lot of people that can score in this league, but not a lot of people like to play defense and so if I could try to at least separate myself in that sense, hopefully I can keep a job or be on a team and just get some minutes. I’m not asking to play 30 plus minutes a game but just to do my role and succeed where I can.”

Stokes, an eight year veteran in the WNBA, started her career in New York before being traded to Las Vegas in the middle of the 2021 season. She has never been a big scorer, with seven points a game being her career high in her second season. She also has only ever started 59 of the 223 games she has played in her career. However, she has always found her way onto the court.

Towards the end of last season, Stokes moved from coming off the bench into the starting lineup for the Aces and that continued into the playoffs. Stokes made a ton of big plays in the playoffs, including scoring nine points and grabbing 12 rebounds in the Aces game three win against Seattle in the semifinals. Her strong play down the stretch was a big contributing factor to the Aces championship.

Kiah Stokes (R) waits for free throws as the Aces face Napheesa Collier (L) and the Lynx on July 9, 2023. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

“She can guard one through five. She’s just an all-star in her role,” said Hammon of her backup center. “She’s the ultimate team player, professional. She doesn’t get enough love for what she does because she is a monster in the middle the way she can close space and eat up space real quick. And she’s smart, very smart. So to have post players that are smart, understand the game plan because you know, they’re the anchors.”

Going into the offseason, Stokes was a free agent but decided to stay with the Aces, taking less money than her previous contract to stay in the Sin City. With the addition of veteran Candace Parker, Stokes has once again been relegated to the bench. However, for Stokes this isn’t a big deal. She isn’t someone who needs to be in the spotlight. Stokes has a quiet personality and enjoys her the role she plays.

Despite coming off the bench, Becky Hammon constantly discusses the importance of Stokes. She is always complimentary of her and teammate A’ja Wilson’s ability to control the paint on the defensive end and alter opposing players shots.

Hammon also says Stokes’ ability to switch onto opposing perimeter players and guard them around the three-point arc is excellent. The Aces switch on a lot of opponents’ ball screens and it leaves their post players guarding on the perimeter. Stokes has improved her perimeter defense greatly, using her size and length to limit opposing guards from driving past her and shooting over her.

“I put her in those situations because I have the utmost trust in her,” Hammon said. “She is someone who understands length and guarding space, how to use your length on the perimeter where maybe that person might be faster. She’s using her brain and her size and angles to take that disadvantage and turn it into an advantage. Now we’ve got 6’4 out there being able to switch and guard and keep the ball out of the paint. It’s a huge luxury to have.”

Stokes has come up with some clutch defensive plays throughout the season. She’s had 14 games this season with at least one block and six with at least three blocks. Her biggest denial of the season came against Atlanta on June 2. With the Aces up four with 20 seconds left, Stokes blocked a three-point attempt by Rhyne Howard to help seal the win for Las Vegas.

With Candace Parker sitting out the last five games with injury, Stokes has had to step back into a starting role for the Aces but that isn’t anything new for her. Her familiarity with the group and in Hammon’s system has made it an easy transition back to the starting lineup for Stokes. While she hasn’t put up any crazy statistics, she has continued to player her role flawlessly and to the best of her ability.

“I don’t think [it’s] difficult when you want what’s best for the team…if the team needs this specific thing from you and need you to do that at 100% — instead of a few things at 75% or at 80, you take pride in what you do well. You make a living out of this like she’s done, you get a championship like she’s done, go overseas and win at the rate that she’s won. She takes her job seriously, and she wants to be her best for this team,” Aces teammate Sydney Colson told The Next.

Minnesota guard Diamond Miller gathers the ball with two hands in the lane. Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes reaches her right arm out to try to check Miller.
Las Vegas Aces center Kiah Stokes (41) defends Minnesota Lynx guard Diamond Miller during a game at Target Center in Minneapolis, Minn., on July 2, 2023. (Photo credit: John McClellan | The Next)

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A large reason why Stokes has filled her role so well is that she doesn’t really care if she is the star or not. Her personality is very quiet and she doesn’t say a lot when there are people around. She knows what she needs to do on the floor and doesn’t care about the accolades or the limelight. Stokes always stays true to herself and enjoys filling her role.

Despite her quiet personality, once people get to know Stokes, she’s a different person. She is very observant and has a very high basketball IQ. She seems to always know what is going on in the game and that’s why she is able to play defense at such a high level. She is super sarcastic and can be very goofy. Also, for someone who is very quiet, she is apparently a big trash talker.

“Outside of basketball, like she’s not super quiet, she warms up once you get to know her — she talks a lot,” said Colson of her teammate. “I feel like she’s more observant than somebody who just like goes into a situation and starts talking, starts doing a lot. She’s watching what’s going on. She’s a fun time once you get to know her. She’s a good time. She’s super sarcastic…she’s goofy, she’s silly once you get to know her. She’s funny.”

For Stokes, being a star has never mattered. She has always played on teams where she wasn’t the best player from her time at UConn to now on the Aces. She relishes not getting all attention and being a part of a winning team. It doesn’t come as a surprise to anyone that knows her that she has won at every level she’s been at. She is the kind of player who knows her role and fills it at an incredibly high level. If you ask any coach, that kind of player is needed if you want to win and Stokes is a proven winner.

“I’ve also been very fortunate to be on teams that have always been really good,” said Stokes. “So, if I’m on a winning team or a team that has the talent to win of course I’m going to just do my role and just try to help any way that I can. Maybe personally because I don’t really care about, you know, accolades. I don’t really like to be in the limelight, so to speak. So maybe that’s why — I don’t know. But like I said, just trying to get in where I fit in and do my role and earn some minutes on the court.”

Written by Matthew Walter

Matthew Walter covers the Las Vegas Aces, the Pac-12 and the WCC for the Next. He is a former Director of Basketball Operations and Video Coordinator at three different Division I women's basketball programs.

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