June 30, 2021 

Liberty waive Kiah Stokes

Shook's development, Howard's imminent return drove move

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Kiah Stokes blocks Monique Billings against the Dream on Saturday night. Photo credit: New York Liberty’s Twitter account, @nyliberty.

2015 first-round draft pick Kiah Stokes has been waived, the New York Liberty announced Wednesday morning.

Stokes is the second Liberty player on a protected contract to be waived in the middle of the season after New York released Layshia Clarendon last month.

Stokes signed a $109,200 one-year extension on the final day of the 2020 regular season after starting all 22 games.

“Coming into the season, we were gonna figure out who we want to roll with us,” general manager Jonathan Kolb told reporters before the final game of 2020. “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.”

Despite Kolb’s comments, Stokes’ fit with the Liberty wasn’t always evident. Posts weren’t leaving the paint to guard her beyond the arc, her shooting was inconsistent, she was more concerned with stopping her person rather than the ball, she didn’t contest shots and struggled both initiating and defending pick-and-roll.

In the nine games Stokes has played this year due to late arrival from her Turkish season and then missing more games due to Eurobasket commitments, she’s averaged 15 minutes a game, scored less than two points per contest, and hauled down over four rebounds each game. But her stat line doesn’t only explain her difficulty on both ends of the floor.

In 2020, Liberty coach Walt Hopkins explained that rookie Kylee Shook was the best big on pick-and-roll defense. Even after a year with those coverages under her belt, Stokes has continued to struggle with them.

Courtney Williams’ last shot in the Liberty’s overtime loss to the Dream on May 29 wasn’t just a fault on rookie DiDi Richards for going under the screen. Stokes didn’t try to contest or apply any pressure to Williams. As a veteran, she didn’t adjust Richards’ mistake and made a mistake of her own: she didn’t try to stop the ball.

On the offensive side of the ball, Stokes has continued to struggle knowing when to roll, and also has had difficulty catching passes that come to her into the post. When Reshanda Gray stepped in during the Liberty’s West Coast Road trip, Sami Whitcomb alluded to Gray’s hand-eye coordination, emphasizing her great hands. “She caught a lot of tough passes that we just put up there for her,” Whitcomb said.

In the same game against the Dream, Stokes set a lackluster drag screen for Jazmine Jones that Odyssey Sims navigated easily. Sims followed Jones and was able to contest from behind. Stokes hesitated to roll quickly into the paint and instead of moving into the restricted area, she got stuffed behind Monique Billings.

Hopkins noted back in the fall of 2020 that giving Stokes another opportunity in 2021 would help her with execution. But instead of seeing growth from the sixth-year player in her second year with Hopkins’ system, the massive improvement has come from second-year player Shook.

In 2021, Shook’s shot-making ability from three has undergone a 76% increase, making her 31% of her long ball shots from 17.6% in 2020. She’s dished out 27 total assists (14 more than the entirety of 2020) and is putting up 6.5 points per game this season, up from 4.1 a season ago. Shook also has improved her rebounding.

At the beginning of the season, Shook had some difficulty rebounding the ball inside while going up against muscular centers and posts such as Teaira McCowan, Sylvia Fowles, and Tina Charles. But in her latest three outings against the Dream and the Sky, Shook has hauled down 30 total boards.

Getting to double-digit rebounds was something she and Hopkins had been working toward. Shook and Hopkins watched film on not only Shook’s previous games but on other effective rebounders in the league. Hopkins set the double-digit goal before the game against the Sky and she went out and executed.

“It’s not as simple as just going and getting them it’s… She’s, she’s got to be more active, more aware, more mobile, she’s got to be more physical,” Hopkins said on Saturday after beating Atlanta. “And the ways that she’s been doing that and she’s rebounding out of her area a little bit. I mean it’s really fun to watch.”

With Natasha Howard potentially returning to the Liberty next week after sitting out since May 26 with an MCL sprain, if Stokes stayed on the team, she would have been relegated to the third center in line, only picking up minutes if Howard and Shook needed relief or got into foul trouble.

In games where both Howard and Shook were healthy, Stokes played a total of 5 minutes, picking up a DNP against Chicago on May 23 and playing single-digit minutes once Howard was taken out after her knee collided with Ty Harris’ calf against Dallas the following day.

A league source tells The Next that Stokes is being looked at by other WNBA teams that don’t run as many pick-and-roll coverages as a backup post. Her traditional isolation style defense has value. A possible suitor could be the Las Vegas Aces.

According to Synergy Sports, Las Vegas runs pick-and-roll through the roller a tad over four percent of the time, which is 11th in the league. Stokes played under Bill Laimbeer for the first three years of her career. The Aces also waived former Liberty forward Joyner Holmes on Monday, shoring up some cap space.

All signs point to the Liberty re-signing Reshanda Gray. But it is currently unclear if the Liberty will look to sign her to a seven-day or another hardship contract while Howard continues rehabbing, or if they will want to sign her for the rest of the season. But with another protected contract waived, the Liberty will only have cap space for 10 active players if the team continues to include Jocelyn Willoughby on their payroll.

Willoughby has been rehabbing and recovering in Brooklyn after rupturing her Achilles during a pre-season scrimmage against the Connecticut Sun. Willoughby has been assisting the coaching staff during home games and practices. According to assistant coach Jacki Gemelos, Willoughby “has inserted herself in collaborating” and “using her voice” when necessary to help her teammates from the sidelines.

The Liberty return to the floor on Saturday afternoon at 1 p.m. ET for the anticipated return of Tina Charles to New York, when the Mystics visit the Liberty at Barclays Center.

Written by Jackie Powell

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