With 22 seconds left on the clock in the fourth quarter of a June 2 regular-season contest between the Las Vegas Aces and Atlanta Dream, Aces center Kiah Stokes headed to the scorer’s table.
The Aces began the final quarter with a 14-point lead, but the Dream trimmed the deficit to just four points and were threatening to make it a one-possession game, their comeback fueled by All-Star guard Rhyne Howard, who had scored the Dream’s last nine points.
As Stokes stepped onto the floor, she did so with three thoughts cycling through her mind: switch everything, no open 3-pointers, and don’t mess up.
As Howard inbounded the ball for Atlanta, she passed to Dream guard Allisha Gray above the perimeter, close to the left sideline. Stokes, who had already switched off her original assignment to defend Gray, switched defenders once more as Gray handed the ball off to Howard. As Howard rose for a 3-point attempt, Stokes closed out, using every inch of her lengthy wingspan to reject Howard’s shot, collect the ball and draw a foul. The play effectively ended the game.
The sequence was a glowing example of Stokes’ impact on the Aces.
Aces guard Kelsey Plum calls Stokes, 30, one of the best teammates she’s ever played with. Las Vegas assistant coach Natalie Nakase says Stokes is an invaluable presence and the most selfless player on the team. As a member of a starting five flanked by high-producing All-Stars, Stokes has been a star in her role for the Aces as a defensive anchor willing to do whatever the team needs. It’s a role that isn’t flashy, and often overlooked, but Stokes has embraced it and has become an integral piece of a Las Vegas franchise looking to repeat as champions.
“We don’t compete for a championship this year without Kiah. We don’t. I don’t care how many All-Stars we have,” Plum said. “You need a spine to connect everything else. You can have great arms and legs but without a spine, it’s not happening for you.”
Stokes remembers having to adapt.
Once she left high school and her hometown of Marion, Iowa, to play for head coach Geno Auriemma at UConn, Stokes discovered that she was no longer the most talented player on her team.
Stokes, who averaged 25 points during her senior season in high school and was named Iowa’s Gatorade State Player of the Year, was now sharing the court with some of the nation’s most talented hoopers – frontcourt players such as Breanna Stewart, Stefanie Dolson, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis and Morgan Tuck. These were players who could outplay Stokes on offense.
To earn her minutes, Stokes needed to find ways she could impact a game and stay on the floor. Her solution was to embrace the “dirty work.” That meant making all of the hustle and effort plays: setting solid screens, finding open teammates, extending possessions, blocking shots, rebounding – whatever she could.
“After high school, I’ve played on teams that have great offensive players. I was never the most gifted one of all my teammates. It was kind of a natural progression for me,” said Stokes, who was the American Athletic Conference Defensive Player of the Year as a senior in 2015. “That’s what I noticed has kept me on the floor.”
Once Stokes solidified her identity as a player, she continued to put in the work to maximize her contributions as a pro. The result has been an accomplished pro career in which Stokes has grown into knowing her value in her role.
“It’s not by accident that she’s as successful as she’s been,” said Tuck, now the assistant general manager and director of franchise development of the Connecticut Sun. “If you looked at her back in college and you looked at our team, I don’t know if you would have said Kiah Stokes is going to play this many years in the league and have all these championships as a pro and she’s been able to totally blossom.”
“I just think that’s a huge testament to the work that she has put in over the years. She’s just gotten better and better.”
The dirty work is rarely glamorous, but it has been Stokes’ way to stand out and has gotten her to this point in her career. For that reason, she’s perfectly content stepping into that role night in and night out.
“I’m here and I’ve won a few things, so I definitely can’t complain,” she said.
Last year, in her first season playing for new Aces head coach Becky Hammon, Stokes primarily came off the bench. That changed last August when the coaching staff moved Stokes into the starting lineup, where she would slot for the Aces through their championship run.
“I think we played our best basketball when we put in Kiah as a starter because she had a little more stability on both ends for us,” Nakase said. “She embraced her role.”
This season, with the presumed season-ending injury sustained by star forward Candace Parker, who signed with the Aces in the offseason but has been sidelined since early July, Stokes has been reinserted into the lineup.
As a starter, Stokes enters each game with the goal of helping to set the tone defensively for Las Vegas alongside reigning league MVP A’ja Wilson. When the team watches film from a past game, Plum says, oftentimes half of the defensive highlights the team sees are linked to Stokes.
But it’s the little things that Stokes does, often actions that aren’t measured statistically or appear as highlights, that impact the Aces. It’s the way she dives hard off a pick-and-roll, drawing in defenders to open up opportunities for her teammates. It’s her ability to beat slower players down the floor in transition and apply rim pressure, sucking in the defense and leading to an open outside shot attempt for the best 3-point shooting team in the league.
“I think that’s the perfect example of using her skill set to make other people better,” Plum said. “That’s something that will never show up statistically in a box score.”
That’s not to say Stokes can’t fill a stat sheet from time to time. Against Chicago on July 25, Stokes pulled down 17 rebounds to go along with 6 points, 2 assists and 1 steal. In the victory over Atlanta on Aug. 1, she had 9 rebounds, 3 steals and 3 blocks.
Plum, one of the toughest players in the league to defend on drives, says that of all the bigs she has gone up against in the WNBA as a guard attacking downhill, there are two that she deems the best defensively: Wilson, last year’s Defensive Player of the Year and the 6-foot-3 Stokes.
“She understands angles,” said Nakase, who added that Stokes is very adept at studying her opponent’s offensive tendencies. “Her awareness of who she is going to face. She’s really good at stopping players from getting to their spots.”
On the other end of the floor, Stokes has focused on applying pressure within the Aces offense. That doesn’t mean averaging 20 points, but instead establishing herself as a more consistent offensive presence so that defenses can’t ignore her as a threat. It goes back to her desire to improve for the benefit of her teammates.
“The last few games you could see my players helping a lot, doubling A’ja. So just moving, trying to cut, shoot open shots, keep the floor space and try to take as much pressure off the core group as I can,” Stokes said.
When Stokes played overseas, she spoke to Nakase about expanding her game. She recalled the previous season in which teams would actively leave Stokes open to shoot, particularly from the corner, allowing defenses to clog the interior.
“I don’t want to be someone who you guys can’t trust on the offensive end,” she told Nakase.
Nakase said that whenever she and Stokes have extra time on the court, she’s working on those corner 3s. It’s a work in progress for the veteran.
“She recognizes what she needs to bring in order for us to go to that next level,” Nakase said. “She’s like a sponge, constantly wants to learn and get better.”
Shortly after winning a EuroLeague title in April with Turkish women’s basketball powerhouse Fenerbahce, Stokes and Dallas Wings forward Satou Sabally, who was Stokes’ teammate overseas, were sitting on a couch in Stokes’ home watching TV when a thought overcame Sabally.
“You know, Kiki, you really won at every level,” Sabally said to Stokes. “You won in high school, college, WNBA and you won EuroLeague. That is crazy. You are a winner.”
Stokes has won a high school state title, three NCAA championships, a WNBA championship and a EuroLeague title. It was a satisfying realization for Stokes herself, now a part of a small contingent of WNBA players who can claim the feat.
“When she said it like that I was, like, that is kind of crazy,” Stokes said. “To be able to win at multiple levels is just exciting. Who doesn’t like to win, right?”
For those that have played with Stokes, that penchant for winning is no accident.
“Kiah has always been a winner. She might not have been the leading scorer or had the flashiest game or was the one getting all the attention, but she’s consistently been on really good teams and is contributing to that success whether you notice it or not,” Tuck said.
“I think she just has a humility about her; she really just does whatever it takes to win,” Plum said. “She doesn’t care about stats, she doesn’t have an ego, just super, like, whatever is best for the team. So unselfish. She’s a gamer.”
Stokes’ path and journey is one that Tuck hopes younger players take note of. In a basketball culture in which it’s sometimes conveyed that success can only come at a superstar level, Stokes’ career path suggests another route.
“She’s had a really successful career because she’s bought into her role,” Tuck said. “She’s bought into who she is and what she brings to the table and she does it so well and consistently.”
Now in year 8 of her WNBA career, Stokes remains energized by the fun she derives from playing the game and a competitive drive to add onto the impressive trophy case she’s already built. As the Aces seek a second straight championship, a feat not accomplished in the league in more than two decades, she will play an important part in the chase.
Whatever is required is fine by Stokes.
“The biggest thing I’ve always said is get in where you fit in,” Stokes said. “I found my role and I’m happy.”