LAS VEGAS — As public address announcer Chet Buchanan hypes the crowd during Las Vegas Aces home games, a superlative for each starter reverberates throughout Michelob Ultra Arena, energizing one of the liveliest crowds in the WNBA.
Who doesn’t get excited to hear names such as A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, Chelsea Gray or Jackie Young?
But the “Difference Maker,” per Buchanan, might not be the person many would think of among that troupe of All-Stars.
“I’ve always said Kiah is the anchor to our defense – she makes us go,” Wilson said, speaking about nine-year veteran Kiah Stokes.
Added coach Becky Hammon: “She’s a proven winner. I don’t know what the numbers play out with her in our lineup, the win-loss has to be crazy.”
Try 58-15 the past two seasons, including a remarkable 50-13 during the regular season.
And when Stokes is in the starting lineup, the Aces are 24-4 overall and 16-2 in regular season games.
No wonder Buchanan also mentions during introductions that, “All she does is win titles.”
Drafted in 2015 by the New York Liberty, where she spent the first seven years of her career, Stokes won three national championships with UConn, she’s won multiple titles in Turkey, was part of the team that took home the 2023 EuroLeague championship, and was part of last year’s Aces squad that won the Commissioner’s Cup and WNBA title.
Stokes said she’s been blessed to play for an impressive lineage of coaches since graduating from Linn-Marr High School in Marion, Iowa, having gone from Geno Auriemma at UConn, to Bill Laimbeer in New York and Las Vegas, and now Becky Hammon.
“I’ve learned a lot,” Stokes said. “I think each coach has a different style. I think I’ve been a pretty coachable person. The one thing I have noticed is that you have to listen to what they say and not necessarily how they say it. That’s if you have a coach that yells.”
That’s something she’s definitely experienced with all three.
From Auriemmo’s fiery temper that’s led the Huskies to 11 national championships, to Laimbeer’s straight-forwardness that has been known to hurt some feelings but also enhance plenty of careers, and now to Hammon’s notorious halftime speeches that may or may not be laced with more swearing than a Quentin Tarantino production.
“I think you just learn a little bit about how they see the game, their style, and I’m just trying to pick up little bits along the way to try to make myself a better player,” Stokes said.
As for her star-studded teammates, she’s also gotten the chance to learn technique, styles of play, and passion from what’s been heralded as one of the greatest rosters in recent times.
“They are super competitive,” Stokes said. “KP is one, she is a fierce ball of just fierceness. I don’t know another way to describe her but she’s always competing. I think that’s one thing that really has kind of been going into the team – we just want to win. We’re competitive. We understand that every night’s gonna be a dogfight as you saw tonight. But just the competitive factor, we know that we’re gonna get (every) team’s best shot. So I think we’re all just focused, motivated, and we really try to pick each other up. We want everyone to succeed.”
Now, as the Aces head into the final stretch of the regular season, including a daunting four-game road trip that begins Tuesday in Atlanta and also has the champs stopping at the White House, Stokes is firmly back in the starting lineup while future Hall of Famer Candace Parker continues to heal from foot surgery.
With her there, Las Vegas remains favored to win the title (-210 at DraftKings). Surely the Aces would be favored if she was still coming off the bench behind Parker, but lest we forget Stokes was the starting center for them during last season’s championship run.
“She’s a great piece with the other four, for sure,” Hammon said. “She’s an exceptional defensive player. I don’t think she gets the respect, nobody really talks about her when they talk about great defensive (players).”
No need to look at her offensive numbers – she’s averaging 2.3 points and 0.6 assists per game this season – as they don’t begin to tell the story of how her plus/minus numbers are lopsided in favor of the Aces.
At +16.5 net per 100 possessions this season, she’s in the plus among seven different five-woman combinations. Only three lineup combos find her with a minus.
“We have so many talented offensive players, it’s nice to let them shine,” Stokes said. “I really don’t mind taking a back seat, just trying to help them out in any way I can. Set good screens, roll, play defense, just trying to take as much pressure off them as I can.
“I don’t want to consider myself a selfless player, but I really don’t care about accolades, I just want to win,” Stokes said. “I’m never gonna be a better shooter than KP, A’ja is one of a kind. I don’t see myself as those kinds of players. So to keep myself on the court, I’m trying to do the things that maybe they’re not as good at or that they don’t want to do. So if that’s bang with the big bodies, defense, rebounding, I’m just trying to help them out any way possible to make ourselves a better team.”
Much better, in fact, as she’s proven time and time again that she’s the ultimate team player, one of those key pieces that are vital when you have a team chock full of superstars.
“She doesn’t have to prioritize on shooting the basketball,” Wilson said. “She could just do the simple things, and rebounding, and little things to help us get open. to have a person that puts that pride aside to do that is huge, and I wouldn’t change anything for having her in the locker room.
“It’s truly special to have someone like that. She’s just a pro in everything that she does, and I love playing beside her.”