New York Liberty's Kiah Stokes looks to pass away from...

New York Liberty's Kiah Stokes looks to pass away from Connecticut Sun's Kayla Pedersen during the second quarter of a WNBA basketball game at Madison Square Garden, Thursday, July 16, 2015. Credit: Jason DeCrow

It's two hours before tipoff at Madison Square Garden and Kiah Stokes is defying everything it means to be a traditional center.

Most strikingly, she's attempting three-pointers -- and draining them. It's a continuous cycle: Liberty assistant coach Herb Williams grabs a rebound and throws a bounce-pass to Stokes who goes up with it immediately. Five swishes later, she finally misses.

And then there's her conspicuous attitude while shooting: smiling from ear to ear, in between laughs with Liberty director of player development Teresa Weatherspoon, who is encouraging her from the bench. At no point does she display any sign of the ferocious, intimidating demeanor you might expect from a player who has emerged as one of the most feared defenders in the league, whom Liberty coach Bill Laimbeer called "a very heavy candidate for Defensive Player of the Year."

Instead, she carries the easygoing and jovial nature of a kid fresh out of college who's just happy to have found a job. And while she is that, she's also thriving on the highest level and on the biggest stage, helping the Liberty to a 10-5 record and first-place standing in the Eastern Conference.

"I didn't know what to expect, but right now I'm having a great time," Stokes, 22, said. "As a rookie, this is awesome."

The 6-3 center from the University of Connecticut fell to the 11th pick, where the Liberty traded up to draft her. Laimbeer regards her as the "steal of the draft."

During her four years at UConn, Stokes started six games. She matched that number six games into her WNBA career. She's averaging 24.1 minutes per game, nearly six minutes more than she played during her senior year at UConn.

"I don't really care about what she was or wasn't in college," Laimbeer said. "We had a situation where we need a glue player like her. Sets screens on offense, runs the floor, gets some easy baskets. Rebounds. But her bread and butter is her defense.

"I have to play her a lot. That says enough."

Stokes is second in the WNBA with 2.6 blocks per game, trailing only Brittney Griner (4.25), the 6-8 center from Phoenix. Chalk that up to her athleticism, not necessarily her height.

Even before Stokes picked up a basketball, her father, Greg, who played two seasons in the NBA for the Philadelphia 76ers and Sacramento Kings, saw flashes of the athlete in her.

When Kiah was 4, Stokes put her on a YMCA track team meant for 5- and 6-year-olds. Kiah could easily pass for a year or two older, so she took part in the 60-yard dash.

"She just smoked everybody," Greg Stokes recalled with a laugh. "She's four. She's not even supposed to be running. And she smoked everybody by like 20 yards. I'm like, 'We might have something here.'

"I didn't really believe it until we put her in the next race and the same thing happened."

From there, Kiah grew into her body. She spent hours in the gym working on her game with her father, a 6-10 forward-center who graduated from the University of Iowa.

"He was retired by the time I came around. But I heard stories," Stokes said of her father. "He was my role model."

During her senior year at Linn-Mar High School in Marion, Iowa, Stokes was impossible to contain. She averaged 25 points, 14.8 rebounds and 5.1 blocks as a senior. But in college, her points per game plummeted to 4.1 over her four-year career as she shifted to a defensive specialist.

"With all the scorers we had," Stokes said, "I knew what I had to be, and what I didn't have to be. I knew my role."

As if arriving in the WNBA and New York wasn't enough of a whirlwind, before her first preseason game, Stokes was called upon to do something she hadn't been asked to do in a very long time: shoot.

"Bill sat me down before anything started," Stokes said, "and straight up said, 'I want you to be aggressive on offense."

Stokes took 14 shots that scrimmage, or three more than she ever attempted in a game while at UConn.

"It was crazy," Stokes said while shaking her head. "Afterward, everyone was like, 'When was the last time you shot 14 times in a game?' I didn't have an answer for them."

It's all a part of Laimbeer's efforts to reform Stokes to being the two-way player he knows she can be.

"She's one of our best shooters," Laimbeer said. "It surprised us when we first got her. Herb first worked her out, and he called me up and said, 'You ain't going to believe this one.'"

But being a great shooter isn't enough in the pros. You have to have the mentality of a shooter as well.

"My first instinct right now is still not to score," Stokes said. "I'm looking to pass or set a screen. I mean, I played the same way for four years. It's not going to change in a month. So I'm just working at it every day."

As Weatherspoon watched Stokes practice her shot before the Liberty's 84-68 win against the San Antonio Stars on July 15, she had one primary intention.

"It's all about continuing to make her comfortable," said Weatherspoon, who led the Liberty to the first WNBA Finals in 1997. "Believing in her shot. Knowing that she can knock that shot down. It's like getting up every day and putting your clothes on. When you take a shot and you've been there and you've done that, it's easy."

Stokes, who is averaging 5.6 points, has eclipsed double figures twice this season, although the most shots she's taken in a game is seven. But the feeling among those close to her is that it's coming. It's only been 15 games.

"It's just bringing it out of her," Williams said. "She was a scorer in high school, so we know she's capable of it. She's just got to get used to, you know, if I miss a shot, it isn't the end of the world."

Though she's just 26 years old, Tina Charles, a former No. 1 overall selection out of UConn in 2010 and WNBA Most Valuable Player in 2012, is the undisputed leader and veteran of the Liberty. And yet Stokes already is rubbing off on her.

On July 16, Stokes set a franchise single-game record with eight blocks. She had three during a one-minute span in the fourth quarter. After her final swat, an animated Charles rushed over to give the normally even-keeled Stokes an emphatic chest bump.

"I love that kid," Charles said. "This team wouldn't be where it is without her."

A front row seat to Stokes' defensive prowess has pushed Charles to try and match her.

"When you see her defensive intensity, how in-tuned she is on that side," Charles said, "there's no reason why I can't be the same way."

It's why the Liberty made sure Stokes was hoisting a New York uniform on draft night.

"I keep telling people the kid can guard anybody in the league," Laimbeer said. "If there's a better defender in this league, I don't see it. There may be somebody as good, but there's nobody better than her."

For an incoming rookie, the transition isn't supposed to be this smooth. But that hasn't even been the best part of it for a devoted parent.

"It's so rewarding to see her having fun," Greg Stokes said. "That's the most important part, and that's going to lead to further success. She's doing it her way.

"She's in the right place at the right time and she's loving every minute of it."