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Betnijah Laney: Unlocking An All-Star

ByOwen Pence|@OwenPence| July 21, 2021
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There was a moment in 2020 when people realized the version of Betnijah Laney they were watching was not the version of Betnijah they remembered. It’s hard to pin exactly when that moment was, but we know it occurred in Bradenton, Florida, where the WNBA held its pandemic-shortened season. 

Perhaps some raised their eyebrows out of the gate when Betnijah scored 19 points in her first game as a member of the Atlanta Dream. Maybe it took until Atlanta’s third game in the “Wubble,” Betnijah erupting for 30 points, 8 rebounds, and 3 steals in a win over the hapless New York Liberty. The “aha” realization wasn’t homogeneous – a single bucket didn’t flip every WNBA fan’s switch all at once – but it quickly became accepted that Atlanta had poached Betnijah Laney 2.0. 

If the Dream enjoyed having Betnijah 2.0 on their side, the New York Liberty are over the moon watching Betnijah 3.0 slice-and-dice opponents at Barclays Center. How does the league’s Most Improved Player continue to improve? And how does a defensive specialist turn into an all-around superstar?

Betnijah Laney keeps turning heads and dropping jaws, seemingly having “come out of nowhere”. That’s a tidy, easily digestible tale, but it’s not entirely accurate. Betnijah has been grinding for years, putting in the work and refining her skills to the point where a “breakout” was almost inevitable.

The question wasn’t “if?” but “when?” and more importantly, “where?” Betnijah is proof that it requires a certain atmosphere to spread your wings and take off.

Betnijah Laney’s basketball evolution

Before we take you through Betnijah’s roller-coaster ride in the WNBA, we must dispel the notion that she came out of nowhere. The truth is, Betnijah was destined for greatness from a young age. It just took a while to materialize in the form of widespread adulation at the professional level, or for that matter, in the form of simply picking up a ball. 

Betnijah hails from a basketball family, but unlike many children of hoopers, Betnijah wasn’t compelled by the game at a young age. While children in similar situations to her own shot on plastic hoops while in diapers, Betnijah was busy with her own, less competitive hobbies.  

Betnijah’s mother, Yolanda Laney, played guard at Cheney State, earning All-America honors and helping lead the team to two Final Fours and one National Championship berth in 1982. One of Yolanda’s main influences was C. Vivian Stringer, a legendary coach who imparted her wisdom unto Yolanda at Cheney State. In fact, Stringer had coached Betnijah’s godmother at the same school. A bond spanning multiple generations had been grown through the game of basketball, and through the art of teaching. 

Yet for years after Betnijah’s birth in Clayton, Delaware on October 29, 1993, the younger Laney wasn’t grasped by the game that ran through her veins. Yolanda would drag a young Betnijah to the gym on Saturdays, making the commute from Delaware to East Germantown, Pennsylvania, to gather some of the top girls’ basketball players in the area. 

“I hated basketball,” Betnijah told Sarah Valenzuela of the New York Daily News in February. “I didn’t want anything to do with it. The only reason I got into it was because I was always around my mother. She played basketball and she’s always giving back to the community and teaching.”

Initially, Betnijah would sit on the bleachers, reading or doing puzzles as her mother worked out on the court. She wasn’t an idle child, however. The younger Laney loved dance, taking jazz, tap, and ballet classes. The skills she developed in this arena would come in handy later on – she just didn’t know it yet. 

Eventually, Betnijah tired of watching her mother play. She no longer wanted to be a cheerleader. She wanted in on the action. Around the age of 10, Betnijah first started lacing up sneakers with the intention of dribbling and shooting a basketball. 

The rest – as they say – is history. 

Betnijah Laney’s high school basketball career

Betnijah was a force from the minute she stepped onto the court at Smyrna High School in Delaware. Most underclassmen struggle to acclimate against older players, at least initially. But most players didn’t have Betnijah’s background. 

For starters, Betnijah’s footwork was nearly impeccable. Establishing a background in dance helped tremendously with her balance on the court, one of the most under appreciated and important skills in basketball. Betnijah wouldn’t get caught leaning too far in one direction, thus making her nearly impossible to get by. 

Then there was the work ethic. Watching Yolanda grind on weekend mornings while juggling many other responsibilities instilled a level of discipline in Betnijah that was well beyond her years. While other high school teammates would practice without much of a plan, Betnijah had already developed routines which she stuck to. 

“So many kids come in and just shoot around aimlessly,” said James Kiger, Laney’s coach at Smyrna High, to Ben Mace of the Smyrna-Clayton Sun Times back in 2017. “Betnijah had a particular pre-practice routine she did every day to hone her skills. I could always point to the fact that she got the accolades she did because she worked at it.” 

And oh boy did the accolades start pouring in. Betnijah had already exceeded 1,000 career points as she entered her junior year. That was a school record. She did in two years what no one else had accomplished in four. From a team-centric standpoint, Betnijah’s junior year would be the most successful season of her high school tenure. Betnijah led Smyrna to its first state title game on the girls side in program history. The team fell short, and only made it as far as the semifinals in Betnijah’s senior season. 

Still, the failure to win it all didn’t equate to an overall failure. Betnijah’s four years at Smyrna were incredibly successful. As a sophomore, Laney scored 52 points in a single game, breaking the Delaware state record by a single point. Who previously held the record, you ask? None other than two-time WNBA MVP, Elena Delle Donne. By the time she had played her final high school game, Betnijah had accrued 2,198 total points. She was named the Delaware Gatorade Player of the Year in 2010 and 2011, her junior and senior seasons. In 2011, Betnijah earned a spot on the McDonald’s All-American team. 

Betnijah Laney’s statistics as a senior were goofy. She averaged 23.7 points, 10 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game. Her defensive numbers were even more astounding: 4.4 steals and 1.2 blocks per game. Smyrna High went 43-5 over Laney’s final two high school seasons. 

Now ask yourself, did Betnijah Laney really come out of nowhere? 

Betnijah Laney’s college basketball career

Since C. Vivian Stringer had a major impact on the Laney family even prior to Betnijah’s interest in the game of basketball, it was only natural for Betnijah to choose Rutgers as her college of choice. 

Betnijah was immediately a contributor at the college level. You may think that because Betnijah was predominantly known as a defensive stopper during her first handful of professional seasons, the same would’ve been the case at Rutgers.

While there is some truth to that, the reality is that Betnijah was a proficient scorer from the minute she put on a Rutgers uniform. In her college debut, Betnijah dropped a team-high 18 points, the most by a true freshman since 1996. Betnijah ended up starting 11 games that year, and saw action in all the others. She was named to the Big East All-Freshman team for her excellence. 

As a sophomore, Betnijah went from part-time to full-time starter, a key part of what Stringer and Co. were trying to do. She scored in double figures 14 times while refining other parts of her game, such as rebounding and passing. Betnijah led the team in defensive rebounding, something Stringer stressed. She led the Scarlet Knights in assists six times as a sophomore, helping get others involved while still seeking her shot. Naturally, she remained a defensive force. 

Betnijah took things to another level as an upperclassman. She was named Second Team American Athletic Conference as a junior, averaging 11.8 points and 8.5 rebounds while often locking down one of the opponent’s best perimeter players. Betnijah logged 15 double-doubles in the 2013-14 season and once again led the team in assists on six different occasions. 

If her first three seasons with the Scarlet Knights were an indicator of things to come, Betnijah’s senior season was confirmation that Rutgers had a future WNBA player on its squad. Yolanda’s daughter averaged 15.8 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 2.9 assists, earning First Team Big Ten honors (Rutgers switched conferences during Betnijah’s time at the school). Betnijah was an honorable mention for the Associated Press’s All-American honors and was named Big Ten Player of the Week three times. 

Rutgers made the NCAA Tournament in 2015, winning a game before getting bounced in the second round. Even though her time in the so-called Big Dance was short-lived, Betnijah had everything she needed to prove her viability as a future professional. Now, it was time to take her talents to the pros. 

Betnijah Laney’s WNBA play 

Betnijah Laney was selected 17th overall (second round) by the Chicago Sky in the 2015 WNBA Draft. Chicago’s general manager and head coach at the time was Pokey Chatman, who would prove to be one of Laney’s biggest advocates and supporters in the league. Chatman dubbed Laney the best pick of 2015’s second round. It’s hard to argue with her assessment. 

Betnijah averaged 12.8 minutes as a rookie and showed brief flashes of promise, but was hardly utilized on the offensive end. She continued developing her defense and working hard in practice, but fell into the trap many young WNBA players encounter: not receiving enough playing time to develop any sort of rhythm, which in turn leads to even less on-court action. 

Her “sophomore” season in the W was even more difficult. Betnijah averaged just 5.3 minutes over eight games with the Sky before suffering a torn left ACL, sidelining her for the season. Near the end of her recovery process, Betnijah decided to travel back to New Jersey and put in some work with her former coaches at Rutgers. The decision paid dividends. Betnijah not only started to get her on-court feel back, but also she took part in film sessions and coaches meetings, observing what went into the preparation process for game planning and the like. It’s not a surprise that Betnijah is now considered one of the best leaders and smartest on-court players in the WNBA

Betnijah was waived by the Chicago Sky and did not appear in a single game in 2017. Some assumed that her professional career had fizzled out, much like many second and third round picks who preceded her. But remember that work ethic that was notable from the minute 10-year-old Betnijah put down her puzzle-book and picked up a basketball? Betnijah vowed to come back even stronger than before her injury. 

The Connecticut Sun signed Betnijah for the 2018 season, but once again she was unable to gain any sort of significant traction as a WNBA rotation player. Betnijah averaged 9.3 minutes and 2.7 points for the Sun. 

Finally, things began to shift in 2019, in part due to a reunion between Betnijah and Pokey Chatman. At the time, Pokey was general manager and head coach of the Indiana Fever, and she wanted to bring back her former draft pick. The Fever signed Betnijah Laney and this time she saw high-stakes minutes rather than being relegated to mop-up duty. Betnijah started 27 of 34 games in 2019 and averaged 25.8 minutes, over double her previous career-high as a rookie. Things were beginning to click. 

Still, the perception surrounding Betnijah was that she was a one-way player, Indiana relied on others to carry the offensive burden as Betnijah guarded the opponent’s best player. There were games when Betnijah would chip in on the offensive end, but she was far from the focal point. She’d clearly established herself as a useful WNBA rotation player, but the thought of Betnijah ever becoming one of the best all-around players on a team seemed slight and distant. 

Following the 2019 season, Indiana cut ties with Pokey, naming Tamika Catchings general manager and Marianne Stanley head coach. As Laney was packing her bags for a trip to Bradenton, she received a shocking phone call: the Fever were cutting her from their roster. The decision made her question whether it would ever work out for her in the W, so Betnijah turned to prayer and faith. Instead of engaging in self-pity, Betnijah returned to Smyrna High to workout during the pandemic. 

Eventually, Betnijah’s phone rang again. This time, the news came with a different tone: it was Atlanta’s then head coach Nicki Collen offering Betnijah a fresh start with the Dream. This was when everything changed. When Betnijah began practicing with Atlanta, Nicki was struck by Betnijah’s shooting routines in practice, the ones that dated back to her time at Smyrna. Nicki encouraged Betnijah to be more aggressive offensively and seek her own shot. Those were words Betnijah had never heard from a WNBA coach. They shifted the course of her career dramatically. 

“It was just that freedom,” Betnijah told ESPN’s Dana Lee. “It was [Collen] telling me, ‘This is your new role. This is what we need you to do.’ I’m just like, ‘Okay, I can do that.’ I’ve been able to do this. These are the things I’ve been working on and now that you’re giving me that opportunity, I’m going to go with it.” 

Betnijah had about as big of a “breakout” season as you could ever imagine in 2020. She went from a defensive stopper to an All-Star level talent, comfortably announcing herself as the best player on the Dream. Now, Betnijah was Atlanta’s go-to player on both sides of the ball, continuing to carry a heavy defensive burden while also leading the Dream in scoring and shot-creation. Her efforts weren’t enough to propel Atlanta into the playoffs, but they were enough to secure her a major paycheck in the offseason. 

Per Her Hoop Stats, New York signed Betnijah to a three-year deal worth just under $200,000 per year. The contract was a declaration that Betnijah’s new ball club viewed her as an elite WNBA player and not just a one-hit wonder. Betnijah has paid off that proclamation. Per Across the Timeline, she logged 20 or more points in her first eight games as a member of the Liberty. Though the buzz has cooled a tad around two-thirds of the way through the season, Betnijah continues to garner MVP buzz for her two-way excellence. Just like in 2020, she has clearly been the best player on her team. 

It hasn’t been a conventional trajectory for Betnijah in the WNBA, but it sure has been a riveting one. 

Betnijah Laney highlights

1. Betnijah Laney’s Indiana Fever Highlights

This highlight video helps dispel the notion that Betnijah “came out of nowhere,” if we haven’t already done that in this article. Clearly, all she needed was a nudge to be more aggressive, because she shows flashes of brilliance in the clips above. Naturally, some of the best plays in this video are of the defensive variety. 

2. Betnijah Laney’s Atlanta Dream Highlights

Here’s where you start to see the increased offensive spark Betnijah showcased in the Wubble. Observe her increased comfort level handling the ball and running an offense. There’s more decisiveness in these highlights, more assuredness. She knew that she was a capable offensive player, and now she was getting a chance to prove it. 

3. Betnijah Laney erupts against the team that cut her

How’s this for vindication? In her New York debut, Betnijah not only poured in 30 points but also did it against the team that didn’t deem her worthy of a roster spot. The result? A thrilling three-point Liberty victory. Betnijah Laney was money as a spot-up shooter in the first half, nailing three after three. In the second half she switched it up, going to work in the paint and the mid-range while sprinkling in some smart passes to propel New York to the promised land. 

4. Betnijah Laney mic’d up

So often, we drown ourselves in on-court minutiae without stopping to appreciate players as people. This was one of the most glorious videos to emerge from the Wubble – Betnijah Laney and Courtney Williams having fun in practice while appreciating the greatness of Beyonce. 

Betnijah Laney’s basketball strengths 

1. On-ball perimeter defense

This has always been Betnijah Laney’s calling card. Before she was the all-around star we see now in a New York Liberty uniform, Betnijah was known purely as a defensive stopper. It’s why Pokey brought Betnijah to the Fever. The team’s defense was struggling, and who better to plug holes on the perimeter than Betnijah? 

Betnijah is elite defensively due to a number of factors, but it’s her build that makes it nearly impossible to shake her in isolation situations. She is listed at six-feet, 166 pounds, but her reach feels longer than that of a normal six-footer. The Rutgers graduate is incredibly strong, yet laterally quick. She will slide in front of offensive players, beating them to their preferred spots on the floor, then use her core to prevent a drive to the hoop. Remember when Betnijah was perfecting her footwork as a dancer? Those hours on the dance floor paid dividends in the form of her elite defense. 

2. Off-ball team defense

If it was her strong footwork that made Betnijah into an elite on-ball defender, it’s the hours she put in with Stringer and Co. in the film room that made her into an elite off-ball defender. Betnijah is an expert on opponent tendencies, always knowing where the player she is guarding is most likely to venture. 

Betnijah has developed into an incredibly vocal leader on the floor. This allows her to dictate assignments to her four teammates, allowing everyone to thrive in unison. Betnijah has a good feel of when to sag off her assignment and go where help is needed versus when to trust her teammates and stick where she is. She doesn’t fill up the block column, but she’s a great deterrent against larger players because of her strength and intellect. 

3. One-on-one shot creation

If this article had been written in 2019, perhaps “shot creation” would’ve come under the “opportunities” heading. Now, it’s perhaps Betnijah’s biggest strength. Though folks still tout her defense, Betnijah’s offensive creation is now the central part of her game. 

When New York needs a bucket, the team often clears out space for Betnijah in the middle of the court and lets her cook. Her ball-handling has improved, and she now flaunts a plethora of moves to help her create space and launch shots. Because Betnijah can score at all levels, defenses have a tough time taking one shot away without sacrificing another. She can operate facing the basket and as a post-up threat. Simply put, she’s now one of the most lethal shot creators in the WNBA. 

4. Spot-up shooting

When Betnijah isn’t running pick-and-rolls or devastating opponents in isolation scenarios, she’s generally spotting up behind the three-point line. Per Synergy Sports, Betnijah currently ranks in the 71st percentile amongst spot-up shooting efficiency. In 2020, she ranked in the 84th percentile. 

Betnijah’s three-point percentage has dipped considerably in New York, but just the threat of her shooting helps the Liberty space the floor, opening lanes for others to score. 

5. Passing

This may be the most underrated part of Betnijah’s professional progression. Once a forgettable passer, Betnijah is now one of New York’s main distributors. She runs a ton of pick-and-rolls, rifling dimes to rolling bigs when the defense overcommits. Betnijah isn’t just a proficient passer but also a creative one. Sometimes she’ll contort her body and sling one-handed bullets if the situation calls for it. She’s comfortable rotating the ball or switching up patterns to keep the defense on its toes. 

6. Finishing with both hands

Betnijah is left-handed off the court, but shoots the basketball mainly with her right hand. Despite the fact that she shoots with her right hand, Betnijah often finishes layups with her left. This allows her to showcase a variety of moves, especially close to the basket. Betnijah uses hesitation dribbles, jab-steps, and pump-fakes to shake her defender, then often finishes over taller players with either hand. 

7. Cutting

This isn’t a skill that gets highlighted in box scores or television segments, but it’s crucial in keeping an offense humming. Betnijah’s cuts are sharp, wasting no steps and no space. She usually buys herself at least one free bucket per game by catching her defender sleeping with a sharp cut to the basket. 

Betnijah Laney’s basketball opportunities

1. Turnovers

This is a natural byproduct of carrying more responsibility on the offensive end. As her usage has ballooned, so, too, have her turnovers. This wasn’t as much of an issue in 2020 as it has become in 2021, with Betnijah averaging over 4 turnovers per game for the Liberty. Though far from a careless player, Betnijah occasionally gets sloppy with the ball in her hands, trying to make passes that aren’t there. If she can continue to rack up assists while lowering her turnover numbers, Betnijah will make yet another jump among the league’s elite. 

2. Three-point efficiency

This seems like an odd thing to include given her spot-up proficiency, but with players as good as Betnijah one must nitpick in the “weaknesses” section. After a hot start, Betnijah’s three-point shooting has tapered off in New York, dipping below 32 percent. She is just a 32 percent three-point shooter for her career, begging the question: was 2020 an anomaly for Betnijah from deep? 

The good news? Betnijah has an incredibly sharp and repeatable shooting stroke, and has been taking tough shots in New York. If the difficulty of her shot attempts improve, it’s likely her shooting numbers would improve as well. 

3. Defensive consistency

Let’s make this clear: Betnijah is still a good defender. Again, there aren’t many clear weaknesses in her game at this point. But it must be noted that Betnijah is in some way coasting on her defensive reputation without actually doing a whole lot to back it up. Still a solid perimeter defender, Betnijah now has to pick her spots on the defensive end. Otherwise, she wouldn’t have enough energy to carry the Liberty on offense. Betnijah is less aggressive than she used to be, wreaking far less havoc across the floor. 

4. Free throws

This one is simple: Betnijah Laney is a career 77 percent free throw shooter and is shooting 78 percent from the line this year. There’s no reason such a hard worker and someone with such a crisp shooting motion shouldn’t shoot at least 80 percent from the line. These are minor complains, but the blueprint is there: in 2020, Betnijah shot 83 percent on foul shots. 

5. Hand-offs

Per Synergy Sports, Betnijah ranks in the 24th percentile in scoring efficiency off hand-offs. This is somewhat unfair to include, as the sample size is minuscule and the number is reliant on one’s teammates executing their jobs. Still, Betnijah could improve in this area. 

Betnijah Laney’s go-to moves 

1. Mid-range pullup

Betnijah nails these in her sleep. Her balance is second-to-none and her speed is sneaky. Betnijah will fly up the floor, stop on a dime, and rise straight into the air for a jumper. She also excels at seeking pull up jumpers off of ball-screens. There is rarely an opportunity to hoist a mid-range pull up jump shot that Betnijah will pass up. 

2. Fadeaway midrange

This might be the most satisfying move in Betnijah’s bag. Now that she is more comfortable as a scorer and creator, Betnijah will call for the ball as she posts up her defender. Then she’ll begin to nudge the defender until they give an inch, creating the space for her to twirl into a 180 and shoot the ball off one foot, out of reach of the defender. 

3. Spin-move

Betnijah doesn’t break out a pure spin-move very often, but when she does it’s notable. Oftentimes she’ll deploy the spin to set up a lefty layup, twisting through the middle of the lane to gain a half-step on her defender. 

4. Pump-and-drive

Teams now have to respect Betnijah’s outside shooting abilities, opening the door for a bunch of pump-fake-and-go scenarios. As mentioned earlier, Betnijah’s ability to finish with both hands incentivizes her to break out the pump-fake more often, as she’s comfortable banging with bigger players and finishing through contact. 

5. Inside-out dribble

This is perhaps Betnijah’s subtlest move, but also one of the most effective. Defenders are so used to crossover dribbles that any time an offensive player intimates a head-fake, the defender assumes a crossover is coming. Betnijah understands this and instead goes the other direction, faking the crossover and then going right with an inside-out dribble. This opens up a bunch of driving lanes for Betnijah, or drive-and-kick opportunities. 

Betnijah Laney’s stats and awards

In her first three professional seasons, Betnijah failed to exceed 3 points per game. She enjoyed a slight bump during her fourth season in Indiana – averaging 5.6 points, 4.2 rebounds, 1.7 assists, and 1.4 steals – but that was largely due to an increased workload, not an increase in per-minute output. As you already know, that all changed in 2020. 

With the Dream, Betnijah shattered her previous career highs, posting averages of 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4 assists, and 1.6 steals. Perhaps even more impressively, her efficiency rose along with her totals. Betnijah shot 48 percent from the field, 41 percent from behind the arc, and 83 percent from the line. Because the ball was in her hands more than ever, Betnijah also averaged a career-high 3 turnovers. 

Somehow, Betnijah has continued tacking on bigger numbers with the Liberty. As of the Olympic break, she is averaging 19 points, 5 assists, and 4.1 rebounds. One number Laney isn’t thrilled to see grow is her turnover mark, which stands at 4.1 per game. With the increased offensive burden, Betnijah’s defensive numbers have slipped to 0.5 steals and 0.1 blocks. She is shooting 49 percent from the field, 32 percent from three, and 78 percent from the line. 

We’ve already run through Betnijah’s many high school and college awards, which surely left very little space on her mantle. Yet Betnijah has begun to collect more prizes over her last few professional seasons. In 2020, she was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player, while also earning a nod onto the All-Defensive First Team. This season, Betnijah was named to her first All-Star game (the exhibition was not held in 2020). On June 1st, she earned her first ever Player of the Week award. 

If the arc of her last two seasons is any indication, Betnijah will need to clear more space on her mantlepiece in the years to come. 

What’s next?

The New York Liberty will resume their chase for a playoff spot when the WNBA returns from its Olympic break in August. No one is more important to New York’s newfound playoff hopes than Betnijah. 

Betnijah has also played overseas for years, most recently in Israel for Elitzur Ramla basketball. She’ll likely continue her overseas ventures in the coming offseason. 

Right now, however, all of Betnijah’s focus is locked in on the remaining WNBA season. It’s hard to speculate on “what’s next?” for her considering she’s shattered expectations each of the last two seasons. Is an All-WNBA selection in the cards? A championship? An MVP award? 

Let the Indiana Fever offer you a little lesson: never doubt what Betnijah Laney is capable of. 

Up next, learn more about her New York Liberty teammates Jocelyn Willoughby and Sabrina Ionescu.

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