Betnijah Laney to help Liberty bounce back in WNBA Finals

ByAlexa Philippou ESPN logo
Tuesday, October 10, 2023

LAS VEGAS -- Jonathan Kolb was named the 2023 WNBA Executive of the Year after getting Jonquel Jones, Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot to come to New York this past offseason, an endeavor that involved an international recruiting effort in Turkey in January.

But the New York Liberty's general manager swears he has never worked harder than when he got Betnijah Laney to sign with the team in 2021.

New York was coming off a 2-20 season that year, but Kolb had identified Laney -- a 6-foot guard/forward named the 2020 Most Improved Player following a career season with the Atlanta Dream -- as the Liberty's highest priority. The organization thought she'd pair well with guard Sabrina Ionescu, New York's No. 1 overall pick in 2020.

"It's hard to speak the vision into existence [after a two-win season], but she really was bought-in during our conversations during that time," Kolb told ESPN this week. "When we looked at the future free agent classes, she was somebody we would be really fortunate to get at that time."

Laney's 2021 signing didn't pay off in just that season. For as much attention as New York's newcomers have received this summer, and rightfully so, Laney has been the X factor in the postseason, a massive reason the Liberty are playing in their first Finals since 2002. And for them to overcome an early 1-0 deficit versus the Las Vegas Aces-- the series resumes Wednesday (9 p.m. ET, ESPN/ESPN App) -- and win the franchise's first championship, they'll have to continue to get tremendous play from her on both ends.

"Laney has been amazing for them. I don't know where they're at without Laney," Aces coach Becky Hammon said heading into the Finals. "... I mean, I'm a fan."

Few would have foreseen Laney making such a big impact on such a big stage early in her pro career. A second-round pick out of Rutgers in 2015, she saw limited time with the Chicago Sky and Connecticut Sun before bursting onto the scene in 2020 with Atlanta -- right after being cut by the Indiana Fever just prior to the start of that season in the bubble.

Laney established herself as a fantastic defender going back to her days playing for C. Vivian Stringer at Rutgers, but her offensive game exploded in 2020. She had never averaged more than 5.6 points in a season prior to 2020. But once then-head coach Nicki Collen gave her the green light, Laney put up 17.2 points per game that year for the Dream.

When Laney signed with New York in free agency, she viewed the organization as one that took care of its players the most on and off the court, and a franchise with a growth trajectory she wanted to be a part of. Ionescu still wasn't back to 100% after a season-ending ankle injury three games into her rookie season, and Laney was the go-to player in 2021, leading New York in scoring and earning her first WNBA All-Star bid.

Laney was then limited to just nine regular-season games in 2022 after undergoing meniscus surgery in her right knee before returning for the playoffs. Her absence stunted a still-developing New York team that finished 16-20 before falling to Chicago in the first round -- "obviously it changed to our growth," Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said of Laney's injury.

"I think people can now see the impact that she's had, how important she is to everything we do," Kolb added.

As the Liberty brought in a star-studded haul of players this offseason, Laney and Ionescu were the remaining holdovers of the pre-superteam era, main fixtures of teams whose ceiling had been simply making the playoffs. They'd been in New York even longer than Brondello, who was hired in December 2021. The Liberty knew Laney would be an important part of the equation, but it took time to figure out how.

In other words, as Brondello put it, "all of them can have a piece of the pie."

The Liberty have discussed since February the collective sacrifice it took, in role and even in salary, to come together; but from 2021 to now, arguably no one's role changed more than Laney's, and not just in terms of usage. The team worked with her to adjust her shot profile, prioritizing efficient shots like corner 3s (now more available to her given the talent around her) and posting her up on smaller guards, as opposed to less efficient midrange shots that she might have gravitated toward earlier in her career.

The Liberty can still initiate offense through her -- she averaged 5.2 assists per game in 2021 versus 2.4 this season -- but it's a more efficient process as they don't have to depend on her always having the ball in her hands.

"If you go back to where we clicked as a team, it's almost when that clicked [for Laney]," Kolb said.

Laney might not be asked to score as often as she did in 2020 or 2021, but her efficiency is at an all-time high (49.9% from the field in the regular season). She's taking more 3-pointers than ever (3.8 per game) and making a healthy 39.2%.

Her offense has been critical in the postseason, where her shot attempts are slightly up (13.3 per game versus 10.0 in the regular season) and her efficiency is still strong; at 16.1 points per game, she's the Liberty's third-highest scorer in the playoffs, only a hair behind Jones (16.4).

"I know it was a little bit of a process early in the season," Brondello said. "We were trying to work it out, how it all combined, but I think we took off when we found B getting more integrated into the offense because she's an amazing scorer. We just didn't want it to just be B the defensive player."

Indeed. Across the regular season and postseason, the Liberty are 21-2 when Laney scores at least 14 points. In the playoffs they are 0-2 when she doesn't hit the mark, such as Sunday in Game 1, when Laney was limited to 11 points off eight field goal attempts, the fewest she has taken in a game this postseason.

Her intangibles are just as crucial, especially for a team that has had to mesh so many players. Two-time MVPA'ja Wilsonof the Aces noted Laney's motor makes her so tough to guard. Hammon appreciates how Laney not only makes big shots and defends the other team's best perimeter player, but also rebounds and sets picks.

Jones said Laney always talks with players on the court and makes sure they're locked in and staying in plays. Laney counts down the team huddles, Kolb revealed, something she has done throughout her tenure in New York.

"Heart is our word this year, and she's kind of the heart [of the team]," said Kolb, who last month locked in Laney for another two years before she would have hit unrestricted free agency this offseason.

For as much as her offensive game has become an asset, Laney is equally important in setting the tone on the defensive end. That's especially true in this series, where she has been tasked with defending point guard Chelsea Gray, oftentimes full-court. Laney's grit and toughness -- she said she has been fiery ever since she was a child -- often change the complexion of a game, and those attributes are a must as the Liberty look to overcome their 1-0 Finals deficit.

Fortunately for the Liberty, Laney is equipped to bounce back. She has made a career of it.

"Injuries, being waived, it made me hungry. Each and every thing that I've gone through has helped prepare me for this moment right now, where if something happens, it doesn't faze me," Laney told ESPN. "Whether it was an injury, I've bounced back from it, I know that I can overcome that. Being waived, I know how to deal with that, and just come out and be my best self. Whatever it is that's going on around me, I feel like I've endured and I've been able to overcome and see it through."

Regardless of how the series pans out, the moment isn't lost on Laney. It wasn't long ago that she was cut from the Fever and searching for a new home. It wasn't long ago that the Liberty weren't part of the championship conversation.

But for the foreseeable future, New York and Laney are in it together, to compete for titles and fulfill the vision she and Kolb believed in when they joined forces in 2021. And she won't be an afterthought in that endeavor.

"I think every obstacle, everything was worth it," Laney said, "because it all got me to this moment right here."

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