February 6, 2021 

Betnijah Laney brings ‘true grit’ to New York

2020's Most improved player fits the Liberty in more ways than one

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Betnijah Laney #44 of the Atlanta Dream handles the ball during the game against the New York Liberty on September 3, 2020, at FeldEntertainment Center in Palmetto, Florida. Photo by Stephen Gosling/NBAEvia Getty Images.

When Jonathan Kolb introduced Betnijah Laney to the media on Wednesday, he explained why she was “a top priority” for the Liberty this offseason. He mentioned the type of leader she is and the types of leaders he continues to look for as the Liberty finalize their 2021 roster.

“In terms of leadership, we’re trying to assemble a group of players that are wanting to be in the gym and wanting to work on their games and not only want to work on their games for themselves but for each other and that’s who she is,” he said.

With that in mind, it’s perplexing that growing up Laney didn’t even really like basketball that much. According to her, she “hated” it and didn’t want a lot to do with it. As a young child, she preferred reading and doing puzzles while her mother Yolanda— a 2020 nominee to the Philadelphia Sports Hall of Fame— taught and coached the game while also serving as the Assistant City Solicitor of Atlantic City.

Before basketball, Laney grew up with interests in dance, and with her mother’s encouragement, she took tap, jazz and ballet classes. When asked about her childhood pastime on Wednesday, Laney smiled from ear to ear and let out a deep laugh.

“I think it is definitely something that has helped me get to where I am in terms of foot work and everything,” she said when asked about if her dance background has helped with basketball at all. “ So, it wasn’t a waste.”

What Laney’s dance background is to basketball is what her entire career trajectory so far is to her next chapter in New York. It was far from a waste. If anything, her unique set of experiences as a professional so far give her an opportunity to be part of the glue that the Liberty need to strive toward its first winning season in almost four years.

‘New York tough’ is Laney’s game

When The Next reported that Liberty had agreed to terms with Laney, it was noted that the prospect of returning to the north east, where the majority of her family and friends reside, was a major factor in the wooing process. And on Wednesday, Laney was straight forward, putting major emphasis on location and how important her loved ones are. She views this new journey as a homecoming. But not just because she’s returning to the tri-state area where she spent her college days, but also Brooklyn holds firm significance in her life as well. It’s where she spent time with her great- great aunt as a child.

Although Laney was born and bred in Delaware, she was raised to be New York tough by her mother Yolanda and Rutgers legend C. Vivian Stringer, who coached both the Laney women.

Laney learned the importance of lock down defense and her love of rebounding from her mother. “It is something that I take pride in and I don’t think enough people do,” Laney told Ryan Dunleavy in 2015 during her days at Rutgers. “A rebound guarantees you another possession. I can’t sit around and wait for somebody else to rebound because that doesn’t guarantee us possession. If I have it, I know my team has it. It’s all about having the ball.”

Stinger, who has known Laney since she was born, helped the agile wing put it all together. On Wednesday, Laney mentioned that Stringer instilled in her discipline and a sharp attention to detail. “…whether it’s her talking to you, whether it’s putting you through drills, just making sure you know the attention to detail,” she said about Stringer.

It is no secret that Laney’s athletic abilities and style of play are built for head coach Walt Hopkins’ five-out motion offense and the way the Liberty play defense. Last season, Laney proved that with more autonomy, she could slash and score, make shots beyond the arc, and handle the ball in addition to the skills she had been previously lauded for on the defensive end. Her wide skillset and ability to play multiple positions will fill in some of the gaps left in 2020.

“It’s rare that you can have a player that so uniquely helps fill some problem areas in the previous year,” Kolb said on Wednesday. “I think we were 11th in pick and roll defense last year, 12th in spot up offense and she uniquely and immensely helps us improve in those spaces.”

When asked about New York’s style of play, Laney could explain exactly what the system entailed without hesitation. While acknowledging the similarities between the Liberty’s system to the playbook she just came from in Atlanta under head coach Nicki Collen, she then was able to explain Hopkins’ system to the media without doubt or confusion. It was almost as if a she were a coach or a teacher, and there’s a reason for that.

Beyond being waived before the 2020 season and the frustration that caused, Laney has worked through her own rolodex of career hurdles. In 2016, she tore her ACL, putting her second WNBA season and eventually her journey with the Chicago Sky to a close. During her recovery, Stringer invited her back to Rutgers so she could rehab with the in house trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. When she wasn’t rehabbing, Laney sat in on meetings and film sessions with Stringer and the assistant coaches. She became a student of what it takes to coach.

During this time she became a more well rounded student of the game, and she retained “a deeper focus” when it came to scouting. Those skills translated during her breakout season with Atlanta. “When I’m watching film, I’m not just watching, I’m looking at where I can get my shots at, how I need to play certain players, so I’d definitely say it helped,” she told NJ Advanced Media.

What it means to wear the Seafoam and Black

Case in point: the former Rutgers star and the newest Liberty wing is no stranger to career setbacks and twists and turns. Resilience is a major part of what makes Laney’s WNBA story a New York story. Look no further than her attitude when she heard she waived by the Fever.

“I could have been like okay well I guess I’m off this summer, but I still you know I kept working out and doing things that I needed to do to stay ready,” she said on Wednesday. “So I think that’s something that’s very, very important is to just make sure regardless of what the future may look like, you never really know what’s going to happen, so you just got to stay ready and know what it is that your goal is and focus on that and just continue to work.”

That work ethic, passion and care for the game will translate into forming tight bonds with her teammates who indeed share her values and brand of toughness and perseverance.

When addressing the media earlier this week, Laney mentioned that she’s had conversations with 2020’s number one overall draft pick Sabrina Ionescu. Laney stressed how high she believes Ionescu’s ceiling is, but she also acknowledged that their relationship will depend on not only the former Oregon star learning from Laney, but also Laney learning from Ionescu.

Laney also acknowledged how their collective versatility and ability to perform multiple on court functions will translate to undeniable chemistry. Ionescu got to see Laney’s intensity pretty up close and personal, as her relentlessness on defense led to the injury that ended the rookie’s first WNBA season. While it’s not certain, it’s fair to assume that any hard feelings from Ionescu’s late July ankle sprain are long gone.

That resilience, relentlessness, and mental fortitude will also bode well with second-string point guard Layshia Clarendon, who surprise surprise, Laney has played with before. (Familiarity matters, folks!) While the two were together for a short while in 2018 back in Connecticut, both remember vividly what it was like to be on the same team. Clarendon expressed their thoughts on Twitter immediately once the signing was announced by the team.

When the team announced Laney’s signing earlier this week, Kolb mentioned that Laney “represents everything it takes to wear the seafoam and black.” And beyond her on-court fit into what the Liberty plan to execute, her attitude toward off-court activities fits New York like a glove. Kolb believes that Laney will add plenty of value to not only the Brooklyn community, but to the New York community at large.

He mentioned how Laney reacted during her first meeting with CEO Keia Clarke, who is responsible for planning the off-court programming and community engagement for the players. “I think Betnijah really lit up during a conversation with Keia,” he said.

Leadership is also a defining characteristic of what it takes to wear the Seafoam and Black. And not only was Laney a priority in January, but the Liberty have had their eyes on her since she was waived by Indiana.

“We were wanting her services last year and we were waiting on a player to decide if they’re going to come or not to the bubble,” Kolb said. “And in that, our plan was if that player was to opt-out, we were gonna go out to Betnijah, and it was for leadership reasons.”

Kolb mentioned her leadership style is via example, noting that her demeanor on the court and during practices will be contagious. The Atlanta Dream proved his observation true when they mic’d Laney up during practice last summer.

In the video clip below, not only does Laney communicate non-stop during practice, but she also understands how to relate to her teammates. Her back and forth with Courtney Williams about who should sing Beyoncé’s verse on “Drunk in Love” proves that she can balance work and play while building relationships and chemistry.

And those skills will bode her well as she enters a roster full of young talent. Laney will serve as a mentor at 27 to a group of players coming off of their rookie seasons. Her experience will be particularly valuable to the crop of young players the Liberty currently hold. A lot of them have similar skillsets and aspirations of being well respected two-way players in this league. Players such as Jocelyn Willoughby, Kylee Shook and Neah Odom proved their proficiency on the defensive end of the floor. But with Laney’s guidance, as someone who has been pigeonholed before, that trio has an opportunity to learn from someone who knows what it takes to be an elite two-way player in the WNBA.

So, how will she do it? According to Laney, it’s about what’s internal and external. In other words, growth and success come from an intrinsic belief in oneself coupled with the extrinsic energy that a player gets from others. Laney will take it on herself to set that example and precedent for her young teammates around her.

“So you know, that it starts with yourself,” she said during her introductory presser. “Just making sure that you’re doing everything that you need to do to go out and perform but then also you know just having people around you who believe in you and what you’re capable of to go out there and be able to perform.”

Free Agency *Shouldn’t* be over for New York

While Laney’s understanding of leadership is encouraging, the Liberty simply need more. As for the folks who are signed on for 2021, the leadership duties reside to Laney, Clarendon, and Kiah Stokes. The Liberty simply need more.

Laney seemed to hint that New York’s free agency isn’t done.

“I’m most excited about the young potential of the team,” she said. “I think that, you know, we’re moving in the right direction. With the pieces that are already there and what’s trying to be added.”

When asked about if the Liberty will continue to make headlines during this free agency season in pursuit of a potential “Hybrid Rebuild,” Kolb remained mum and wanted to focus on discussing Laney. Focusing on Laney, for now, is all well and good, but right now the Liberty do not have a post player signed aside from Stokes over age 25. Joyner Holmes—who recently signed a training camp contract to return to New York—Kylee Shook, Neah Odom and Jocelyn Willoughby are all 22 years old. And then there’s Han Xu, who turned 21 this past October.

Also, what is the anticipated trajectory for winners of the Most Improved Player award in the season following their breakthrough? In a study done by Jenn Hatfield for Five ThirtyEight, she concluded that mostly these players see “their performance plateau” in the year following their award-winning season.

But, according to Hatfield, there’s one recent exception to this rule. In 2018, Natasha Howard received the same award, and then the following year, she took her game to an even higher level. While the absence of Sue Bird and Breanna Stewart in 2019 played a role in her ascension, Howard ranked in the top seven league-wide in points per game, rebounds per game, and player efficiency rating.

Could Laney make this type of leap? It’s completely possible, but such a leap also won’t be enough. Why? Her playoff experience, however, is limited. As a rookie in 2015, Laney made it to the semifinals alongside Elena Delle Donne, Cappie Pondexter and Courtney Vandersloot, but then lost to the Fever. And during her time with the Sun, where she played around 9 minutes a game, her Connecticut team lost in the second round.

While less can sometimes mean more, in this situation, that is not the case. When the collective goal is winning a championship in the near future for an original franchise that has never won one, less playoff experience doesn’t equate to more postseason success.

For Laney, this homecoming represents something more. The young kid who didn’t love basketball bloomed into a teenager who went to Liberty games ten years ago with glee. She remembered watching Plenette Pierson and Leilani Mitchell and thought, well, that could be her. And in 2021, as now a young woman who’s battled through adversity to stay afloat in this league, that will be her.

Written by Jackie Powell

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