August 24, 2023
How Betnijah Laney and Marine Johannès’ pieces fit the Liberty puzzle
Laney and Johannès stepped up during the Liberty’s west coast road trip
The New York Liberty’s Betnijah Laney and Marine Johannès were absolutely exhausted last Friday night following their team’s 85-63 win over the Brittney Griner-less Phoenix Mercury. The team had just finished a west coast road trip that included three games in four days including the Commissioner’s Cup championship on Tuesday, followed by a regular season game against Las Vegas (again) on Thursday and then a back-to-back in Phoenix the following evening.
Both players — who were absolutely pivotal in that stretch — expressed their exhaustion in different ways. Laney gave everything she had on the floor in her 29 plus minutes on the floor and was so drained of energy, it was hard for her to focus on the questions postgame. She had nothing left in the tank to process what media members were asking.
“She was tired, she couldn’t think,” head coach Sandy Brondello told The Next, recalling that moment.
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Johannès exhaustion manifested in a different way. She was very smiley throughout that presser on Friday night and at one point had to hide her face in her right arm to stifle her laughter. The pair just wanted to sleep and that was understandable after having played a back-to-back on the west coast following a two game series against the best team in the WNBA.
The Liberty picked up two wins in that three game stretch, winning the Comissioner’s Cup on Tuesday and then defeating the Mercury handily on Friday. A year ago, winning both games on a west coast back-to-back was something New York couldn’t do. The Liberty had a similar back-to-back against Vegas and then Phoenix over a year ago and couldn’t find a way to win against what was still a much less talented Mercury team.
The Liberty won a game that they had deemed a “take care of business” game at the Footprint Center and gave Brondello her first victory there as a member of the opposition, which took three tries to achieve. After a sloppy and even slippery first half where the Liberty’s starters slipped multiple times while trying to score the ball, New York was only up by five points. But in the third quarter, New York found another gear.
“In previous years we didn’t always start the second half the way that we do now and so that’s been a big emphasis for us,” Laney said postgame on Friday night. “And I think that we’ve just taken on the challenge of just being able to come out and just make it a point to be great in the third quarter.”
Betnijah Laney’s understated value
And Laney was great in the third quarter. In her eight plus minutes of play, she scored 13 points on 5-7 shooting and registered two rebounds, two steals and an assist. Her scoring performance on Friday night was reminiscent of 2021 Laney and how the 29 year-old do-it-all wing operates at her best. She made shots at all three levels, including one in Diana Taurasi’s face on the left wing, her mid-rage pull up — which was wide open when the Mercury focused their defensive energy on the perimeter — and a few post-ups on smaller or less defensively apt guards.
Even in the Liberty’s 88-75 loss against the Aces on Thursday night, Laney’s efficient night, 17 points on 7-11 shooting, stood out. She hit three threes and posted up or bumped around with the Aces’ less potent defensive backcourt three times. The help for Kelsey Plum came late each time Laney was posted up on her and she bumped into Jonquel Jones’ screen that was intended for her while running away with purpose from Chelsea Gray who was a full step behind.
When Brondello was asked during practice on Tuesday following the west coast swing what the Liberty would be without Laney, she replied as if she had seen a ghost. “Ohh!,” she replied. “B brings…you know what you get every single day.”
And what the Liberty have been getting is consistent two-way play that highlights Laney’s strengths. While her offensive play as of late has been reminiscent of her 2021 All-Star season, it’s been much more efficient.
Her field goal percentage (49.8) is in the 81st percentile, compared to 2021’s percentage (45.1%) which was in the 70th. She’s shooting the three ball at a 39.8% clip versus at a 31.2% clip during her All-Star season. This season she’s in the 85th percentile for 3-point percentage versus the 31st two years ago. Lastly, Her Hoop Stats ranks her 10th in the WNBA in effective field goal percentage (57.5%). Two years ago, she was ranked 64th (48.9%), a 17.6 percent increase.
These improvements are a result of Laney being guarded as New York’s fourth or fifth option most of the time, which allows for her to take advantage of a lot of space on the perimeter or to be trailed around by smaller and less talented guards. Laney’s two-way bandwidth is maximized and her talents aren’t burnt out as the team’s first option and defensive stopper. While she struggled offensively in the Commissioner’s Cup game, a sizable chunk of her dependable energy was transferred to the defensive end where she made Chelsea Gray’s evening miserable. While Gray scored 15 points and notched five assists, she shot 42.9 percent from the field and turned the ball over four times. This doesn’t happen without Laney pressuring her full court, something that can’t be quantified on any box score.
Laney’s strength, athleticism and wide-ranging talents on both sides of the ball were exactly why Brondello was so interested in her back when the now Liberty head coach was still coaching the Mercury. But after Laney went to Indiana instead and was hurt for the majority of the 2022 season, Brondello is at last getting a sense this season of who she has as her starting small forward.
“I just love her toughness and competitive fire,” Brondello said.
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Jojo found her Mojo at the right moment
Following the Commissioner’s Cup Marine Johannès was asked postgame what allowed her to look so comfortable during the Liberty’s 82-63 win. She expressed some hesitation at first, but then she explained to the press following her 17 point performance off the bench that the excitement of the day was what motivated her to play like herself. “Being a part of the team is something big for me, so I was just excited,” she said.
But that excitement hasn’t come easily to the guard from France. Being on this team has been big for her, but define big. Does she mean big as in ambitious, big as in important or does she mean big as in mature? Her journey this season has reflected all three of those definitions.
Adapting to playing on the 2023 Liberty wasn’t easy for the third year WNBA player. Sure, she had chemistry with Sabrina Ionescu and her pal in comedy Stefanie Dolson who was out for seven weeks; but Johannès struggled getting in a rhythm with Breanna Stewart and Courtney Vandersloot in particular — two players who earlier in the season would find ways to score in two player actions instead of moving the ball to get their other teammates involved. For a portion of the season, Johannès was stuck on the wing and not really sure what her role was or how she could be successful.
“They are great players,” Brondello said of Stewart and Vandersloot. “Two players don’t win for us, it’s a team that wins it.”
And while Brondello noted that both Stewart and Vandersloot believe in selfless basketball, it’s not always as easy to execute even if the players believe in it. Stewart and Vandersloot had to learn how to best play off Johannès; the coaching staff had to learn which combinations that include Johannès allow her to play at her best; and Johannès herself had to embrace how big of a challenge it is to sculpt out her piece of the Liberty’s puzzle.
But even when Stewart and Vandersloot began involving Johannès in more of the primary or secondary actions, she played more passive — deferring to Stewart on shots or passing it back to Vandersloot to reset the Liberty’s quarter court actions.
“It’s not easy to play with Stewie or Sab or Sloot,” Liberty assistant coach Olaf Lange told The Next. “Although they are nice people, they are just demanding in the way that they play. That’s not always that crystal clear how to find your own game and then play for them as well.”
Johannès also struggled creating with Stewart at times on the floor because the French guard didn’t know how best to make a decision coming off the screens that Stewart sets. Setting screens for Johannès, whose play is much more fluid and less stationary than Ionescu and Vandersloot’s, requires something a bit different.
And in order for Johannès to find her own game in a completely different environment from anything she’s experienced in Europe, she had to be reminded of who she is with encouragement and constant reassurance from her teammates and coaches. Johannès had to be reminded that she is a star in her own right too.
The world saw this in real time when Sabrina Ionescu was caught mic’d up during the Commissioner’s Cup. She yelled “That’s why you shoot it,” following one of Johannès’ five threes in the win against Las Vegas.
But it wasn’t only Ionescu who continued to drill the reinforcement and affirmation. Both Lange and Brondello see Johannès as one of their own. Lange spoke about how he’s used similar psychological tactics on the French guard as he has on his children.
“We did it but sometimes it takes so long until the person hears it,” he said. “It’s like when you’re reading a book a third time, you read something else and all of sudden, you are open to it. Before you weren’t open to it. And that’s the same and if you have kids. You can say something 100 times and all of a sudden on the 101st time it connects because by that time they are open to it. That’s the same thing here.”
And Brondello views her the same way. It was crystal clear on Friday night, when the trio of Brondello, Laney and Johannès were all giggly in that final presser before getting five days without a gameday.
When Johannès was asked about her performance, she spoke about how making shots helps her sustain her trust in herself. And with her quiet and humble confidence, she blurted out: “I think I was okay tonight.”
And then to her left, Laney let out a toothless smile and a bit of a laugh through her nose, and then Brondello bumped her shoulder and told her it was okay to say how good she was. She scored 18 points. That’s more than fine. During a week when the Liberty’s MVP candidate in Breanna Stewart struggled with her efficiency and decision-making, New York needed both Laney and Johannès to be more than fine.
Written by Jackie Powell
Jackie Powell covers the New York Liberty and runs social media and engagement strategy for The Next. She also has covered women's basketball for Bleacher Report and her work has appeared in Sports Illustrated, Harper's Bazaar and SLAM. She also self identifies as a Lady Gaga stan, is a connoisseur of pop music and is a mental health advocate.