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Inside The W with Michelle Smith: Laney Leading Liberty

Betnijah Laney’s emergence as a go-to player in the WNBA didn’t happen overnight – even if few people likely saw it coming last year before the breakout season in Atlanta that led to her winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award.

“It wasn’t that I wasn’t capable of playing at this level,” said the New York Liberty wing and leading scorer. “People who saw me work out playing pickup could see what I was capable of, and it wasn’t that I wasn’t confident. I was playing my role at that particular moment. But that goes hand in hand, being in your role. But I’ve grown and worked on things and I’m better as a player. And it’s also a matter of opportunity.”

The opportunity came last spring when the Rutgers product was released by the Indiana Fever and later signed by Atlanta in June, where she would quickly be inserted into the Dream’s starting lineup. Laney then averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals, all career-highs. In addition to the MIP Award, she was named to the All-WNBA First-Team Defensive team.

And when she became a free agent again this past spring, she signed with the New York Liberty, where she has become the team’s offensive centerpiece.

Laney is averaging 20.8 points per game, and has scored at least 20 points in eight of New York’s nine game this season, the first time she fell short in the June 5 loss to Connecticut.

New York’s 5-4 record heading into Sunday’s game at Phoenix after an eight-day break makes them one of the surprise stories of the league so far considering that the Liberty, who opened the season with a 5-1 record before a run of three straight losses, won just two games all of last season. But Laney’s play, complemented by the stellar return of point guard Sabrina Ionescu and the strong play of rookie Michaela Onyenwere, has put the Liberty in a very competitive spot heading into the heart of the WNBA season.

“A lot of people didn’t think we would get off to the start we did,” Laney said. “But if I know anything, it’s that you can’t listen to what other people think and say about you. We believe in ourselves and that’s going to take us where we want to go.”

Laney said she had no hesitation signing with New York – where she earned a 3-year, maximum salary contract – knowing what the Liberty were building under Walt Hopkins.

“If I had questions about whether we could be successful, I wouldn’t have signed in New York,” Laney said. “Even though last year’s record showed what they did, I watched them in the bubble and I knew they were much more than their record and I know the resources that we would have going into this season.”

Laney didn’t necessarily look destined for this kind of career arc.

She came to the WNBA in 2015 as a second-round pick for the Chicago Sky and carved out a role as a perimeter defender off the bench for two seasons. After missing the 2017 season with a knee injury, she spent a season playing limited minutes in Connecticut in 2018, signed with Indiana and started 27 games in 2019 before her breakthrough in Atlanta last year in the bubble.

In the offseason, she worked on her efficiency, looking to boost her field-goal and 3-point percentages. She worked on all-levels of her offensive game. That work has paid off.

“Last year was a really good year, but this year I’m not settling for that,” Laney said. “I’ve found ways I could improve and ways I could be better and I think that so far, I’ve been doing that.”

Laney sees it as more of a progression of a career that is building quickly to star status.

“I am doing a lot better than I was (early in my career),” Laney said. “But at the same time, this didn’t come out of nowhere. It came from opportunity, and being with a team, and playing for coaches who believe in everything that I have to offer. And that works to both of our advantages.”

Coming off an eight-day break and three straight losses, New York is looking at shoring up its defense and offensive rebounding against Phoenix. They will be looking to counter the adjustments that teams have made to their pick-and-roll game, led by Ionescu.

And Laney will be looking to get back on track after her least productive offensive performance of the season (eight points on 4 of 12 shooting). She knows her team needs that as they begin a four-game road trip to Phoenix, Las Vegas (for two games) and Los Angeles, which could be a defining stretch and a test of a young team’s resilience.

Laney knows that well.

“I’ve always been the type of person that whatever you ask of me is what you are going to get,” Laney said. “And if this is what my team needs, then this is what I’m going to do.”

Longtime WNBA reporter Michelle Smith writes a weekly column on throughout the season. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.