Athletes generally improve on fairly predictable trajectories. A role player at age 24 may have some upside, but probably isn’t going to suddenly become a superstar at 26.
So what happened with Betnijah Laney of the Liberty?
After a good college career at Rutgers, Laney, a 6-foot guard, was taken in the second round of the 2015 W.N.B.A. draft by the Chicago Sky and soon settled into a role as a defensive specialist off the bench. Her second season was derailed by an anterior cruciate ligament injury. She had a season on the bench for the Connecticut Sun and then a season as a 5-points-a-game starter for the Indiana Fever.
She seemed to have established herself as a useful journeywoman, but hardly a franchise player.
There were hints that the offensive talent was there. In a spell with the Perth Lynx in Australia, she averaged 15.2 points a game. With Elitzur Holon in Israel, she averaged 19.4 points a game. But it was easy to write off the numbers given the lower level of talent in those leagues.
Then she arrived in Atlanta.
Certainly, no one was expecting an offensive difference maker. “She will give us size and versatility at the defensive end of the floor,” Nicki Collen, the coach at the time, told the team website. “She will also help create pace and extra possessions on offense, as she is relentless on the glass.”
The offensive explosion she brought to the Dream in 2020 was flabbergasting. She began to shoot more than twice as often as she had, which would be a recipe for disaster for most players. But instead, she drastically improved. While not letting up defensively, she showed a newfound ability to create her own shot, and sink it. Her shooting percentages increased, to .507 from .388 on 2-pointers, to .405 from .303 on 3-pointers and to .827 from .581 on free throws.
“I was just kind of talking to her after workouts and I said: ‘You know the scouting report on you is that you can’t shoot, right? You do know that’s in everyone’s scout?’” Collen told The Athletic.
Some of the upgrade simply came from opportunity as the Dream unleashed the suddenly productive Laney. But opportunity alone doesn’t bring such shooting improvement or automatically lead to winning the league’s Most Improved Player Award, which she did that season.
Laney was a free agent at the conclusion of 2020, and the Liberty won the race to sign her. There was a danger, of course, that her season with Atlanta would prove to be a fluke and that the Liberty would make the mistake of buying at the top of the market.
Instead, Laney, 27, seems to have become even better.
Through six games, her 2- and 3-point-shooting percentages have risen again, even as she is shooting still more often. Her usage percentage — the percent of plays in which she is the main offensive actor, which in her previous incarnation was around 15 — rose to 23.5 in Atlanta and 28.3 this year. That makes her an even bigger part of the Liberty offense than the much-heralded rookie Sabrina Ionescu.
Laney has scored 20 or more points in her team’s first six games, the first Liberty player to achieve that. (The W.N.B.A. record for such a start to a season is nine games, held by Cynthia Cooper of the 1999 Houston Comets.) Defensively, she is a key reason the Liberty have cut their opponents’ points per 100 possessions to 99.2, from 105.9 last season.
Combine that stellar play with the return of Ionescu, who missed almost all of her rookie season with an injury, and the Liberty are tied with the Connecticut Sun at a league-best 5-1, on their way to their best season in at least four years. No matter what happens, they have already surpassed last year’s horrible 2-20 record, the second-worst season in league history.
Laney almost always deflects talk about her stunning improvement, turning the focus to her teammates and coaches. “It’s always the win first for me,” she said after a 26-point effort in the Liberty’s 88-81 win over the Dallas Wings in Brooklyn on Monday. “Obviously, I’m a part of the scoring threat, but I don’t ever go out and say, OK, I need to get this amount of points.”
Be that as it may, there is every reason to think the points, and the Liberty wins, will keep coming, through the regular season and beyond.