The superteam era in Brooklyn has officially begun. The New York Liberty have put together a solid start to their season. They lost their opening game on the road against the Washington Mystics 80-64, but came to Barclays Center and responded in their last two games with a 90-73 victory over the Indiana Fever, and a 81-65 victory over the Connecticut Sun.
During the offseason, the Liberty made perhaps the biggest of splashes and sent waves across the league, acquiring Breanna Stewart, Jonquel Jones, and Courtney Vandersloot. Combined with Sabrina Ionescu, the revamped team has garnered a lot of attention in the sports world.
One notable name on that roster, though, tends to get lost in the shuffle. When looking at the starting lineup and acknowledging its star power, do not overlook Betnijah Laney. What she has done to revitalize the Liberty and guide them on their pursuit of a championship has been nothing short of extraordinary.
— Terrika 💙💛 (@SheKnowsSports) February 1, 2023
Back in 2020, the Liberty drafted Ionescu with the first overall pick to begin their rebuild, while Laney signed with the Atlanta Dream. During the condensed Wubble season, Ionescu played only three games because of a Grade 3 ankle sprain, and the Liberty ultimately endured a 2-20 season. Meanwhile, Laney’s average points per game (PPG) increased to 17.2, per Her Hoops Stats. She not only won the Most Improved Player Award, but also was named to the All-Defensive First Team.
Before the 2021 season, Laney signed with the Liberty. After both sides missed the playoffs in the Wubble, this partnership proved to be a unique one. With Ionescu still acclimating to WNBA play following her ankle injury, Laney—arguably the team’s best player that season—stepped up, her performance earning the first All-Star appearance of her career. She started the season scoring more than 20 points in her first eight regular season games. Laney averaged 16.8 PPG and 5.2 assists per game (APG), the highest of her career, according to Her Hoop Stats. Even though the Liberty finished 12-20 on the season, they clinched a playoff spot as the eighth seed; it was their first postseason appearance since 2017.
A memorable Laney moment came in the Liberty’s first-round elimination game against the Phoenix Mercury—she led the team with 25 points, which included a clutch three-pointer to tie the game with 2.7 seconds left in regulation. The Liberty lost the game 83-82, but Laney continued to show that she can complement Ionescu very well when it comes to team scoring production.
Unfortunately for Laney, from a health standpoint, the 2022 season was not kind to her. The team finished 16-20 and lost their first-round series to the Chicago Sky, and Laney only played nine regular season games due to right knee surgery. In Laney’s absence, Ionescu had her best (and first fully healthy) season yet, as she was named a first-time All-Star, and a member of the All-WNBA Second Team.
Despite her accomplishments, Laney is not talked about as much as the other Liberty starters. Ionescu entered the league with a lot of hype, already a household name in the basketball world, handpicked by the Liberty to build around as their franchise player. The four star-studded starters have been named to All-WNBA Teams. Stewart and Jones have won league MVP awards; Stewart and Vandersloot have experienced the thrill of winning a championship. These types of accomplishments have eluded Laney.
Before her Most Improved Player award-winning season, Laney’s WNBA career consisted of a series of challenges—overcoming a serious knee injury, no long-term stints for one team, and not establishing herself as a legitimate scoring threat. Laney tore her left ACL in 2016 as a member of the Sky, when she was primarily coming off the bench. After not playing during the 2017 WNBA season, she played for the Sun in 2018 and the Fever in 2019, but she still was not a threat to consistently score double-digit points. Compared to the start of Laney’s career, the player we see now is completely different.
Laney is capable of shooting from the perimeter or the mid-range, driving to the basket, and performing ball-handling duties herself. She can alleviate the pressure on her teammates, in terms of facilitating and scoring.
In the game against the Fever, during the Liberty’s offensive possessions, Laney took root in the corners, ready to fire away. In the first quarter, Laney had a wide open catch-and-shoot opportunity when Ionescu attracted a double team near the paint and made the pass out to the perimeter. The quick ball movement along the perimeter paid dividends with a successful three-pointer by Laney. Her all-around scoring prowess—she finished as a 35.4 percent shooter from three-point range in the previous three regular seasons, according to Across the Timeline—is one of the many troubles the Liberty, with their offensive firepower in the interior and from long range, will give defenses this season.
As far as defense goes, Laney does not shy away from difficult assignments. In the team’s first three games, she matched up against players such as Natasha Cloud, Ariel Atkins, Kelsey Mitchell, NaLyssa Smith, DeWanna Bonner, and Tiffany Hayes, particularly on the perimeter. She is a versatile defender who can guard different positions, and her capabilities on that end of the floor are needed to boost the team’s chances at success. Her wing defense is a strength for the Liberty to utilize in bothering offenses. She is disruptive, hounding players like Cloud and Mitchell to create turnover opportunities.
Before Laney’s arrival in 2021, the Liberty compiled a 19-71 record over the previous three seasons. Laney’s drive and improved performance contributed to the revitalization of the Liberty franchise as a contender for playoff appearances, and the hope is that it will pay off this season with the team’s first ever title. Ionescu, Stewart, Jones, and Vandersloot are all deserving of the spotlight and credit for the success the team is bound to attain this season, but Laney is as well. Her role with the Liberty and importance for their success should not be diminished because of the more well-known names on the roster.
When you talk about the Liberty being a super team, don’t forget Betnijah Laney.
— Eden Laase-Derouin (@eden_laase) May 21, 2023
Laney has transformed into one of the best players in the league. She can score, play defense, and provide toughness for the team. Her value to the Liberty should be recognized, never taken for granted.
Stats as of 5/29/23 and, unless otherwise noted, courtesy of WNBA Stats.