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The numbers behind Betnijah Laney’s ascent to WNBA stardom

The New York Liberty invested heavily in Betnijah Laney this past offseason, and it’s already paying dividends. 2020’s Most Improved Player just keeps getting better, making her career trajectory even more incredible.

Dallas Wings v New York Liberty
New York’s Betnijah Laney continues her drastic improvement, and it’s putting her in glorified WNBA air.
Photo by David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Betnijah Laney is off to a torrid start to the 2021 WNBA season, ranking third in the league in scoring (22.3 points per game) and having dropped at least 20 points in each of the New York Liberty’s first eight games. Laney recently earned Player of the Week honors for the first time in her career, and she shows no sign of slowing down for the 5-3 Liberty, who signed her to a three-year, maximum-salary contract this past offseason.

“Benijah’s a bucket,” raved rookie teammate Michaela Onyenwere. “Her pull-up is always on, and even if it’s not, she finds other ways to get to the basket and facilitate.”

Onyenwere isn’t wrong. Laney is currently shooting 51.9 percent from the floor and 48 percent from 3-point range. According to Across the Timeline, that’s good for an effective field goal percentage of 57.6 percent, and she’s also assisted on 28.5 percent of her teammates’ baskets for good measure.

Such efficiency is considered excellent for a player who is her team’s go-to scorer, and Laney’s play — combined with the Liberty’s winning — have made her an early-season MVP candidate. There’s a lot of basketball left, but it’s undeniable that Laney has been playing at a superstar level, and it’s even more impressive when one takes into account where she was just a couple seasons prior.

Laney’s WNBA career began humbly. A 2015 second-round draft pick out of Rutgers, the 6-foot wing was viewed as an energetic player with a nose for the basketball, earning spot starts for the Chicago Sky to defend elite perimeter scorers such as Maya Moore and Angel McCoughtry — a clear, defined and steady role, though certainly not one that leads to becoming a household WNBA name.

Laney continued on this path for several seasons, making stops in Connecticut and Indiana after sitting out in 2017 to recover from a torn ACL. A reunion with head coach and general manager Pokey Chatman, who originally drafted Laney to the Sky in 2015, yielded a starting role and by far the most minutes of her career to that point (25.8 per game), but Laney was still far from an offensive powerhouse, scoring just 5.6 points per game on a 42.4 percent true shooting percentage. Opposing defenses loaded up on other Fever players and more or less ignored Laney, daring her to shoot the ball from the perimeter, and Indiana was rarely able to exploit it.

Indiana Fever v New York Liberty
Laney was a full-season starter for the Fever in 2019, but her production didn’t come close to what it is now.
Photo by Steven Freeman/NBAE via Getty Images

Details like these are important to remember when assessing Laney’s growth as a player, as they show just how far she’s come in an astoundingly short period of time. Laney, of course, won the WNBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2020, averaging 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and four assists per game for the Atlanta Dream after being waived by the Fever just a few months earlier. She was granted an opportunity with the Dream that she never had in the WNBA before (specifically, free reign on offense) but that doesn’t make her sudden breakout any less noteworthy.

Here’s why: Consider that prior to 2020, Laney had never been a key component to a team’s offense, ranking no higher than the 22nd percentile in usage rate (Across the Timeline). Her scoring efficiency, save for a decent season in Connecticut, was also consistently subpar.

Once Laney joined the Dream, all of that changed. Her usage rate jumped into the 80th percentile (up from the 17th in 2019) and her true shooting percentage into the 71st percentile (18th in 2019), reflecting a player that not only was, as a matter of fact, quite comfortable with the ball in her hands, but was also plenty efficient, especially for someone who used so many of her team’s possessions.

This stunning upward trend has continued during Laney’s first few weeks in New York. Through June 2, Laney ranks in the 94th percentile in usage rate and the 89th percentile in true shooting percentage — a combination of usage and efficiency usually reserved for the WNBA’s upper echelon of scorers.

To fully appreciate Laney’s rise, let’s use some historical context. Her full-season 2020 stat line of 17.2, 4.9 and four had previously been posted just seven times in WNBA history — by Sheryl Swoopes, Tamika Catchings, Angel McCoughtry, Candace Parker and Maya Moore. Even if the thresholds are relaxed somewhat — we’ll say 17, four and four, just for the sake of using integers — Laney’s performance still ranks among some of the greatest players in WNBA history and no one else.

Of course, Laney still has a very, very long way to go before she reaches the consistent greatness the aforementioned players are known for. Regardless, there are two main points to be drawn here. For one, to be as productive as Laney has been since the start of 2020 is a rare enough feat, and with every 20-point performance she puts up in her new Liberty jersey, her Most Improved Player campaign is looking less and less like a fluke.

The other thing to keep in mind is that Laney was able to transform her game into that of a high-usage, No. 1 scoring option in virtually no time at all. Sure, there’s something to be said for a change of scenery, but unlike players like Parker, Moore and Catchings, Laney did not seem destined for WNBA stardom right out of the gate. It’s extremely atypical for a player to grow from an offensive liability into an All-WNBA and MVP candidate in fewer than two seasons, especially when her ceiling had never been projected as such in the first place.

The Liberty don’t care about those projections, nor are they worried that Laney wasn’t a big-time scorer on other teams. They have their star now, and she’d led them to their best start in recent memory. It’s official: Betnijah Laney is for real.

All statistics and team records for the 2021 WNBA season are current through June 2, 2021.