By Sydney Gibbs
Betnijah Laney is not a name most people were recognizant of going into the 2020 WNBA season and also isn’t a common name at all. Laney’s unique name is a combination of three different ones within her family. The “Bet” part comes from her grandmother whose name was Betty, the “Ni” comes from her aunt Nita, and to seal it off the “Jah” comes from her aunt Jessie. Not many people know that.
Betnijah Laney has been a special name since the beginning – before she could ever pick up a basketball. After the season she’s been having, she’s finally receiving league-wide recognition and people have begun to find out just how special she is.
Five year ago, Laney was drafted by the Chicago Sky with the 17th overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft. Since then, she’s spent the past four years with Chicago, the Connecticut Sun and the Indiana Fever. She’s never had a big spotlight and has been under the radar since the start of her career.
She averaged 3.6 points, 2.6 rebounds, 1.0 assists, and 0.7 steals per contest and recorded only 10 double digit scoring performances through 2015-2019 combined. This season alone is unlike all the others as she’s improved in every single statistical category.
The 26-year old has been a huge standout player for the Atlanta Dream throughout the season which has led her on a path to potentially become the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player. Through 20 games, she’s led the team in scoring with 16.9 points, 4.6 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 1.7 steals along with 17 double-digit scoring outings.
She’s the only player in the WNBA this season to put up the kind of numbers she has.
She’s proven herself in every game thus far and it didn’t start with the first game of the season, it started in the spring. It wasn’t an easy path by any means, and it took a lot of hard work through the offseason.
This offseason wasn’t a typical one that players are generally accustomed to because of all the restrictions placed on the country due to the coronavirus pandemic. That didn’t stop Laney as she made numerous efforts to get her body and mind back in shape to prepare for this season.
“I just continued to stay ready throughout all the circumstances with COVID going on and not having a lot of gym access,” said Laney. “So you know just doing things to make sure that I was ready, whether it was having to travel to somewhere where a gym might have been opened or doing outside workouts, continuing to watch film and just making sure that I was prepared both mentally and physically for the season.”
The offseason didn’t just consist of hours in the gym and daily workouts. Before she signed with the Dream, she was released by Indiana in June. She started 27 games during the 2019 season with the Fever and averaged just 5.6 points and 4.2 rebounds.
When the Dream’s Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes decided to forego the season to focus on social justice, that left empty slots on the Dream’s roster. That experience is hard to restore and Atlanta was looking for a player that could contribute and add some depth.
Laney was the perfect fit.
She’s endured and faced a multitude of obstacles before putting on a Dream uniform. She’s faced torn ACLs, has been waived multiple times and has seen limited playing time but her focus never shifted and her patience never renounced.
“I think regardless of whatever situation you’re in you just have to stay ready,” Laney said. “It’s not that I’ve ever been incapable of doing things but I just remained ready and waited for the opportunity. I’ve obviously done more as time progressed and became a better player, so just never giving up regardless of the circumstances.”
Those who know Laney know her commitment on the defensive end of the floor but when she entered training camp and began showing off what she can do offensively, she was given a new role and revealed she could be one of Atlanta’s go to players.
“She just showed that she can score at all three levels,” said Dream coach Nicki Collen in a pregame interview on Wednesday. “It just happened organically. I think the more consistent she was, the more her teammates trusted her and the more, all of a sudden, we were running first plays for her. She just became a big part of our offensive package in terms of what we run and what’s in our playbook.”
Laney finishes with explosive offensive performances night in and night out. She’s become a fundamental piece for the Dream on both ends of the court and has exhibited elite offensive firepower that no one knew she could provide.
“It comes from opportunity and the support of my coaches,” said Laney. “When you’re labeled as something that’s kind of what people see you as regardless of what you do. I don’t think it was ever that I couldn’t do it, it’s just that wasn’t my role.
“So whatever it is that a coach asks of me that’s pretty much what i’ll do. Coming into this season with this new team, after working out and talking with Nicki [Collen] she pretty much changed my role so I’m just trying to do everything that she’s asked of me and perform on the court.”
Throughout the season, coach Collen and other Dream players have praised Laney’s work ethic and the work she puts in everytime her feet touch a basketball court. That desire to go into the gym and work until the wheels fall off comes from pure determination.
“I don’t like to do things half-assed,” said Laney. “If I’m going to do it, I’m going to do it. So that’s just kind of what’s driven me in almost every aspect of my life whether it’s playing on the basketball court or playing any kind of game. Just competing and wanting to do good.”
She’s truly amazed people this season. She’s no longer the last option on the court but she’s emerged into a coach’s first or second one in the shortened span of these 22 games. A lot of adversity stood in her way on the road to this career-defining moment but it molded her into the player she is today.
“It’ll always work itself out,” said Laney. “Even though in the moment it may be a hard pill to swallow with whatever’s going on but it eventually has always worked out regardless of the obstacles that I’ve faced – whether it was injuries, limited playing time, or being waived. I’ve always had a better outcome than the obstacle that I’ve faced.”
Betnijah Laney is a contender for the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player award, which will be announced during the WNBA Playoffs.