Liberty Still Learning Laney


In a recent broadcast, I overheard an opposing commentary team discuss Betnijah Laney‘s improvements this season. They discussed her offensive development, path to last year’s MIP, and leap to MVP-caliber player this year. The crew made some great points, but towards the end, they implied Laney’s jump this year is due to the Liberty’s system.

That is incorrect. For multiple reasons.

For one, I think systems only have large impacts on players that are more one-dimensional – the lockdown defenders, knockdown shooters, and the pure slashers of the world. Betnijah Laney has worked incredibly hard to expand her game, and no longer falls in the category.

On top of that, I think the Liberty’s system doesn’t utilize Laney in the best way, or in a way that makes things easier on her. If anything, the way the team uses her in the system makes things harder on her. Despite that, she’s still having an incredible season and has been the most important player on the team.

After watching the Liberty’s two-game series in Atlanta, I’ve come to this conclusion:

Betnijah Laney does more for the Liberty’s system than the system does for her.

The games against the Dream provide numerous examples of ways the Liberty should better utilize Laney, while also demonstrating how she still manages to impact the game despite often times being treated as their safety net.

The Liberty have played since the Dream series, but I will be using those two games as reference for this piece, as I was in attendance for both and watched them specifically thinking about this piece.

Let’s get into it.

Who is Betnijah Laney?

Before we look at how the Liberty utilize Laney, let’s take a look at the type of player she is.

Coming into the WNBA, Laney was primarily viewed defensive stopper with an unpolished offensive game. She wasn’t a great shooter and didn’t take many shots from outside, as she had played more as a forward than a guard in college. In 2016, her second year in the league, she tore her left ACL, which ultimately led to her being waived in 2017.  She returned to action in 2018 with the Connecticut Sun, appearing in 29 games. The following season, Laney started 27 games in Indiana. There, she showcased an improving jump shot, but still struggled offensively. Teams were content with letting Laney fire away from the perimeter.

That quickly changed in Atlanta.

Laney lit up the league in the Wubble, taking home the Most Improved Player award. She averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds, 4.0 assists and 1.6 steals per game, and was also voted First Team All-Defense. Laney shot the ball exceptionally well, posting .481/.405/.827 shooting splits. She has now brought that game to New York and built even more upon it, and has elevated her game to MVP-caliber heights. She started the season by scoring 20+ points in eight straight games, and is currently averaging 19.7 points per contest. Laney has established herself as a three-level scorer, capable of taking opponents inside, outside, and particularly in the mid-range, where she truly excels. Her defense remains elite, and her facilitating has been fantastic. One of the biggest changes in Laney’s game is her shot profile:


As you can see, Laney has developed from a nonexistent shooter to an elite one. The change becomes even more drastic when you include her first two seasons, which Basketball Reference omits:

You can also see the improvements as a passer here, which will be important later.

Betnijah at her Best

Betnijah Laney is at her best when operating from the middle of the floor, whether she has the ball or not. There, she can most effectively utilize her strength and quickness to get to the rim, or work her way to her now-patented mid-range jumper. Even when Laney doesn’t have the ball and she’s posted up, it works best when the entry pass is made from the middle. In the June 26th game against the Dream, the Liberty did a good job of getting her looks in and from that area.

Defenses have figured out that Laney is lethal when working in the center of the court. That allows her to find her teammates for easy looks, whether she’s driving,

working from the post,

or fighting through a trap.

Laney has a level of gravity that even allows her to be a very effective decoy around the free throw line.

You can see Monique Billings rotate back hard after seeing Laney on the elbow, which leaves Sami Whitcomb with a wide-open three.

So, how is it possible for New York to use such a well-rounded player incorrectly?

No One Puts Laney in the Corner

Well, no one except Walt Hopkins. And, for what it’s worth, there are times that it works out for the Liberty. But, it makes things much harder for their star player.

The Liberty run a four-out-one-in style system that is predicated on player and ball movement. Having a player in each corner is a norm in this system. Putting Betnijah Laney there is doing the opponent a favor. The corner is one of the worst places on the court for the ball to go. Teams have to be smart with how they use it, because it can be easily neutralized by a defense. Stashing a player of Laney’s caliber in the corner long-term effectively does the defense’s job for them.

It also makes life much harder for Laney. She has less space to get downhill, and establishing post position can be more difficult coming from the corner. Trying to use Laney to her strengths from the corner is also incredibly demanding physically and leads to much more contact during her sets. What’s worse is that it seems that Laney gets flat out ignored sometimes:

It doesn’t always have to be Laney standing in the corner, either. Because teams are homing in on her, feeding her inside from the corner has become a dangerous choice for the Liberty:

Billings cuts off the passing lane back to Onyenwere, while Hawkins steps over to double Laney in the post. Laney is forced to make a difficult cross-court pass similar to the one Whitcomb made in the previous clip. The Liberty do end up getting a bucket on the possession, but it comes from Betnijah getting the ball in her comfort zone.

The Liberty system does allow for Laney to rotate up from the corner to the middle of the court, but often times, that rotation is the only motion involved in the play. Once Laney is up top, it’s “watch Betnijah work.”

Laney is incredibly good at creating her shot, yes. But shouldn’t you want to make it a little easier on her than that? Shook’s screen did nothing for her, and they didn’t even attempt another motion of any kind. Crystal Bradford is a player that can match Laney’s strength and size. One more screen (or a better initial one) would have helped get her a better look.

System Malfunctions in Clutch

The “watch Betnijah work” approach works from time to time. But it also seems to be the Liberty’s go-to in crunch time. Going to your best player in these moments makes sense. The plays the Liberty drew up for her didn’t. The first attempted play was a pick-and-pop between Laney and Whitcomb:

Once again, the screen did absolutely nothing, and allowed Atlanta to trap Laney on the sideline, forcing her to travel. The Dream are a hard trapping team, especially when teams are operating near the sideline. Running this set to the right, Laney’s dominant hand, would’ve made more sense and likely given her more options in that situation as the trap came.

The following possession was chaotic:

They get Laney going downhill for a great look. It just happens to roll out. After they recover, though? Watch Betnijah work. But look where she gets the ball at – the corner. Not once did they look anywhere else. Again, going to your star makes sense. But do they not have something better than that? Especially against Bradford, who had given Laney some trouble down the stretch?

For fairness’ sake, maybe that possession falls on the players. Maybe they didn’t execute whatever play the Liberty have for that situation. Either way, the Liberty will need to adjust their system significantly if they want to return to their winning ways from earlier in the season, and a big part of that is finding better ways to utilize Betnijah Laney.


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About Richmond Bailey Caldwell

Die-hard Grizzlies fan since 2009. Aspiring basketball writer and coach. University of Georgia sport management alum. Perennial first team all-defense selection.

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