Betnijah Laney’s remarkable yearlong journey from waiver wire to first-time WNBA All-Star

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Dana LeeESPN

CloseDana Lee is a reporter-researcher at ESPN.

Betnijah Laney listened to one final apology and hung up the phone. She wouldn’t let herself cry, not at first, but she was stunned, full of anger and uncertainty.

It was June, less than a month before teams were supposed to arrive in Bradenton, Florida, for the 2020 WNBA season, which would be played in a bubble due to the coronavirus pandemic. Indiana Fever general manager Tamika Catchings and coach Marianne Stanley had just told Laney the team was cutting her.

Laney had already packed for the bubble — gear, sweatpants and T-shirts, two outfits she wasn’t sure she’d ever have occasion to wear in the bubble but folded into her bags anyway — all piled in her green Jeep Wrangler. In February, the Fever had re-signed Laney to a multi-year contract, Catchings saying she would be part of the core as the Fever’s rebuild continued.

The Jeep now sat in the driveway outside her mother’s home in Smyrna, Delaware, as Laney clung to the hope another team would pick her up. With just 144 roster spots, it’s hard enough to make a WNBA team. But because of the pandemic, there were no training camps in 2020. Teams had to make blind cuts. And though Stanley was in her first season as Indiana’s head coach, she had spent the better part of two decades on the sidelines in the WNBA and might have been more familiar with players who had a similar skill set to Laney.

“At the time, I just didn’t know what was going to happen,” said Laney, a 6-foot guard/forward. “So I was all over the place, talking to my agent. … I was just kind of in shock.”

The emotion turned to tears later that day as she read a text from her boyfriend. “This isn’t the end,” he reassured her. “Something else will come out of it.”

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Laney stewed in her bedroom as the days passed, emerging only to train and for the occasional meal as her agent fielded calls. Teams were interested but also scrambling to finalize rosters as more than a dozen players around the league opted out of the season due to health concerns or to focus on activism.

“I don’t think I’ve prayed harder in my life,” Laney said.

Fast forward 12 months and the text feels prophetic. Laney leaned into her faith when the pandemic created an unlikely collision course of luck and opportunity. She not only went to the bubble — with the Atlanta Dream — she tripled her scoring average and was named the 2020 WNBA Most Improved Player. In the offseason, the free agent then signed a reported three-year, $588,800 contract with the New York Liberty.

With the first half of the 2021 season nearly wrapped up, and Laney on her fifth WNBA team in six seasons, she is playing the best basketball of her career. She will play in her first WNBA All-Star Game on Wednesday (7 p.m. EDT, ESPN/ESPN App).

Her picture is displayed outside Barclays Center. Her jersey sold out at the team store. And the Liberty — who won just two games in 2020 — might be headed to the WNBA playoffs for the first time since 2017. When she shot free throws during a recent game, young girls in the crowd screamed, “We love you, B!”

“When I really sit and think about it, I have moments where I’m like, ‘This is crazy,'” Laney said. “A little over a year ago I was out of a job and I didn’t know what I was doing. Then I go into this bubble and have the best season I’d had in my career.”

Betnijah Laney started three total games in the 2015 and ’16 seasons. This summer, she ranks fifth in the WNBA in scoring (19.0 PPG), seventh in assists (5.0 APG) and has played more minutes than anyone in the league. David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

NICKI COLLEN WATCHED her newest player, eyes shifting from Laney to the basket, tracing the ball’s arc in between. It looked good. Really good. The Dream were in Atlanta for a full week of COVID-19 testing and physicals before heading to Florida for the bubble. League regulations allowed for individual workouts only, and Collen — the Dream’s general manager and head coach during the 2020 season — observed as Laney ran through shooting drills with then-assistant coach Mike Petersen.

Collen was picking up one of her kids from lacrosse practice when she found out Tiffany Hayes was opting out of the 2020 season. Renee Montgomery had done the same a week earlier, and now Atlanta would be without two of its starting guards from 2019.

Collen originally signed Laney, who played at Rutgers for C. Vivian Stringer from 2011 to 2015, for her defense. But by the third or fourth workout, Collen gave Laney a mandate: Take the open shot if it’s there.

“She had a big smile on her face. She’s got a great smile in general, but she’s like, ‘Yeah, I can do that,'” said Collen, who left the Dream in May to become the head coach of the Baylor women’s basketball team. “The summer of 2020 was, ‘Hey, someone finally figured out what we’ve always known about Betnijah.’ I’m not going to take too much credit, though. I would’ve been, quite frankly, stupid to not let her have the platform to do what she did.”

“The uniqueness of the bubble is that everybody saw it. We were on top of each other. … She was everybody’s underdog, like this is what you’re supposed to do when life throws you lemons, you make lemonade. Betnijah made lemonade all summer.”

Former Atlanta Dream coach Nicki Collen on Betnijah Laney’s breakthrough season in 2020

Laney scored 19 points in her Dream debut. Two games later came a career-high 30 points, which she bested with 35 midway through the season. Her scoring average went from 5.6 in 2019 with the Fever to 17.2 PPG in 2020; her field goal percentage rose from 36.2% to 48.1%.

“It was just that freedom,” Laney said. “For me, it was [Collen] telling me, ‘This is your new role. This is what we need you to do.’ I’m just like, ‘OK, I can do that.’ I’ve been able to do this. These are the things I’ve been working on and now that you’re giving me that opportunity, I’m going to go with it.”

It was a long time coming. Laney was the No. 17 overall pick in the 2015 WNBA draft, and then-Chicago Sky coach and general manager Pokey Chatman believed Laney was the best pick of the second round that year.

“Her defensive prowess on the ball, off the ball, rebounding, passing lane — it was just way ahead,” said Chatman, who had seen Laney play in college when Rutgers played at Northwestern. “It’s not a knock on where she was offensively; her shot was a lot better than I had remembered. It was just the other part that you always hear about college kids, ‘Oh, they can’t defend anybody,’ you just never heard that with Betnijah.”

Starting 27 of 34 games in 2019 for Indiana, Betnijah Laney averaged 5.6 PPG on 36.2% shooting. With Atlanta in the 2020 bubble, she averaged 17.2 PPG, hitting 48.1% of her shots. Stephen Gosling/NBAE via Getty Images

But Chicago was stocked with veterans, and Laney averaged 12.8 minutes her rookie season and even less playing time the next. The Sky let Chatman go in October 2016, and Laney — who tore her ACL eight games into that season — was released six months later. She missed all of 2017, played sparingly for the Connecticut Sun in 2018 and then signed with the Fever in 2019, where she was temporarily reunited with Chatman. After starting a combined three games in her first three seasons in the WNBA, Laney started 27 games, but the Fever went 13-21 and Chatman was fired at season’s end.

Still, Laney was prepared to play for Indiana in 2020 before the call from Catchings and Stanley, which left Betnijah “in a haze,” as her mom, Yolanda Laney, described it. Yolanda also played for Stringer, earning All-American honors in leading Cheyney State to the first women’s NCAA championship game in 1982. And for as much as Yolanda taught Betnijah how to rebound, she also taught her daughter her faith.

After she was cut, Laney prayed for guidance and asked for the motivation to continue her workouts. She drove every day to the outdoor courts at her old school, Smyrna High, one of the few places where the rims remained intact during the pandemic. Then it was plyometrics on the football field, dribbling around the track and running a couple miles through the neighborhood.

Through it all, Laney clung to her belief that everything happens for a reason, that when an opportunity comes along, you have to reach up and hold it tight, elbows out. You protect your dreams like you protect a rebound.

Betnijah Laney is one of eight players making their WNBA All-Star Game debut in 2021. AP Photo/John Locher

She has several tattoos, but her favorite is on the inside of her left bicep, three words written in Hebrew next to a cross. It says “walk by faith,” and Laney got it in college when she was having doubts about her hoops future.

“I wasn’t sure about basketball, if I really enjoyed it — if it was for me,” Laney said. “I felt kind of lost. I got it as a reminder, to know that everything is going to be OK regardless of what I think or what I’m feeling.”

Betnijah texted or called Yolanda every day from inside the bubble. When she told her mom that Collen had given the greenlight to shoot, Yolanda held the phone to her ear. She remembered watching Laney’s first game in the WNBA, seeing the nerves coiled in her daughter’s movements.

“You nervous?” Yolanda asked.

“No, mom,” Betnijah replied. “I’m ready.”

“I always told Betnijah, ‘Sometimes being so versatile can be a blessing, depending on whose hands you’re in, or it can be a curse,'” Yolanda said. “People will use you and fit you in where they need you most, even though that’s not where you desire to be. When a coach recognizes your total skill set and talent, that’s when you’re going to go from down here to the top, because that’s all you’ve been waiting for.”

Eventually, teams approached Collen offering trades for Laney.

“I’m like, ‘Why would I trade my best player?'” Collen laughs. “The uniqueness of the bubble is that everybody saw it. We were on top of each other. Everybody loves a good story. Betnijah was an amazing story. …

“She was everybody’s underdog, like this is what you’re supposed to do when life throws you lemons, you make lemonade. Betnijah made lemonade all summer.”

Sabrina Ionescu, the No. 1 draft pick in 2020 who leads New York with 6.0 assists per game, says Betnijah Laney is “our best scorer. She’s probably one of the best in this league.” Sarah Stier/Getty Images

THE SONG PLAYS EVERY TIME Laney scores at Barclays Center — beez in the trap, bee-beez in the trap — which means the Nicki Minaj and 2 Chainz collaboration is heard often during Liberty home games. She started the 2021 season with eight consecutive 20-point performances, something only Cynthia Cooper, Lauren Jackson and Sheryl Swoopes had done in WNBA history.

The Liberty had actually tried to sign Laney after Indiana released her, but the offer came 12 hours too late.

“Twelve hours if that,” said Liberty coach Walt Hopkins as he flashed the kind of smile someone gives when they know everything worked out in the end.

“She was the target for us,” Liberty general manager Jonathan Kolb said. “It was not something where it would be OK to miss out on her a second time.”

Through Sunday, when the league played its final games before the All-Star and Olympic break, Laney ranks fifth in the WNBA in scoring (19.0 PPG), seventh in assists (5.0 APG), sixth in usage percentage (27.2) and she has played more minutes than anyone in the league.

“This is the player we wanted her to be … somebody who could close a game for us,” Hopkins said.

“That was when she really jumped off the page to me, because Maya had trouble with her. I just remember watching her intensity, her will, and being really impressed with that thinking, ‘Man, if she develops offensively, she’s going to be a star.'”

Liberty coach Walt Hopkins, on seeing Betnijah Laney defend Maya Moore several seasons ago

Laney, New York’s top scorer, is pictured on the outside of Barclays next to Sabrina Ionescu, the first pick of the 2020 draft. They combine for 11 assists per game and are the faces of a team that looks to be on the other side of a promising rebuild.

“We’re just getting used to one another,” said Ionescu, who missed nearly her entire rookie season in 2020 due to an ankle injury. “Betnijah’s our best scorer. She’s probably one of the best in this league.”

New York is also still the second-youngest team in the WNBA, and sometimes that manifests on the court the way it did in a June 24 home game: down by 28 points and 10-for-38 from the field against the Sky in the first half.

Laney shot 7-for-13 from the field and scored 14 points — beez in the trap, bee-beez in the trap — but the Liberty fell victim to the Sky’s seventh straight win.

Hopkins talks about eloquence in its simplicity, how it applies to everything he sees Laney do, even in the team’s pregame coffee order. He makes a Door Dash order from Dunkin Donuts for the team and the requests include sugar and oat milk, a double shot of vanilla and a spray of raspberry, which he just learned was a thing. Laney asks for one medium black coffee. Nothing else. “That’s just who she is,” Hopkins said.

Several seasons ago, when he was an assistant on the Minnesota Lynx, he watched as Laney, who played for Connecticut at the time, guarded Maya Moore, who is largely regarded as one of the best players in league history.

“That was when she really jumped off the page to me, because Maya had trouble with her,” he said. “I just remember watching her intensity, her will, and being really impressed with that thinking, ‘Man, if she develops offensively, she’s going to be a star.'”

Yolanda never wavered. She and Laney’s extended family — uncles, aunts, cousins and godparents, almost 30 altogether — booked trips to Las Vegas long before the All-Star rosters were announced. Laney tried to tell them it was too far in advance and joked that maybe she would go with them and watch the game from the stands.

That made it all the more sweeter when Laney got the phone call informing her she had been voted an All-Star.

“I don’t get super excited over things. When I feel them, it’s more of an internal thing,” Laney said. “(But) internally, I was screaming. I wasn’t supposed to tell, but I told my mom.”

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