The New York Liberty have advanced to their first WNBA Finals since 2002, where they will go up against their superteam rival in the Las Vegas Aces.

With the 87-84 win over the Connecticut Sun in Game 4 of the WNBA semifinals, the Liberty clinched a 3-1 series victory. Three of their starters scored 20 points or more to lead New York: Breanna Stewart (27), Jonquel Jones (25) and Betnijah Laney (21).

While the Liberty have four previous WNBA Finals appearances, the last one came in 2002. New York is one of the WNBA’s eight founding franchises, but it has never won a championship.

From the start of the 2023 season, though, the Liberty and the defending champion Aces were the betting favorites to compete in the Finals. Heading into the postseason, FanDuel set -210 odds for a battle of the superteams, followed by +500 for an Aces-Sun meeting.

New York transformed into a contender with a blockbuster offseason, headlined by the signing of the premier free agent in Stewart and the trade for 2021 MVP Jones. Jones finished Sunday’s win with a double-double, posting 15 rebounds in addition to her 25 points. She also had four blocks, including an emphatic stop of Connecticut’s DeWanna Bonner in the final seconds of the first half.

Yet while the Liberty won the day (and the series), Sun forward Alyssa Thomas turned in the most memorable performance.

The 31-year-old star collided with Jones in the fourth quarter, and then she remained on the ground, grimacing in pain. But after spending several minutes in the locker room, she returned to complete the 11th triple-double of her career.

Thomas finished with a team-high 17 points, 15 rebounds and 11 assists. She leads the WNBA in career triple-doubles; no other player has more than three. She also has a record three postseason triple-doubles, after recording two in the 2022 WNBA Finals. All other players in league history have combined for two.

The New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces will start the WNBA Finals next Sunday, Oct. 8, with Game 1 set for a 3 p.m. ET tip-off on ABC.

Editor’s note: This story was first published in the first week of the 2023 WNBA season. The Las Vegas Aces and the New York Liberty will face off for the first time this season at 10 p.m. ET Thursday.

The Superteam Era of the WNBA officially has begun.

Fans have gotten their first glimpses of the new-look New York Liberty and Las Vegas Aces squads. And while 10 other teams – like the Washington Mystics, who topped the Liberty 80-64 to open the season – have four months to make their cases, it’s easy to see why New York and Las Vegas are the favorites to battle it out for the WNBA title.

Here’s how they stack up.

Starting Five

Las Vegas Aces

Candace Parker, F, 6-4: The 37-year-old forward is looking to be the first WNBA player to win championships with three franchises after signing with the Aces as a free agent. She already has rings with the Sparks and the Sky in 2016 and 2021. Parker, who has been candid about being near the end of her professional career, is a two-time WNBA MVP and seven-time all-WNBA first team member. Over her 15-year career, Parker has maintained a reputation as a player who does everything. Last season she averaged 13.2 points, 8.6 rebounds, 4.5 assists, 1 steal and 1 block.

A’ja Wilson, F, 6-4: Five seasons into her career and A’ja Wilson has already won two MVP awards. The South Carolina product has been dominant since her Rookie of the Year campaign in 2018, but the 2022 season was her best yet. Wilson led the Aces to their first WNBA title, averaging 19.5 points, 9.4 rebounds, 2.1 assists, 1.9 blocks and 1.4 steals per game.

Chelsea Gray, G, 5-11: After being snubbed for the All-Star game last year, Gray’s second half of the season became a revenge tour. Her play earned the point guard the Finals MVP trophy, as Gray averaged 21.7 points and 7.0 assists per game through the postseason while shooting 61.1% from the field and 54.4% from beyond the arc. Gray showed off her skills as a playmaker for others, and a shot-creator for herself, making over 60% of her contested looks.

Kelsey Plum, G, 5-8: Plum has gotten better every season since she was drafted No. 1 in 2017, and in 2022 she took a major step forward. The guard finished second in the WNBA in scoring with 20.2 points per game while also averaging a career-high 5.1 assists. After coming off the bench in 2021, coach Becky Hammon moved Plum back to a starting role and heavily relied on the guard throughout the season. She played 32.8 minutes per game, which ranked second in the league.

Jackie Young, G, 6-0: Young started the 2023 season on a high note, scoring 23 points in 26 minutes during the Ace’s first game of the season. Young is looking to build on a 2022 season that saw her named the league’s Most Improved Player. That’s largely because of the addition of a 3-point shot to her game. Young shot 25% in 2021 and 23.1% in 2020, but after dedicating herself to the craft, she shot 43.1% from long range in 2022. Young’s ability to shoot 3s adds another weapon to the Aces’ arsenal.

New York Liberty

Betnijah Laney, F, 6-0: Laney has been in the league since 2015 but had a breakout season in 2020 for Atlanta. She’s been a key piece for the Liberty since 2021, and while she missed most of last season with an injury, she’s back in top form and could end up being the unsung hero of this superteam. With big names around her, Laney likely won’t receive the same type of attention, but she will be impactful. The 29-year-old averaged 16.8 points, 5.2 assists and 4.1 rebounds in 2021. She also brings toughness, a scorer’s mentality and established chemistry with Ionescu.

Breanna Stewart, F, 6-4: The offseason’s most sought-after free agent landed with the Liberty after playing six seasons with the Storm. Stewart wasted no time establishing herself, setting a franchise record with 45 points in New York’s home opener. She already has won two WNBA titles and was named Finals MVP in both instances. When she signed with the Liberty, the UConn product instantly catapulted the team to the top of the WNBA.

Jonquel Jones, F, 6-6: When Jones was traded to the Liberty back in January, the move set off the superteam era. The opportunity to play with the 2021 MVP enticed Stewart and Vandersloot to sign with the Liberty, and it likely motivated Parker to sign with the Aces in order to give her a chance at a title as well. Jones is a versatile scoring threat who plays both inside and beyond the arc. In her last season in Connecticut, Jones led the Sun to the WNBA Finals and averaged 14.6 points, 8.6 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.2 blocks and 1.1 steals per game.

Courtney Vandersloot, G, 5-8: The one thing the Liberty needed after signing Jones and Stewart was an elite, pass-first point guard. They got that in Vandersloot, who is third on the WNBA’s all-time assists leaderboard and holds the record for most assists in a single game with 18. Vandersloot played all 12 of her WNBA seasons with the Sky and won a title with Chicago in 2021 before joining the Liberty.

Sabrina Ionescu, G, 5-11: The 2020 No. 1 pick transitioned seamlessly into the league, but last season was telling for the star guard. She plays best off the ball, which is why Vandersloot was such a key addition. Ionescu averaged 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds, 6.3 assists and 1.1 steals per game in 2022, while also posting her lowest turnover mark yet at 3 per contest. Known as the triple-double queen in college, she continues to do a little bit of everything in the WNBA.

Bench Players

Las Vegas Aces

Key players: Alysha Clark, Kiah Stokes, Riquna Williams

The one knock on the Aces last season was their lack of bench. It didn’t end up mattering, as the team secured a title, and Riquna Williams ended up playing big minutes in the Finals, but Becky Hammon & Co. still bolstered the bench unit in the offseason. They added an elite defender in 10-year WNBA veteran Alysha Clark. The Aces also retained Kiah Stokes, who brings rebounding and rim protection.

New York Liberty

Key Players: Marine Johannès, Kayla Thornton, Stephanie Dolson, Han Xu

Everyone off the bench for the Liberty brings something different to the court, which is what you want from secondary players. Johannès could easily be a starter for another team, and she’s an elite passer and crafty shot-creator. Thornton is an experienced vet who played six seasons mostly in a starting role for the Wings, and Dolson brings experience as well with nine WNBA seasons under her belt. Han Xu is a question mark for the Liberty, as she hasn’t seen much time in their first two games, but her size (6-10) and unique skill set (which includes 3-point shooting) make her a threat off the bench.

Head Coach

Las Vegas Aces

Becky Hammon set the bar high in her first season with the Aces, leading them to the franchise’s first WNBA title. She’s an experienced coach who spent years as an assistant for the NBA’s San Antonio Spurs before taking the Aces job. Hammon also played 15 years in the WNBA and was a 6-time all star. The signing of Candace Parker put the Aces in position to compete for the title again, but it didn’t come without controversy. The Aces traded Dearica Hamby to the Sparks in order to make space for Parker, but a WNBA investigation found that Hamby was mistreated during the trade due to her pregnancy. Hammon denied the claims, but she was suspended for the first two games of the season.

New York Liberty

Sandy Brondello, like Hammon, has experience playing in the WNBA as well as coaching. She played professionally from 1992-2004, and she also represented the Australian National team, winning two silver medals in the Olympics. She got into coaching in 2005 as an assistant for the San Antonio Silver Stars, the franchise that became the Las Vegas Aces. Brondello made her name as a coach with the Mercury, coaching in Phoenix from 2014-2021 and winning a WNBA championship in 2014 before taking the Liberty job in 2022.

Team History

Las Vegas Aces

The Aces joined the WNBA in 1997 first as the Utah Starzz, then became the San Antonio Silver Stars (later just the Stars) before moving to Las Vegas in 2018. The franchise had one conference title in 2008, and then the Aces secured the first title last season.

New York Liberty

The Liberty joined the WNBA in 1997 as well but have stayed put in the New York City area (if not always in their current home borough of Brooklyn). The team has won three conference titles, in 1999, 2000 and 2002, but has yet to win a WNBA title.

Sabrina Ionescu thrust her hands into the air, threw her head back and screamed. As the buzzer sounded on her team’s 98-91 upset of the defending champion Chicago Sky in Game 1 of the first round, Ionescu was flooded with emotion.

Happiness, relief, exhaustion and pride. The Liberty guard felt it all after the franchise’s first playoff win since 2015.

“We came here and did what we needed to do, and what nobody believed we could do,” she said.

The Liberty still have to win one more game to take the best-of-three series and move onto the semifinals, but the win on Wednesday proved something the Liberty have long known: It’s possible.

“I’ve been saying to this team, ‘Why not us?’ I know we had a 20 percent chance of even making it to the playoffs, and here we are,” Ionescu said. “We believe in ourselves and that’s all that matters. We are going to try and get another one.”

The win wasn’t a fluke. The Liberty know that. The Sky know, too. And they both know that New York, as the No. 7 seed, needs just one more win to advance and send last year’s title winner home.

If you don’t believe Ionescu’s sentiment of “why not” the Liberty, then allow me to present the evidence.

Stefanie Dolson had 13 points and seven rebounds in the win against her old team. (David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images)

Previous matchups

There’s precedent for the Liberty playing the Sky close. They matched up four times in the regular season, and aside from a lopsided 83-50 Chicago win in the second game of the season, every contest has been tight.

New York lost by two, 88-86, on June 12, when Ionescu recorded her first triple-double of the season with 27 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists.

The Liberty secured their first win over the Sky on July 23, when Ionescu completed a 3-point play with 9.7 seconds left, ending a six-game winning streak by Chicago.

And in their most recent matchup on July 29, the Sky secured an eight-point win despite the Liberty keeping it close with double-figure scoring from Ionescu, Natasha Howard, Stefanie Dolson and Marine Johannès.

Each time they’ve played the Sky, the Liberty have gained confidence. Each one of those matchups further proved the mindset that New York has what it takes to play with Chicago.

Natasha Howard has the championship experience this young Liberty team needs. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)


When you look at the Liberty’s roster makeup, it’s hard to believe this team went into the playoffs with a 16-20 record. They have one of the deepest teams in the league, with top-to-bottom talent.

That starts with Ionescu and her 17.4 points, 7.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists per game, but it certainly doesn’t end there. Howard is a two-time All-Star who averages 15.1 points per game, but more importantly, she’s a veteran who’s been a part of three WNBA championship teams. She knows how to win in the postseason and demonstrated that in a big way Wednesday with 22 points, seven boards and three assists. Howard also played 34 minutes, the most after Ionescu.

Dolson, who was a part of Chicago’s championship-winning team last year, contributed 13 points and seven rebounds in Wednesday’s win. She was crucial to the Liberty’s offense, making three 3-pointers, and as a 6-foot-5 center, her shooting ability stretches the defense and creates more openings for her teammates.

But the two pieces that are the most important to New York’s potential playoff success are Betnijah Laney and Johannès.

Laney was dominant last season for New York, averaging 16.8 points per game and earning her first All-Star bid. She missed significant time this year with a knee injury that required surgery. Wednesday’s win was only her fifth game back for the Liberty, but she looked to be at the top of her game, recording 17 points, five rebounds and five assists. With 1:23 left on the clock, Laney hit a step-back jumper to give her team a five-point advantage. She then made two free throws with 38.9 seconds remaining for the 98-91 lead that ended up being the final score. Her return was crucial to the Liberty winning their last three games to even get to the playoffs, and she remains a key piece in their quest to upset the Sky.

Johannès, meanwhile, has been making a splash with her flashy style since she joined the team on June 6. But her flair shouldn’t be confused with gaudiness. The guard is creative, but everything she does has purpose. Take last night’s over-the-back pass to Howard. It drew excitement from the crowd and praise on Twitter, but that’s not why she did it. Johannès threw the ball backwards because the angle of her defender didn’t allow her to swivel for a direct pass to Howard. Johannès brings excitement to the Liberty, but more importantly, she provides a playmaking ability that complements Ionescu and creates more opportunities for New York’s offense.

(Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Last night’s run

The Sky held a 91-85 lead when Courtney Vandersloot made a layup with 3:32 left on the clock. From there, Chicago didn’t score again. The Liberty closed the game on a 13-0 run in which the Sky went 0-for-8 from the field, with multiple turnovers and head-scratching decisions.

“I think we panicked a little bit,” Azurá Stevens said. “And not forced, but maybe a little bit. We were down and we were trying to get back. I feel like we haven’t panicked all year.”

While the Sky looked nervous down the stretch, the Liberty remained stoic and chipped away at the six-point deficit before eventually taking and building the lead.

That leads back to the confidence the Liberty developed by playing the Sky close in their previous meetings. They’ve seen on three separate occasions that they can keep up with the defending champions, and on Wednesday that belief guided the Liberty to victory.

Betnijah Laney's return has given the Liberty a boost at the most important point of the season. (Melissa Tamez/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Three-point shooting

The Liberty made 11 3-pointers against the Sky on Wednesday, shooting at a 44 percent clip, with seven players knocking down at least one shot from long-range. They score 36.5 percent of their points from beyond the arc, which leads the league. That’s a defensive nightmare. When everyone can shoot 3s, it means the defense can’t ignore any one player, and the constant need to close-out to 3-point range opens lanes to the basket and entry passes to the post. Especially when some of the 3-point threats are bigs. Dolson and Han Xu force teams to defend well beyond the arc, meaning shot-blockers aren’t anywhere near the hoop.

Plus, with their ability to knock down 3s, the Liberty are always within striking distance.

New playoff format

The final piece to the puzzle is the playoff format. With last season’s layout, the Sky, as the team with the second-best record, would have received a double bye. Instead, they are playing a three-game series.

Games 1 and 2 take place in Chicago, but Game 3 will be in New York, meaning the Liberty have a shot to sweep the series on the road on Saturday. But if they lose, they then get home-court advantage for the series-deciding contest, a scenario Sky head coach James Wade decried on Tuesday.

“You go into a series, especially in this format, and you just need to steal one,” Liberty coach Sandy Brondello said.

The Liberty have done that. Now, with two chances to finish the job and advance to their first semifinal series since 2015, they need to steal just one more.

Eden Laase is a Staff Writer at Just Women’s Sports. Follow her on Twitter @eden_laase.

New York Liberty forward Betnijah Laney returned to the court Saturday after being out with a knee injury since May.

The 28-year-old contributed seven points, four rebounds and one block in 21 minutes during the Liberty’s 76-62 loss to the Phoenix Mercury.

Laney, a 2021 WNBA All-Star, rejoins New York in time for a final playoff push after undergoing surgery on her right knee in June. With four games left in the regular season, the Liberty (13-19) are currently 1/2 game back of the eighth-place Mercury and a spot in the WNBA playoffs.

“Hopefully, she can help us a lot,” Liberty head coach Sandy Brondello said Saturday. “Just with her toughness and her ability to open the floor up and also penetrate and post up. But she hasn’t played for a while, so I try not to put any big, high expectations on her. I just want her to have patience. All the hard work she’s put in, it’s going to pay off.”

The Liberty conclude the regular season with two games against the sixth-place Dallas Wings and two against the seventh-place Atlanta Dream, giving them a chance to make up ground and advance to the postseason for the second consecutive year.

“I’m trying to continue to find my rhythm and get my legs back under me,” Laney said after Saturday’s game. “Just trying to go out there and play hard.”

Sabrina Ionescu contributed 20 points, five assists and five rebounds for New York, making WNBA single-season history with her performance, but the team’s offense struggled to gel. Phoenix, without Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith, forged ahead thanks to Diamond DeShields’ team-high 25 points.

The Liberty next travel to Dallas to face the Wings on Monday.

New York Liberty wing Betnijah Laney will be out for roughly eight weeks after undergoing successful surgery on her right knee, the team announced Wednesday.

Laney is expected to begin rehab in the coming days after the arthroscopic partial meniscectomy, a surgery performed on torn meniscus cartilage.

The procedure was performed by Dr. Riley Williams and Dr. Gabriella Ode, the team’s orthopedic surgeons. Laney joined the Liberty’s injury report on May 23 and has not played in a game since.

In four games before that, Laney had been averaging 13.3 points, 4.3 assists and 3.8 rebounds per game.

The Liberty have had a rough start to the season, with both Jocelyn Willoughby and DiDi Richards still out with injuries. Lorela Cubaj has also been out due to concussion protocols.

New York lost its most recent game 92-61 against the Seattle Storm on Sunday and has won just one game so far this season. Next up, the Liberty will play the Indiana Fever on Wednesday.

The New York Liberty made a statement Thursday night despite losing to the Phoenix Mercury 83-82 and exiting the playoffs in the first round.

“We’re going to be back,” Betnijah Laney said postgame.

Laney nearly led the Liberty to the upset, hitting a three pointer with 2.7 seconds left to tie the game. She led the team in scoring, finishing with 25 points, four rebounds and three assists. Sami Whitcomb then fouled Brianna Turner on the inbounds pass. Turner would hit one of two free throws to win the game for the Mercury.

The Liberty hung around with the Mercury and had a chance to pull the upset, despite barely making the playoffs following an eight-game skid. A win in the final game of the regular season over the Washington Mystics gave them a chance at the playoffs before luck led to an unlikely berth.

Sabrina Ionescu, who finished with 14 points, 11 rebounds and five assists, echoed Laney’s statements while also pointing to how she knows she can improve.

“We’re gonna start training camp at this level, so everything’s gonna change drastically,” she said. “We know each other now.

“I’ll have a year in the league knowing what defenses are going to throw at me. I’ll take the offseason to grow.”

SLAM, one of the most prolific basketball storytelling brands of the past 27 years, announced Wednesday the launch of the first-ever WSLAM Magazine.

While SLAM has long told the stories of the top women’s players in the game, WSLAM will have 82 pages dedicated to the very best of women’s basketball. The magazine builds off of the success of the WSLAM vertical that launched in 2019 and now draws an online audience of 300,000 readers.

“We always had a vision of wanting to do a magazine, especially because SLAM is so cemented in the print world,” said WSLAM director Camille Buxeda. “Just in two years we were able to make that happen, so it’s been a really exciting year.”

“Our WSLAM vertical has been creating and curating amazing women’s basketball content for two years, and we’re incredibly excited to add an annual print magazine to that content slate,” Adam Figman, Chief Content Officer of SLAM, said in a release. “The magazine is filled front to back with amazing and important women’s hoops stories, and the issue is the first of a franchise that we hope continues for many years.”

SLAM’s print subscribers will receive the magazine for free. The special issue will also be available for purchase on SLAM’s ecommerce site,, for $8.99. SLAM will use the same production, design and sales resources allocated to its magazine issues for WSLAM.

The goal is for WSLAM to become the one-stop shop for everything women’s basketball and culture. Buxeda has already seen a growing interest in SLAM’s women’s high school and college coverage, with many continuing to follow top recruits like Paige Bueckers as they transition to the NCAA level.

“These are superstars in the making,” Buxeda said of the high school athletes. “I think [our coverage] really allows audiences and new basketball lovers to understand who the next ones to watch are because, in the end, that’s the fandom that’s going to transfer.”

But first, the inaugural WSLAM Magazine will focus on telling the stories of players in the WNBA at the intersection of culture and basketball.

(Courtesy of SLAM)

From a look into Tina Charles’ incredible season to a review of the Houston Comets paving the way for some of the best in women’s basketball, WSLAM highlights many of the most important moments in the WNBA’s 25-year history. The magazine also emphasizes stories that go beyond player statistics, including the WNBA’s role within social justice movements.

“It’s a little bit different from what I would say SLAM normally does, which is really focus on the now,” Buxeda said. “This is an homage to the past while looking to the present and future.”

“You gotta start somewhere,” Chicago Sky guard Diamond DeShields said. “I think that we do a very good job of paying homage to those that came before us. I wish that they would’ve gotten to experience this, and then I’m sure the next generation is gonna look at us and be like, ‘Dang, I wish they would’ve gotten to experience what we have.’ It’s just about the role they played, being the first.”

While the magazine may focus on the WNBA’s past, its cover features three present and future stars: DeShields, Arike Ogunbowale and Betnijah Laney.

“They really represent the faces of the next 25 years,” Buxeda said.

The players also recognize the importance of honoring those who came before them.

“They definitely paved the way for us,” Laney said. “To find ways to pay homage any way that we can … I think as we continue to evolve, we want to make sure that everybody knows what they did for the game, what we’ll do for the game and what that will mean to the players in the future to keep having the league evolve.”

Just as today’s WNBA players build on the past, Buxeda hopes that WSLAM’s print edition will inspire the next generation of women’s basketball stars.

“I think it connects people a little bit more than just reading it on a screen,” she said. “It’s a physical copy and representation that young girls can really put on their walls and say, ‘I want to be on the cover of WSLAM one day.’”

The Liberty came from behind to defeat the Mystics 82-79 in Saturday’s Commissioner’s Cup matchup.

Betnijah Laney led New York in points with 19, shooting 50 percent from the field and draining all four of her shots from the line.

Five Liberty players hit double-digits, including Sabrina Ionescu, who came up clutch down the stretch, shooting a staggering 85.7 percent from the field with 15 points.

Tina Charles notched a monster double-double for the Mystics, putting up 31 points and 16 rebounds. Charles’ performance, however, wasn’t enough to hold off the Liberty’s fourth-quarter surge.

Next up: The New York Liberty will host the Wings on Monday. The Mystics will head to Chicago to face the Sky on July 10.

There was a time when WNBA teams would dare Betnijah Laney to shoot fifteen times a game.

Forcing a player who averaged three points per game in her first four years in the WNBA to beat you, rather than the team’s top offensive threats, was an effective game plan. If Laney scored more than her usual three to five points off rebounds and transition buckets, the defense was still doing its job.

“I’ll be the first to say, if you go back and look at a scout, we just helped off of her. It didn’t matter what year it was, we weren’t going to guard her when she didn’t have the ball,” said former Atlanta Dream head coach Nicki Collen. “We were going to go under every screen. She made a couple shots occasionally against us because we played her so soft, and that was the game plan.”

Now, going under a screen on Laney would be considered a defensive breakdown.

Through ten games with the New York Liberty, the 27-year-old is averaging 21 points per game. She has scored 20-plus in nine of those ten games, including a team-leading 23 points in a win over the Mercury on Sunday night. Her performance has made her an early candidate for league MVP.

But Collen wasn’t thinking about Laney as a scorer when the Dream signed her in 2020 before the bubble season, making it her fourth WNBA stop in five seasons. In a year filled with so much uncertainty, the Dream believed Laney would provide steadiness. She had a reputation as someone who seized an opportunity by playing tough, defensive-minded basketball.

“We went and got Betnijah because I thought this is a kid that’s going to come to the bubble and really compete,” said Collen. “It didn’t matter where she played or who we talked to about her, the message was always going to be the same: She is a great teammate, she plays really hard and she’s going to do whatever you ask of her.”

It was during one particular shooting drill in training camp, in which players would end up taking 50 shots, when Collen and her staff began to see Laney in a different light.

She made 44 of her 50 shots.

“It was like, wow, this is a player who isn’t supposed to be able to shoot. Every day she would come in and it was like, there is absolutely no reason why she can’t shoot,” said Collen. “Her shot prep is good, her form is good. I literally said to her, ‘You know the scouting report on you is that you can’t shoot, right?’”

Laney knew. But she also knew that hadn’t always been the case.

Laney shoots over a Dream defender during a game against her old team. (Jesse Louie / Just Women's Sports)

Laney was used to scoring at will as a guard at Smyrna High School in Delaware, earning McDonald’s All-American honors as a senior. At Rutgers, Laney was expected to score when the team needed her to, rebound, defend and make the hustle plays. She did her job well, averaging a double-double of 15.8 points, 10.7 rebounds per game her senior season and graduating as one of four Scarlet Knights to accumulate over 1,400 points and 900 rebounds during her career.

The majority of Laney’s points in college came from mid-range shots and looks closer to the basket. She wasn’t considered a threat from deep, shooting just under 29 percent from beyond the arc on limited attempts in her four years.

Drafted into the WNBA in 2015 as a second-round pick, Laney made the transition from power forward back to guard with the Chicago Sky and the expectations from her college days remained.

“I have been in situations where, ‘That’s just not what we need you to do. We need you to play defense and play hard.’ Even though I felt like I was capable of scoring, it was more so me submitting to the role that my coaches felt like was for me on the team,” Laney said.

“I don’t ever want to get outside of what is being asked of me or feel like I am being hard-headed. If the opportunity did come, then I was going to be ready.”

When Collen saw the shots Laney was knocking down in practice last year, she decided to give her that chance. “Let’s change the scouting report,” Collen told Laney. “What I would like to see you do is take the approach that you shoot the basketball when you’re open. Until I tell you not to, I want you to shoot every time you’re open.”

With the green light from her coach, Laney started shooting more, and her confidence grew with each outing. Suddenly, teams had to game-plan around her and were still unable to stop her.

Laney averaged 17.2 points, 4.9 rebounds and four assists per game in the bubble, earned a spot on the All-Defensive First Team and was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player. She credited Collen with empowering her to unlock a part of her game she always knew she had.

“Her seeing the work that I had put in and seeing my value, it just spoke volumes. It gave me that extra boost, that extra bit of confidence that I needed to just be free,” Laney said. “There are a lot of players that are very talented, very capable, but they just don’t have that freedom to just play their game. I just took it and ran with it.”

Laney’s breakout campaign led New York to seek her out in free agency and sign her to a multi-year deal in February. It took the Connecticut Sun, arguably the top defensive team in the league, to even begin to slow Laney down nine games into the season. She’s currently fourth in the league in scoring, shooting 48.7 percent from the field and 38.1 percent from deep, and sixth in distribution with 5.4 assists per game.

Laney gets interviewed on air after the Liberty beat the Wings on May 24. (Jesse Louie / Just Women's Sports)

Those numbers might baffle anyone who watched her play in Chicago, Connecticut and Indiana, or who looks at her career stats prior to 2020. But Laney has always been working in the background, preparing for this moment.

“It’s all about game simulation for me,” Laney said. “I don’t go out and just work on random things. When I am in the gym and looking for particular shots, I ask myself, ‘Are these shots that I know that I will take in a game?’”

At this point, Laney has very few holes in her game. She can score at all three levels — in the paint, in the mid-range and from beyond the arc. She is active off the ball and understands spacing exceptionally well. She can initiate the offense and open up the floor for her teammates with great court vision and decision-making ability. With one of the best mid-range pull-ups in the league, Laney can create for herself off the dribble or penetrate and kick it out to an open teammate.

Laney credits her mother Yolanda Laney — an All-American point guard for coach C. Vivian Stringer at Cheyney State in the early 1980s — for her development as a mid-range scorer.

“She said everybody wants to shoot 3s, everybody wants to get to the basket, but there aren’t a lot of players that have that mid-range go-to,” Laney said. “And that’s what it was for me, that’s where I was comfortable. It wasn’t too far out — it was close enough where I could be consistent.”

Laney uses her experience as a post player in college to her advantage, working to get even smaller defenders switched to her and exploiting the mismatch. With her size and strength, she can post defenders up or back them down and finish close to the rim.

Defensively, Laney prides herself on game-planning and analyzing opponents. She studies habits and can tell you what almost every team is going to do.

“When we are playing teams, I am watching their last couple of games to try and see their tendencies if we haven’t played them yet,” she said. “Or if we have, what did they do last time that worked for them and how can I be better about that the next go around?”

So, what is the WNBA’s scouting report on Betnijah Laney now? You have to get in her space and make things difficult for her on the catch. You need five players communicating about where she is at all times. You can’t let her cut across your face with easy lines to the basket. You have to contest all of her shots and put someone on her who can size her up on the glass.

And, of course, there’s no more going under screens when Laney has the ball.

“I am a lot more comfortable and a lot more confident in what it is that I am doing,” Laney said. “Coming in, I was nervous, not really sure of what it was I was supposed to be doing. And now I know for sure. The experience and work that I have put in has gotten me to where I am at now.”