Smyrna’s Laney proves herself as a scorer in WNBA

Former Smyrna High basketball standout Betnijah Laney was named the WNBA’s Most Improved player on Thursday. WNBA photo

Smyrna High girls’ basketball fans were well aware that Betnijah Laney was capable of being a big-time scorer.

But, in the WNBA, Laney was considered more of a defensive specialist.

Laney just remembers how surprised Nicki Collen was when she first worked out for the Atlanta Dream coach in June.

“She stopped me in the middle and was like, ‘I didn’t know you could shoot like that,’” said Laney. “She told me that she wanted me to shoot it until I proved that I couldn’t. I’m like, ‘OK.’”

The result was that Laney quickly became a revelation as an offensive threat at the pro level this summer.

On Thursday, the 26-year-old was named the WNBA’s Most Improved Player after averaging a career-high 17.2 points per game — 12 points better than the previous career high of 5.6 ppg that she averaged a year ago.

But Laney had to overcome a lot in her career just to get to this point.

The former Smyrna All-Stater, who played collegiately at Rutgers, had to deal with a serious knee injury while playing for four different WNBA teams since being drafted in 2015.

Laney didn’t play at all in the WNBA in 2017 after tearing her left ACL while playing with Chicago the season before. Between 2016 and ‘17, the 6-foot forward/guard took the court in just eight contests.

Betnijah Laney

Twice Laney has been cut, including being released by Indiana on June 17. But she was signed by Atlanta only a week later.

“It was definitely a journey,” the Clayton native said in an interview posted on the Atlanta website. “Coming in in 2015, I had to make a big adjustment … transitioning into being a guard again. Dealing with an injury in my second season after starting off really well, being cut and trying to find a new team. … and then finding another new team and being cut again. … you’ve just got to stick with it and continue to work hard.

“It’s not always going to be about what you’re doing wrong or right but what a team needs, what a team sees, what they value, and just trying to find that fit.”

This summer Laney became just the sixth player in WNBA history to average at least 17 points, 4.5 rebounds, four assists and 1.5 steals per game. She’s the first since Maya Moore did it in 2016.

Despite not netting 20 points in a game during her previous four WNBA seasons, Laney reached 20 points seven times in 22 games this year. That included tallying a career-high 35 points in a game against Washington and 11 assists against the Sparks.

“She just showed that she can score at all three levels,” Collen said in an interview on WNBA.com. “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.”

The Most Improved Player award comes with some tangible rewards for Laney — including $5,150 and a specially-designed trophy from Tiffany & Co. A free agent again, it also means that Laney won’t have to worry too much if any team wants to sign her.

But Laney also said that, now that she’s arrived, the last thing she wants to do is rest on her laurels.

“I just feel like there’s always room for improvement,” she said. “There’s always opportunities for me to get better.

“Right now I’m literally sitting in the gym waiting to go work out and play,” Laney said during her online interview on Thursday.
“I haven’t really taken a break since the season ended. I just never want to get comfortable. I never want to be like , ‘I did this so everything is fine,’ because I’ve kind of thought that in the past, like, ‘I’m good. I’m doing everything that I need to do.’

“But, sometimes, it wasn’t enough. I just want to continue to grow and get better, whether that’s on the court or off the court.”