In an Atlanta Dream offseason with plenty of splashy additions, including fourth overall draft pick Chennedy Carter and standout guard Courtney Williams, the signing of Betnijah Laney off waivers did not register much reaction.
Even head coach Nicki Collen said she thought of Laney as more of a substitute energy source, primarily wanting the versatile 6-footer as a defensive option off the bench. This was not an unreasonable viewpoint. Laney shot 36.2 percent from the field in 2019, including 30.3 percent from three, mostly staying on the floor for Pokey Chatman’s 2019 Indiana Fever to slow down opponents.
But so far in 2020, Laney has been one of the best offensive players in the WNBA. She is tied for 10th in the league in points per game, at 15.9, and her efficiency has changed dramatically — 48.1 percent from the field, 45.5 from three on nearly four attempts from deep per game. Collen gave Laney the green light after seeing her dominate early shooting drills in practice. Her faith has been rewarded.
There’s no All-Star Game in 2020, but if there were, Laney would likely be part of it. And she’s not the only one in the WNBA’s bubble who has turned a chance to play regularly into a starring role. Laney joins Washington’s Myisha Hines-Allen and Indiana’s Julie Allemand as players running with their opportunities in ways few could have predicted at the start of the season.
As Collen pointed out, there’s a combination of talent and repetitions at play in the rise of any unexpected new star.
“When you’re thrust into a different role, there’s a difference,” Collen said. “I’m pretty sure [Mystics coach] Mike Thibault knew Hines-Allen was a good player. I’m sure, in practice, they’ve seen glimpses. But sometimes it’s hard to get on the court. … I think that’s the beauty of opportunity, not only that you get the minutes but you get the opportunity to play through mistakes.”
Laney has certainly gotten those chances. Not only has her minutes per game jumped from 25.6 in 2019 to 31.1 so far, she got the go-ahead from Collen to shoot at will, with Williams delayed a couple of games in joining the Dream in Bradenton, Florida, and Atlanta in need of offense.
A similar dynamic has played out for the Mystics, for which Hines-Allen was expected to reside behind headline-grabbing acquisition Tina Charles. Instead, Charles opted out of the season for medical reasons, and Hines-Allen is scoring 14.8 points per game, good for 15th in the league, while grabbing 8.1 rebounds per game (tied for seventh in the league) and shooting 52.3 percent from the floor.
Hines-Allen’s defense helped get her drafted out of Louisville, with the 19th overall pick in 2018. A rugged 6-foot-1 New Jersey product, Hines-Allen can stay with bigger centers, while her lateral quickness allows her to shift down and guard small forwards in bigger Washington lineups.
But once it was clear that Charles and Elena Delle Donne, the 2019 MVP, wouldn’t be joining D.C. in Bradenton, Hines-Allen knew she would get to deploy the skill she’s continuously built stateside and overseas.
So sure, the 28.8 minutes per game she is averaging have allowed Hines-Allen to prove herself. But so too have the conversations with her teammates, Thibault and her other coaches, she said, giving her the confidence to be a more complete version of herself on the court.
“You get more comfortable with the ball, whether that’s inside or outside,” Hines-Allen said. “Like bringing the ball up — you’ll see, I’ll grab that rebound, and the point guard’s telling me, you push the ball up.”
This is the result:
Absence has also created an opportunity for Belgian import Julie Allemand, who was expected to back up last year’s All-Star Game MVP, Erica Wheeler, for Indiana. But with Wheeler’s arrival delayed after testing positive for COVID-19, Allemand has been asked to step up and lead the Fever offense.
She’s been more than up to the task, averaging 32.8 minutes per game, ranking third in the league in assists per game at 5.71 and sinking more than half of her three-point attempts. Her effective field-goal percentage of 68.9 percent would rank, over a full season, as the best mark in WNBA history.
“She’s been a reliable, steady, great leader,” said Allemand’s coach, Marianne Stanley. “I expected her to play well. I just didn’t know that we would need her as much as we have this early season. so it’s been great to have Julie step right in seamlessly into a leadership role on the team.”
If the ultimate measure of a point guard is a team’s overall offensive performance, Allemand has exceeded hopes there, too: Indiana is second in the league in offensive rating.
Ultimately, much of this shouldn’t be a surprise. The WNBA has only 140-something roster spots filled, total, and just 12 teams to feature a handful of players with primary roles. That means, with a huge and growing talent base in women’s basketball, there are stars lurking all over WNBA benches, just waiting for the chance to shine.
For her part, Hines-Allen said beyond the opportunities of this season, she also is a far better player than she was when she arrived in the league. She had some early breakout performances in her rookie season in 2018 — double-doubles in her fourth and fifth games, against then-defending champion Minnesota and would-be champion Seattle — but her consistency came from observing the established players ahead of her in the depth chart as well.
“I definitely needed to evolve further,” Hines-Allen said. “If you think about it, those are just two games.” She went on to cite her lesser performance immediately following them — against Phoenix and Brittney Griner — as proof that 2018 Hines-Allen wasn’t ready for this level of responsibility.
2020 Hines-Allen is, and she isn’t expected to see reduced playing time this year, with Washington playing shorthanded. As for Atlanta, even though Williams has now joined the team, Collen said it would be difficult to take Laney out of the starting lineup. And when Wheeler finally gets through WNBA COVID-19 protocol and returns to Indiana, it could be difficult for her to push aside Allemand as well.
More responsibility, yes. Higher expectations, too.
“’I’m starting to nitpick,” Collen said of her approach with Laney. “The first game of the season, I had just been happy that she made more good decisions than bad decisions. Now I’m thinking, how are we going to correct these little things going forward so she can still be the best version of herself?”