The breakout stars of the 2020 WNBA season at the halfway point

Betnijah Laney, #44, Atlanta Dream, (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images)
Betnijah Laney, #44, Atlanta Dream, (Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images) /

From Betnijah Laney of the Atlanta Dream to Myisha Hines-Allen of the Washington Mystics, here are four breakout stars of the 2020 WNBA season so far.

This WNBA season was tailor-made to create opportunities for young players. Many of the league’s stars, from 2019 MVP Elena Delle Donne to former No. 1 overall pick and ESPN personality Chiney Ogwumike, are sitting the season out, and those who did make the journey to the league’s “clean site” at IMG Academy in Bradenton, Florida, are being more patient with their bodies during the grind of a 22-game, every-other-day schedule.

The schedule and circumstances have opened the door for young players to get chances they rarely would have in a league of 144 players that frequently cuts draft picks in training camp. This season could be one that opens executives’ eyes around the league to the potential of young talent that might have been ignored otherwise. Many have already taken advantage.

Here are four who have risen to the challenge:

Betnijah Laney, wing, Atlanta Dream

What happened: If you’ve tuned into an Atlanta Dream broadcast by this point in the season, most likely to check out the dazzling scoring of Rookie of the Year front-runner Chennedy Carter, you’ve probably heard the story. Laney was signed late in the offseason by the Dream as a fill-in once the team found out it would be without veterans Renee Montgomery and Tiffany Hayes, and Laney’s own coach, Nicki Collen, didn’t even believe she had this in her. It wasn’t until preseason training camp during shooting drills that Collen realized previous coaches had just been under-utilizing the Rutgers alum.

Laney is the front-runner for the Most Improved Player trophy and honestly looks like a completely different player on the court in her fifth season. Her 3-point rate (the proportion of shots she takes from behind the arc) has jumped up past 54 percent, her assist rate has nearly doubled, and while her turnovers are quite high, Laney is also getting to the free-throw line more consistently than she has in years.

The Dream are at their best when they play with good pace, in the halfcourt and in transition. Collen preaches it constantly. Atlanta can use Laney off the ball and threaten defenses with a shot, drive or pass.

As Ben Dull noted at The Floor Game, Laney isn’t half bad as a passer either, though that’s clearly where her game must develop going forward.

What it means: With Laney playing this well, the shape of a dominating Dream offense comes into focus. Atlanta is driven by Carter and Courtney Williams, two electric guards who can create their own shot at any time. Laney has the size and secondary scoring ability to fit perfectly next to them. Throw in versatile defensive center Elizabeth Williams, and the Dream have four of five pieces of what looks a lot like a championship core. They are only 2-9 this season, in danger of falling off again after a semifinal berth in 2018, but the roster is solid, in large part thanks to Laney’s growth.

Brionna Jones, center, Connecticut Sun

What happened: Connecticut is 4-2 in its last six games after an 0-5 start, and a rejuvenated frontcourt is a big reason why. A big win over Chicago last week encapsulates the team’s growth, with Jones, in particular, a standout. Head coach Curt Miller is finally trusting his young players more, and Jones tallied 30 minutes in the victory, balancing out do-it-all forward Alyssa Thomas and stretch big Theresa Plaisance, who has not played yet in 2020. With Jones as an anchor inside, Connecticut looks far more like the balanced, deep squad that tore through to the 2019 WNBA Finals.

According to the WNBA “Estimated Contribution” leaderboard over at Positive Residual, Jones is third in the entire WNBA in individual impact. That’s primarily because the Sun’s offense falls off a cliff when Jones hits the bench. The team scores 102.1 points per 100 possessions when Jones is in compared with a putrid 90.4 when she sits. Jones is by no means an electric scorer, but she is a fantastic offensive rebounder, and the team has no backup for her. Thomas effectively becomes the center when Jones is on the bench, meaning the Sun become one of the smallest teams in the entire league.

Why it matters: Most fascinating is that while Thomas needs Jones on the court, the inverse isn’t quite as true. Take a look at the rotation from Connecticut’s victory over Chicago last Friday. The Sun’s big run came when Jones was at the 5 and DeWanna Bonner played the 4, with bench players like Bria Holmes and Briann January filled in around those two. Jones had a 22.9 percent usage rate in those minutes.

The takeaway is clear: What has helped Jones is getting to play inside with better talent, but especially in smaller lineups. Connecticut is without MVP candidate Jonquel Jones, whose shooting ability makes everything work, but in her absence, the Sun are best with just one big in the game, and Jones is fully capable of being a winning player in those spots.

Myisha Hines-Allen, forward, Washington Mystics

What happened: Hines-Allen got minutes. The Louisville product has been talented her whole career, but she’s been stuck behind three All-Star caliber talents in Delle Donne, Emma Meesseman and LaToya Sanders on the defending champion Washington Mystics.

In playing more minutes this year, Hines-Allen has increased her usage rate from just about average to nearly 25 percent. She is still a monster rebounder, but perhaps the most stunning number surrounding her breakout campaign has been her finishing. Hines-Allen has increased her efficiency in the restricted area from a measly 45.8 percent in 2019 all the way up to a killer 69 percent in 2020.

Seeing the athleticism and hard work translate into production, Hines-Allen attributes her success in 2020 to the organization empowering her.

“Once you have people in your corner that are going to war with you every single day, your confidence grows, you get more comfortable with the ball whether it’s inside or outside, bringing the ball up,” Hines-Allen recently told Howard Megdal of Locked On Women’s Basketball.

“On some plays, you’ll see, I’ll grab that rebound, and the point guard’s telling me, ‘You push the ball,’ then I look over at coach, and he says, ‘You push the ball.’ It just brings confidence and makes me flow.”

She is downright scary with a head of steam. Case in point:

The energy points have always been there for Hines-Allen, but she’s putting it together with improving skill and confidence from the coaching staff to emerge as a real difference-maker for the defending champs.

What it means: The Mystics right now are unlikely to make the postseason, with injuries and opt-outs depleting them to the point of waving the white flag. They waived veteran Essence Carson to give a look to a third-round pick, a future-minded move that shows their thought process. But with Hines-Allen playing this well, it’s another role player for an already-stacked championship contender in 2021.

Brittney Sykes, wing, Los Angeles Sparks

What happened: Sykes found a landing place that actually worked. Through three seasons in Atlanta, her role was constantly in question, but Sykes has been just what Los Angeles needed.

After a strong start to the season, Sykes has rediscovered her form with the Sparks healthy once more. Los Angeles has won four straight by double digits, and Sykes has played at least 20 minutes in each game. With shot-creating at nearly every position, Sykes is the definition of a slasher, a quick, athletic scorer who can find holes in the defense off the ball and take advantage of the stars around her.

The energy she brings was captured in a nice profile last week by Mirjam Swanson of the Orange County Register, which detailed how the relationship between Sykes and Sydney Wiese is part of how Sparks bench units have been keeping leads.

What it means: The Sparks are deeper and have more shot creation spice than the team that last year fell apart in the playoffs as they struggled to find consistent offense. With Candace Parker at something close to her peak, Los Angeles simply needs finishers who can take advantage of the beautiful dimes Parker will throw and who can turbo-charge the fast break attack that the Sparks are so great at. Sykes checks all those boxes. She doesn’t need to do much to maintain a positive impact on this team.

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