It’s Christmas morning in the Benzan household in Wellesley, Massachusetts, but the usual holiday sounds — the tear of wrapping paper, the high-pitched squeals of excitement, the chorus of carols in the background — are absent. Fifteen minutes away, Katie Benzan and her brother, Patrick, — both in elementary school — try the doors at the local gym to play basketball.
“We’ve been sneaking into gyms since we were little kids — first and third grade,” Patrick Benzan said. “The statute of limitations is coming on a couple of these.”
Katie Benzan is one of the most prolific 3-point shooters in Maryland women’s basketball history. A graduate transfer from Harvard University, the Wellesley native shot 45% from behind the arc this season, sixth-best in the nation, and had 21 games with at least two threes made. The hard work paid off as she made her debut as the first Dominican player in the WNBA with the Washington Mystics on May 8 and drained her first three a game later.
Despite being an undersized guard, Katie Benzan led the country in 3-point percentage with a 50% clip in 2020-21 and finished with 166 made threes in two years.
“Sometimes people tell point guards, ‘you’re too small, you can’t play at a really high level,’” Maryland head coach Brenda Frese said. “But Katie has shown you can with heart and hustle and play the right way with work ethic. It allows others to be able to see they can live out their dreams.”
But before the crowd’s roar, the PA system's shrill voice, and long before earning a spot in the WNBA, Katie Benzan’s basketball story began when she was just 7 years old.
“Basketball is a family business,” said Patrick Benzan, who played Division I basketball at the College of Holy Cross. “Daycare for us growing up was in the gym at one of my mom’s practices when she coached in high school.”
Kim Benzan, Katie’s mother, is a basketball lifer. She played point guard at Holy Cross and has spent years coaching at the high school and AAU level. At 7 years old, Katie Benzan began attending the practices and games of her mother’s teams.
“[Katie] would come to practice, and she would get into the shooting drills with the varsity girls,” Kim Benzan said. “They made it a very positive atmosphere for her — the high-fiving. She would sit on my bench during the games. I think she really fell in love with not only the game itself but the camaraderie and the culture.”
Consuming high-level basketball as a kid helped Katie Benzan become the competitor she is today, as did the hours spent with her parents and brother, analyzing the game’s minutiae.
“The four of us used to sit and watch games and just analyze the events, the rosters, the decisions,” said Katie’s father, John Benzan, who managed the men’s basketball team at Holy Cross.
Having two old-school basketball coaches as parents meant that family time equaled time on the court. Both Katie and Patrick Benzan were raised in gyms, passing basketballs back and forth, and life on the court meant that Kim and John Benzan were Katie’s first coaches.
“My mom taught me how to shoot,” Katie Benzan said. “Growing up, my entire family, we’d all go to the basketball court, and we’d play two-on-two, we’d get shots up together. … I definitely didn’t become the player I am alone.”
Behind every swish of the net is a gloved kid shooting in a snow-covered driveway in freezing temperatures during winter in Boston. There were even times when John Benzan would turn on the outdoor lights so that his daughter could shoot in the dark.
When their children were younger, the Benzans started with proper mechanics and repeatable motions. When teaching kids to shoot, the old-school approach is to start close to the basket and work up to 3-point shooting.
Kim Benzan’s methods stem from breaking down her high school players' motions and teaching them how to shoot the ball properly. After altering the form of so many players, Kim Benzan wanted to teach her kids the right way.
“When they were very small, I never let them shoot outside of the paint,” Kim Benzan said. “Sometimes you’ll see, especially today with the evolution of the game, children shoot, even though they can barely reach the rim, they’ll start far out; they’ll try and start the 3-point line, and then they develop bad habits relative to their mechanics.”
With her parents’ guidance, Katie Benzan practiced proper mechanics growing up. When she started playing on the varsity team as an eighth-grader, head coach Alex Gallagher, who has been the girls varsity head coach at Noble and Greenough School in Massachusetts for the past two decades, didn’t have to rework her shot.
“Katie’s footwork, her hands, her release, all of it is exceptional and almost perfect because she was trained to be that way,” Gallagher said. “With every shot, her feet are in the right spot, and her shoulders are in the right spot. Her release looks exactly the same all the time, whether she’s standing at two feet or standing at 25 feet.”
The shooting form that helped Katie Benzan become one of Noble’s top players carried through to her time at Harvard (2016-2020) and then to the University of Maryland (2020-2022). The system might have changed, but one thing didn’t: Katie Benzan’s form and competitive edge.
At Xfinity Center over the past two years, Katie Benzan quickly endeared herself to Terrapin Nation with her silky-smooth release and nothing-but-net baskets. Of her 166 threes, 139 were assisted. Of those, fellow guard Ashley Owusu set up Katie Benzan almost 40% of the time, according to data from the team’s website and provided by Derek Willis, one of the nation’s leading data journalists and a professor at the University of Maryland.
“You know, Katie is a great shooter,” Owusu said. “I know that when I get her the ball, she’s going to make the shot.”
Another of Katie Benzan’s primary assisters this past season was forward/guard Angel Reese. Maryland’s offense often would look to Reese inside, and if a double-team arrived, the Baltimore native would find her teammate on the perimeter.
“A lot of times, I’m reading the defenses inside,” Reese said, “and I know that if I can find Katie outside, I don’t have to go for the rebound.”
Even as teams worked to take away her shooting, the guard’s arsenal of jab steps, crossovers and step-backs helped her get a shot off even when a defender was in her face.
Fans of Maryland basketball became so accustomed to Katie Benzan knocking down a three that a miss seemed like an aberration.
“You very rarely come across a player like Katie who, when Katie missed, you’re always surprised,” Gallagher said. “You always expect the ball to go in, and that’s incredible; it’s something that is not done at a very high rate.”
Before her first season at Maryland, Katie Benzan trained under the worst circumstances of her career.
When Harvard sent students home during the COVID-19 pandemic, Katie Benzan kept her stroke by shooting in the home driveway. The only problem: the driveway was sloped and did not have a 3-point line.
Then she arrived in College Park in the summer of 2020 to find Xfinity Center closed because of COVID. The new arrival had to get creative with her training; Katie Benzan played on mini courts by the fraternity houses on campus and at a local elementary school — with double rims — to stay sharp.
While many people use circumstances as an excuse not to work, Patrick Benzan knows that “Katie just needs a ball and that hoop, and she can get her work in.”
There are plenty of great 3-point shooters in the game, but there is only one Katie Benzan. A player who does most of her work before getting the ball, her impeccable form belies how long she has been practicing.
People see the effortless motion of a 3-point wizard, but they don’t see the hour-long commute to find a gym for a workout or the 6 a.m. wake-up to shoot before school. Katie Benzan’s ability to hit the deep ball is no accident; she has perfected her skill set to a point where a miss is more shocking than a bucket.
“You’ll see Katie freeze her follow; it’s almost like he’s posing for a picture, she holds it that long, which is exactly how you want to do it,” John Benzan said. “Katie always had it in her mind that she could make the shot.”