Aces

Player Spotlight: Jackie Young

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After each Las Vegas Aces game, three Vegas players speak to the media, fielding questions from a bevy of reporters about how the game went. The players selected to speak are not random; they’re usually the three players who had the largest impact on the game. Often, the team’s leading scorer for the game is there. Perhaps another statistical leader joins her, along with a teammate who was involved in a critical play in the fourth quarter.  

In the first nine games of the season, these postgame interviews have included the usual suspects: A’ja Wilson, Kelsey Plum, and Chelsea Gray. Even Riquna Williams, who has only played in two games, was there after her 14-point first game of the season. But time and time again, another player joins them: Jackie Young. 

Young’s consistent inclusion on the postgame stage will come as no surprise to anyone who has watched her play this season. She is her team’s leading scorer, and the league’s sixth-highest scorer at 18.2 points per game. She’s also doing it efficiently, shooting 52% from the field and 48% from three. On Monday, she was named Western Conference Player of the Week for her performances in the second week of the season.  

The Aces lead the league with a 8-1 record, thanks in no small part to Young’s contributions. Her stellar play in the early part of the season also earned her a contract extension with the team; the deal, announced last Sunday, will reportedly keep her in Vegas through the 2024 season.  

The fourth-year guard has had a nice career so far. But even her most ardent supporters couldn’t have predicted this level of success. 

So, what changed? 

Last season, Young took 20 three-point attempts, making only five, in 32 games. Through the first nine games of this season, she’s already 13-27 from three. Expanding her range not only allows her to score from anywhere on the floor, it also completely changes the way that defenses can play her. Opponents have to guard her further out and make complete closeouts on her jumpers. Now, she can take advantage of that and get around defenders. So, not only can she score efficiently from outside, but she also has more room when she drives to the basket. 

For most players, when shot attempts increase, efficiency decreases. But not Young. Last year, she averaged about 9.6 shots per game, and she shot 50.5% from the field. Those numbers are good, but this year’s are even better: 12.2 shots per game, shooting 51.8%. Thanks to this, she’s improved her scoring average from last season by six points.

But she’s not just making an impact on offense. She’s consistently tasked with slowing down the opponent’s best perimeter player, and she’s passing that test. The best example of this is her work on Diana Taurasi. Vegas has already played Phoenix three times this season, and each time, Taurasi has been Young’s primary matchup. In the games Phoenix has not played Vegas, Taurasi has averaged 20.3 points on 43% shooting. In the three games against Young and the Aces, she’s averaged 10.3 points on 26% shooting. Young also increased her steals per game this season from 1.1 to 1.7. 

“Jackie, she’s big, she’s a machine,” Becky Hammon said after Vegas beat Minnesota last week, “I mean her physical presence, she’s one of the strongest people I’ve ever seen. So, she’s so sturdy, she’s so athletic, she’s just hard to get around.” 

How did this happen?

Any fourth-year player is expected to improve upon their first three seasons. But this is a step further than natural growth.  

Her international play may have something to do with it. She won gold at the Olympics with USA’s 3×3 team in August and won team MVP for the Perth Lynx in Australia’s WNBL this offseason. She credited her time in Australia with making her a more vocal player. But it’s also a new mentality and approach to the game.  

After a game last week, teammate Gray said, “She’s just playing with a lot of confidence, from all three levels. And I think that’s the next step that she had to take.” 

Hammon has talked a lot this season about ball movement and finding the open woman on the floor. This is not a new basketball concept, but whatever Hammon is saying in the locker room is working; the team leads the league in scoring efficiency, and they’re second in assists. Nobody has benefitted from this new system more than Young. 

When asked how she’s been able to have so much success, Young said, “My teammates have trust in me, and I just have to have that same trust and confidence in myself. And so, just taking open shots, my teammates are getting me the ball, and just making the right plays.” 

Award Season? 

It’s still early, but there’s no reason Young’s great play can’t continue. She’s already got a Player of the Week award this year. She is at the forefront of the Most Improved Player conversation. And as one of the best two-way players this season (and as the leading scorer for the league’s best team), she’s starting to get some MVP buzz as well.  

Hammon said, “she’s got the trifecta working for her: she got the talent, she got the smarts, and she got the hard work ethic. I mean, I have to kick that kid out of the gym. So, what’s her limit? There’s no limit. MVP. You can talk about her however you want. She’s that good.”

About Jack Levenberg

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