In her fourth year in the WNBA, Jackie Young has taken a giant step up — all the way into the All-Star Game. Now the former No. 1 overall pick has only one question to answer: Can her breakout take the Las Vegas Aces to their first league championship?
Young, who trailed only teammate and fellow first-time All-Star Kelsey Plum in total fan votes among guards, has played a crucial role in Las Vegas, adjusting to its new identity this season. The arrival of head coach Becky Hammon and the departure of two-time All-WNBA center Liz Cambage brought a new look to the team.
Hammon has surrounded 2020 MVP A’ja Wilson with a reliable three-guard rotation of Young, Plum and four-time All-Star Chelsea Gray, the only player on the Aces roster to have won a championship (in 2016 with the L.A. Sparks). Two-time Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby rounds out the lineup that has the Aces off to a 14-4 record — tied for the franchise’s best start in the five years it’s been in Vegas. In Young, Plum and Wilson, the Aces sport three top-10 scorers, which no team has done since the 2007 Phoenix Mercury took home the title with Diana Taurasi, Penny Taylor and Cappie Pondexter.
It didn’t take long for Hammon to appreciate how valuable Young’s growth could be to the team realizing its potential. In Hammon’s new system, Young has nearly doubled her career scoring average and gotten to the free throw line more efficiently than ever. Her 23 made threes in 2022 are one more than her career total entering this season.
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“I don’t think she has a ceiling right now,” Hammon said of Young last month. “I think she’s going to be as good as she wants to be. She’s an assassin — on both ends.”
Young is posting career highs this year in points, minutes and steals per game and 3-point percentage. Her seven 20-point games this season has already surpassed her total from her first three seasons combined.
But it isn’t just Young’s scoring leap that has aided Las Vegas — it’s how comfortable she is from nearly every spot on the floor. Entering Friday’s games, she is fourth among all guards with 116 points scored from the paint, per WNBA Advanced Stats. The Aces are on pace to finish in the top six in interior points scored by guards for a fourth consecutive season.
Young has also worked to turn defense into offense. Her team-high 61 points off turnovers (tied for 10th in the WNBA) is three more than her total from the entirety of last season, which set a career high. Those extra possessions can prove invaluable during the playoffs for the Aces, who currently lead the league in pace after finishing first in each of the previous two years.
And Las Vegas has certainly benefited from Young’s growth as a long-range shooter. She didn’t shoot higher than 32 percent from deep in any of her first three seasons, but she currently second among all qualified shooters1 in 3-point percentage.
Her strides as an outside scorer have played a big part in the Aces’ franchise-record 9.2 made threes per game this season. That volume has been a far cry from previous Aces seasons. Since relocating to Las Vegas in 2018 and playing most of that time under notoriously three-averse coach Bill Laimbeer, the team hadn’t finished higher than 11th in total made threes.
Here is Young in the first half of last week’s matchup against the defending champion Chicago Sky. She spots up in the corner as Plum draws attention after driving into the paint.
The Aces set a WNBA record with 41 points in the opening frame of this matchup, including a 23-0 run capped by Young pulling up for three before finishing the first quarter with a dozen points. But they ended up dropping the game after Chicago mounted a historic, 28-point comeback. And that’s an example of arguably the team’s only real flaw: It has struggled to beat fellow contenders. All of Las Vegas’s four losses have come against the Sky, Connecticut Sun and Washington Mystics (twice), who have three of the four highest win totals in the league this year after Vegas.
How well the team adjusts to setbacks could determine if it is prepared to get over the hump when it matters most. After that loss to the Sky, Young had thoughts on what the Aces can do to maintain a balanced identity and ensure a 40-minute effort.
“I think we’re at our best when we’re getting defensive stops and going in transition, sharing the ball,” she said.” So we just have to make sure we keep doing that. We had a really good first quarter, we just have to keep that up. I think the biggest thing for us is getting defensive stops and just keep going on offense.”
Young’s leadership in all facets of the game hasn’t gone unnoticed by the Aces’ front office. Vegas recently signed Young to a contract extension, locking her up through at least the 2024 season. Despite bouncing between the starting lineup and bench during her first three years as a pro, Young expressed confidence that Las Vegas would always be where she would blossom.
“I knew this is where I wanted to be,” Young told the Las Vegas Review-Journal. “I love it here.”
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