The Journey of Jackie Young

The irony in awards voting is the implication that something just happened, and no award is more symbolic of that notion than the Most Improved Player. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and Jackie Young’s jumper wasn’t built in a single off-season. 

Young has an incredibly well-rounded skill set: her versatility is rooted in her foundation as a player, but the continual growth and expansion are a testament to the work she puts into her craft. She can handle the ball, she’s a plus playmaker off the dribble, she’s one of the best scoring wings in the game, and she’ll be in consideration for the All-Defensive team at the end of the regular season. 

Coming into this season, I expected improvement; it’s what Jackie Young does. She finished third in WNBL Most Valuable Player voting, taking on a larger on-ball role and foreshadowing another leap in the W. 

Aces head coach Becky Hammon highlighted that impending flourishment prior to Las Vegas’ third game of the season when asked about Young’s early season play “To see her on a day in day out basis, I knew she was good, but she’s even better than what I thought.”

Hammon then dove into Young’s role versatility, which really caught my ear. She mentioned Young’s ability to toggle between the 3 and the 1 (wing to point), highlighting her court vision and passing ability. That immediately made me think, “she really believes in the shot,” as any opportunity leading an offense is going to demand the ability to punish a defense when they go under on ball screens and be a threat from outside. Offensive actions can gum up when a defender diverts a screen, shrinks the court, and isn’t immediately punished.

The Aces’ offense is predicated on spacing, playing a more modern brand, and focused on creating easier looks in more efficient manners. They’re first in three-point makes, second in pace, and get to the line at the third highest rate in the league. There isn’t a single player in the Las Vegas starting lineup that takes less than two attempts from the deep per game, a far cry from the past few seasons.

Young has never had a problem getting to the rim and generating paint touches; it’s part of what made her Indiana’s top high school scorer of all time. She’d developed her mid-range game further in the league, becoming one of the most proficient off-the-dribble shooters inside the arc in the WNBA. 

Young says that expanding her range was at the forefront of her mind coming into the year. “With Becky’s offense, we need to be able to shoot threes so we can spread the floor. If I wanted to play, I needed to be able to shoot threes. I was hurting my team whenever I wasn’t taking them.”

The push to get uncomfortable and take more jumpers was a long time coming, reinforced multiple times throughout college and in Young’s early professional career. 

The 2020 playoffs against the Seattle Storm bore that sentiment out, as the defense honed in on Young’s lack of a jumper, selling out to take away her drive game.

That happened again this past playoff in 2021, as the Phoenix Mercury stashed help defenders on Young and were comfortable sagging off of her to congest the lane.

Young’s hesitancy to shoot when left open has been an obstacle for the Aces in the half-court during playoff runs, while also noting it was not the root cause of Vegas’ struggles either. More context goes into those series losses than “Jackie, shoot it,” but it was a resounding takeaway. Former coach Bill Laimbeer was not exactly known for fostering an offensive environment conducive to encouraging shooting development: The Aces finished 12th in the percentage of points derived from beyond the arc from 2019-2021.

That’s part of being a young player; gaining experience, learning from it, applying it, and finding new success modes. Lessons learned and licks taken to get here, so to say Young has found new modes of success undersells the reps put in.

“It was just a confidence thing, I don’t know; it was like a mental block when it came to shooting threes,” says Young.

She’s constantly impacting and putting strain on defense, becoming another vital pressure point for the league’s top-ranked offense. Young is an excellent finisher inside the arc, with an array of mid-air adjustments, the ability to finish with strength-based power moves, and a deft touch on short pull-ups. She has a knack for making the difficult look easy routinely.

While defenses are still willing to go under on ball screens she runs (more on that later), she’s been guarded further out this season regularly, which has only opened up her game and allowed her to showcase the skillset that made her the first overall pick. Her playmaking has always been there, says Notre Dame head coach Niele Ivey. “I saw it four to five years during high school, and during her three years in college, her vision is elite. It’s what stands out most to me about her game. I don’t think people recognize or realize just how well she reads defenses and breaks defenders down with or without a screen.”

Young has fewer clogged passing windows with more of the court at her disposal. She’s had the reads since high school, but they’re easier with reinvented spacing.

Let’s put this into reference: Young took 15 threes during a 20-game WNBL season; she’d taken 77 in her WNBA career prior to this season, eclipsing one attempt per game only during her rookie season. She’s blown that out of the water this year with 105 attempts. Currently 24th in total makes and third in three-point percentage (42.9%) per Her Hoop Stats. 

Young is shooting 39.5% on pull-up threes this season, according to InStat scouting, taking just under 1.5 per game. Shooting even at or around league average (34.2%) on volume on pull-up jumpers can steadily impact a defense. 

She’s taken more outside jumpers this season than her three years of college combined or her first three years in the W combined. That’s a staggering shift, especially when considering efficacy and difficulty.

“Jackie is someone that takes a lot of things to heart,” says her teammate A’ja Wilson.

“She felt like she was exposing us; she hated when people didn’t guard her. She brushed her behind in Australia, and when she came back, I was like, ‘this is a different Jackie!’”

The amazing part is that we’ve seen shades of this version of Jackie Young before! The blend of distance shooting to accompany her all-encompassing offensive package has long felt tangible, more of a when than an if. 

Flashback to the 2018 Final Four, and the vision Young maximized was on full display. 

“I remember going into that UConn game and telling Jackie, “they’re not gonna guard you,” and they came out in a triangle and two and just didn’t guard her. That’s the one game I felt really ignited her, and it brought something different out in her,” says Ivey.

I’d never seen the game before and went back and watched it as Ivey recommended, and first and foremost, the amount of talent in this game is WILD. All six players that saw court time for UConn are still playing significant minutes in the WNBA. Four of Notre Dame’s starters would go on to be drafted, and that’s without including Brianna Turner, who missed the entire 2017-18 season due to injury. Unreal game and incredible players on both sides.

Lo and behold, the Huskies do indeed come out in a triangle and two, leaving Young virtually unguarded.

Early in the game, it was hard not to notice how willing her guard was to give her the open jumper, even conceding ground. But, the early and aggressive take and make were substantial.

Even when not from behind the arc, doing something quick and attacking the defense when it’s given is essential. It makes the defense think, it makes the defense react, and when it starts to happen repeatedly and becomes a pattern, defenses have to adapt.

A few possessions later, Young uncorked her first jumper from deep. Some slight hesitation, but a clear “I’m open, I’m shooting.” The miss doesn’t matter nearly as much as the mentality.

Later that quarter, after a few more aggressive takes from the deep mid-range, Young gets the ball in early offense in the slot (where she is particularly lethal attacking downhill). There’s a fleeting closeout, just enough, a sliver of daylight due to Young’s early aggression and willingness that opens the gap for her to drive home and attack the rim.

The next shot and her first make from deep, a catch and shoot three with no hesitation, just straight swish. She’s cooking with grease.

And from there, we saw a foretold future, who Jackie Young could be with a consistent jumper. She finished two of four from deep in that game, nearly 20% of her makes from deep that season. She got to the line 11 times, in large part to what that opened up for her game as a slasher. She made astute reads off the dribble, denting the defense and capitalizing on her earned gravity. 

Ivey credits her as the unsung hero in that game and of that team.

“We were all kind of like, ‘This is the Jackie that we know,’ I think that’s one of my favorite moments of Jackie. I feel like that game really propelled her to be on that stage, and I was really proud of her for that.”

So yes, this season and the shooting Young has displayed are warranting most improved talk, but it’s vital to recognize that this was a long time coming. This didn’t happen overnight. Young’s been putting in the work repeatedly since her days growing up in Princeton, Indiana.

She likes going to Top Golf, she enjoys shopping, and is a proud Puma rep, but Jackie Young is pretty strictly about hoops and the work she puts in on and off the court. She doesn’t elaborate on it much but speaks with anyone around her, and it’s clear that she’s an elite worker, something Wilson reiterated.

“I knew she could be an All-Star; this was huge for her (making All-Star). That’s my little sister, I get on her nerves, and she gets on mine, but I want to make sure that she’s the best and playing at the best level.”

Young has solidified herself as a star in this league. She’s earning the respect of defenses to a much higher degree, and she keeps hitting the shots to keep them in check.

In asking Young point-blank when she thought defenses would stop going under on her ball screens, she gave a good laugh, “I don’t know when they’re going to,” but replied with the air that she didn’t care what the defense does. If the shots are there, she’s going to take them. If the defense adapts, so will she; that’s just what she does.

“When she decides she wants to get to the rim, she gets to the rim, so I guess they’re just gambling on the numbers. Why they (defenses) continue to do so, I don’t know, but you (Young) will be instructed to continue to let it fly if they do,” says Hammon.

While defenses continue to play the numbers, Young will continue to make them think twice about it.

WNBA reporter Mark Schindler writes a column on WNBA.com throughout the season and can be reached on Twitter at @MG_Schindler. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the WNBA or its clubs.