Jackie Young’s Understated Rookie Season

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Jackie Young played one less year of college basketball than every other first-round pick in this year’s WNBA Draft. So the fact that she wasn’t mentioned early on in the Rookie of the Year discussion makes sense. She had one less season of experience than the other players, which presumably put her a little farther back on the development curve.

That’s been mostly true this year. Young has had a lot of growing pains when it comes to adjusting to the WNBA. In June, she shot just 28.1% from the floor and 15.4% from three. But Young is also developing into a strong WNBA passer. After averaging 5.2 assists per game in her final year at Notre Dame, Young is dishing out 4.3 per game this season, the 11th-highest mark in the WNBA. She is the only rookie who’s making a major impact with her passing. While Arike Ogunbowale and Napheesa Collier are getting all the rookie hype for their scoring ability, Young has been forgotten so far in the discussion of the league’s best rookies.

Maybe it’s partly because of things like this:

Discussions about the league’s best rookies very often end as discussions about which rookie is the best scorer. That’s not Jackie Young. But she brings so much to the table. It’d be a shame to not stop and take a long look at how her first WNBA season has gone up to this point. So, I’m going to do that.

Her Passing

Let’s get her most impressive skill out of the way first here.

The Aces have the league’s most talented front court with Liz Cambage and A’ja Wilson. Because of those two players and sharpshooter Kayla McBride, the team entered this season firmly in win-now mode.

It takes a lot of trust for a team that’s trying to win a title to give ball-handling duties to a rookie. It takes even more trust when that rookie played just three years of college ball. But that’s what the Aces have done, inserting Young into the starting lineup right from the start of the season. While the de-facto point guard early on was Kelsey Plum, Young’s ability to get the ball to the right people was on display early. She had eight assists in her fourth career game.

Let’s actually take a short look back at that game.

Young isn’t initiating the offense on this play, but she does a good job coming around an A’ja Wilson screen and then dribbling into the key. From there, she sees an open Kelsey Plum over in the corner, who’s able to drain the three. Young’s recognition on this play is superb; Young could have stopped and fired off a contested mid-range jumper from the key, but instead she knows that Plum’s got less pressure in the corner. Great call here.

Let’s fast forward to June 22nd against the Wings. One thing I noticed in this game was that Young was bringing the ball up more often.

A good, crisp entry pass to Cambage here. I could watch Young’s entry passes all day, because she does such a good job getting the ball right into the hands of one of her team’s bigs. For an Aces squad that’s built to score inside, having a player who can get the ball to those bigs is incredibly important.

Of her eight assists in that Dallas game, all of them went to one of the team’s three bigs (Wilson, Cambage, Dearica Hamby). That’s what this offense needs. I know I’ve ranted elsewhere about the need for Bill Laimbeer’s offenses to modernize and embrace the three-point shot. They’re last in the league in attempts per game, but a league-best 38.1% mark on those attempts has made that much less of an issue. What also makes it less of an issue is how dominant Wilson and Cambage can be inside. Last year, the Aces lack of attempts from deep cost them because they lacked that second imposing presence inside. This year, they don’t need to have a modern basketball offense because the roster is built to not necessarily need that. Young’s almost the perfect point guard for this version of the Aces, because she’s so good at putting basketballs right where they need to be.

And while Young’s 11th in the league in assists per game, she’s only 51st in turnovers per game with 1.4 per contest. That’s good! Really good! Rookies who handle the ball as much as Young’s been handling the ball are expected to turn the ball over a lot more than this, but she’s done a great job holding onto it. Vegas turns the ball over the fifth-most of any team in the WNBA, in large part because Wilson, Cambage, and McBride are all in the top-25 in turnovers per game. Because of that, it becomes even more important to have a point guard who isn’t turning it over too.

Her Scoring

This is where things are less good.

Young is last on the Aces in field goal percentage in the restricted area area, shooting just 35% from there this year. Watching these plays, you get the sense that Young just isn’t strong enough yet to finish inside. She’s fourth on the team in attempts per game in the restricted area, which is a good sign because it shows Young isn’t afraid to drive inside. That makes me feel good about her chances to eventually be successful there. Give her more experience at the professional level and a little boost in strength and we’re looking at a year-two Jackie Young who’s able to approach league average in the restricted area.

(It’s probably worth noting that a lack of spacing might also be to blame for Young’s issues, something that’s unlikely to change if Cambage ends up spending multiple seasons in Vegas. It’s hard to drive and finish in the paint when the paint is full of defenders, and if your two best players are post players, the paint’s going to be full of defenders when the two of them are on the floor.)

Young’s non-RA shooting has…also not been great.

She’s shooting just 29.1% on 55 non-RA paint attempts. 28.6% on mid-range shots. 31% from three. Young’s not scoring the ball efficiently, which I think is a big part of why we don’t hear as much talk about her from the general WNBA fans.

But shooting is something that can be worked on, and players often shoot worse in their rookie years than they did in college before bouncing back as they get conditioned to playing in the league. Improvement in all facets of her game is a definite possibility next year.

And that kind of improvement as a shooter would help amplify her value. Young’s already looking like she can be the perfect point guard for this team, but improving her jump shooting would allow you to be more comfortable playing her off the ball more, diversifying what you do offensively. With defenses basically knowing that a large portion of the team’s shot attempts are going to Cambage or Wilson in the paint, keeping those defenses off balance on other plays is key.

For now, though, let’s appreciate Jackie Young’s entry passes. Here’s one more before you go:

I mean…yeah, she’s a rookie who can pass the ball well while avoiding turnovers. That’s exactly what a team like Las Vegas needs her to be if they want to win a title this season.

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