The playoffs didn’t start out well for the Las Vegas Aces.
The No. 1 seed came out flat against the No. 7 seed Connecticut Sun, dropping the opener of the five-game series 87-62. Vegas had trouble with the physicality of the Sun, especially forward Alyssa Thomas, who is one of — if not the — most terrifying defenders in the league.
Figuring out ways to score inside will be important. But the real key to the Aces winning this series will be to make sure last year’s No. 1 overall draft pick, Jackie Young, is as involved as possible in the game plan. Young is the X factor here.
The Aces have perhaps the most fascinating situation in the WNBA in terms of lineup construction, with two of their five best players coming off the bench in Young and 2020 Sixth Woman of the Year Dearica Hamby. Because of a) her not starting and b) Hamby getting so much attention for her role as a reserve, you can sometimes forget just how good Young can be.
Young averaged 11 points per game in the regular season and saw her field goal percentage jump from 32.2 percent as a rookie to 49.2 percent this season. She shot 68.8 percent in the restricted area, but her biggest improvement came in the mid-range. Among all players to average at least one mid-range field goal attempt per game, Young had the fifth-highest field goal percentage at 47.8, and of the four players above her, only Allie Quigley took more mid-range attempts. Young didn’t warp the defense in the traditional way you want a guard to do it — by expanding out to the three-point line — but her mid-range shooting is something that opponents have to deal with.
Young’s ability to create her own shot is also huge for the Aces. She had 14 catch-and-shoot possessions this season. Young’s not sitting in the corner, waiting for the ball to rotate to her and then shoot. Instead, she’s active when the ball gets to her, moving around the floor and working to create a shot. 54.6 percent of her offense came via jump shots off the dribble, and she scored 1.06 points per possession on those shots, which ranked in the 89th percentile in the league. Her short jumper (inside of 17 feet) ranked in the 96th percentile.
Young can shoot. She does it in a way that reinforces the essence of the Bill Laimbeer offensive system, but that shouldn’t take away from how lethal her shot is in when she’s coming off a pick and moving towards the basket.
Young’s importance can also be seen in the team’s lineup data.
Overall, the Las Vegas Aces have a 107.4 offensive rating, 97.7 defensive rating, and 9.7 net rating, per Positive Residual.
The offense is just slightly worse when Young is on the floor vs. the team’s overall number at 106.1, but the 95.0 defensive rating with her on the court leads to a 11.2 net rating when Young plays. In only minutes where she’s off the floor, that defensive rating rises to 102.5, leading to a net rating of 7.0, which is still really good, but not as good as when Young is on the court.
Young’s offensive output can be inconsistent at times, but the fact that she makes this team so much stronger defensively is an easy plus. In Game 1, Jasmine Thomas was explosive and I’m not sure what the Aces could have done to slow her down, but overall, Connecticut’s guard play isn’t the thing that makes them so dangerous. Young should be able to help contain someone like Thomas most nights. Per Synergy, players shot 38.3 percent when guarded by Young this season, and she was especially effective guarding players coming off screens or picks. Consider that Connecticut’s most-used playtype in the regular season was pick-and-roll ball handler plays (21 percent of the time), but they were the least efficient team in the league on those plays. Young can help disrupt those plays, which could create a really bad situation for the Sun.
At some point, the Aces have to make needed lineup adjustments in this series, and one of those needs to be making sure Young is on the floor. She played 26 minutes in that first playoff game and the team admittedly struggled in those minutes, but she also scored 17 points on 62.5 percent shooting in that stretch. Young needs to be playing 30-plus minutes in this series. With Kayla McBride going through a down season, Young is the best offensive threat at the one or the two on this team. Whether she starts or the team continues to use Lindsay Allen for the first stretch of the game, Laimbeer’s got to make sure he gets the most out of Young.
A’ja Wilson is the most important player for the Aces in this series, and Angel McCoughtry and Dearica Hamby both have to get going moving forward. But if they’re going to overcome this 1-0 deficit and make it to the WNBA Finals, the backcourt has to produce. McBride’s shooting is important. Danielle Robinson providing a steady hand at the point in her minutes is important.
But it’s Jackie Young who can influence this team’s play the most of the guards, and if the Aces are going to win the whole thing in 2020, Young will have to be out there producing on both ends of the floor night after night after night.