It was morning in Perth and Jackie Young was already sweating. She would hit the basketball court later, but right now it was time to box. Guided by a personal trainer, Young’s fists flew through the air, her heart rate rising with every extension of her arms, droplets of perspiration pouring from her face. Soon, Young discarded the sparring gear and began lifting weights. Once those reps were completed it was off to the heat chamber for some cardio. More heavy exhales. More cascading sweat.
Young wasn’t alone in this intense endeavor. She was joined by Marina Mabrey, a teammate at Notre Dame and once again on the WNBL’s Perth Lynx. The two would pass the rock to one another on gameday, room together after clocking out, and box together before the sun had reached its zenith.
“That place is called 12 Rounds,” says Young. “It was right across the street from where we lived. When you’re overseas, you have a lot of free time. You have practices and games, but there’s a lot of time to work out. We wanted to try something different. It was convenient.”
These workouts lasted for a maximum of 50 minutes, but they did the trick.
“I think that really helped cardio-wise to get me in great shape, get my endurance up and just train my brain a little differently,” she says.
Young embarked on these brief walks to 12 Rounds with the upcoming WNBA season in the back of her mind, but first she was busy dominating the Australian hardwood. The 24-year-old concluded her overseas venture by earning an accolade that suggested what might lay ahead: Young was named to the All-WNBL First Team.
Next: a plane ride back to the States, where the Las Vegas Aces guard entered training camp in the best shape of her life.
“Got super lean,” says Young. “We put in a lot of work on the court, but being able to box and do some cardio in the heat chamber and different things like that was fun and different.”
2022 marks Young’s fourth season in the WNBA, and for the first time she isn’t under the direct tutelage of one of her most ardent supporters, Bill Laimbeer. Enlisted to help the Aces take the next step – winning a championship – was Becky Hammon, a 16-year WNBA veteran and guard for New York and San Antonio (a forebear of the Aces franchise) and an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich for the San Antonio Spurs from 2014 through 2022. Got all that? Cool.
Hammon immediately noticed something in Young that many are liable to miss: advanced basketball acumen. Hoop fans and analysts alike often equate leadership and intelligence with being vocal. We have a harder time reckoning the quiet thinker, because the person’s behavior is not audible (and perhaps less visible than what we expect). Young rarely emotes on the court. Instead she operates with a reserved politeness that could mislead people into thinking she doesn’t have much to say.
Don’t be fooled.
“I think it’s just having a love for the game,” says Young about developing her hoops IQ. “Just really studying the game. I watched a lot of film, watched a lot of games, just studied the game. That’s helped me a lot to be able to understand the game, know the plays, read the plays, just be able to see what’s happening before it happens.”
Young puts in this work to help grasp that elusive quality common in all-time greats: confidence. She repeats the word often, and is honest about its tendency to come and go.
Recalling her time in Australia, Young says, “I worked on my stuff mentally so that when I came back I’d be confident.”
Head Coach Becky Hammon believes that if she can get Young to talk more, her confidence will grow organically.
“I thought communication-wise was her next step of growth,” says Hammon. “She is a super smart person. She always knows what we’re doing offensively and especially defensively. She’s always strapped with guarding the opposing team’s toughest perimeter player.
“What I’ve really tried to do is encourage her to talk. I need her to use her words because she knows what she’s doing! Like, share some of that knowledge! I challenged her early on to do more talking, and I think she’s coming into her own. This is her time.”
It’s undeniably Jackie Young’s time. Here’s a portrait of her stellar play through the morning of July 13th::
- Young is second in the league in minutes per game, her power-packed 12 Rounds sessions fueling her to the tune of 34.3 minutes a night.
- She is ninth in the league in scoring, averaging 17.3 points.
- Young is third in assist-to-turnover ratio among those who’ve played at least 200 minutes (per WNBA.com).
- Young’s shooting efficiency has been extraordinary. Her field goal percentage sits at 50%, second among guards with at least 200 minutes (Rebekah Gardner is first). Young is shooting 46.3% from three, third in the league (minimum 200 minutes). Her 61.4 true shooting percentage is second among guards (minimum 200 minutes).
All of this while guarding players like Jewell Loyd, Sabrina Ionescu, DeWanna Bonner, Courtney Vandersloot, Arike Ogunbowale, and Diana Taurasi on a nightly basis.
“She’s just been elite,” says Hammon, “really, really elite on both ends of the ball.
“Now I just need her to tell everybody about it.”
Jackie Young ventured into the backyard of her family’s Princeton, Indiana, home and watched as her older brother, Terrence, played basketball with friends. She wanted in on the action. This looked fun. This looked exhilarating.
Nope. Too young, they informed her. So she waited, excitedly watching the games until the invite to participate was extended at last.
“As I started to get older, they let me play,” remembers Young. “They’re like, ‘Oh! Sure, maybe she can dribble a little bit. Yeah, she’s a girl, but she can play with us.’ That’s where it started, in the backyard, just watching my brother and his friends play.”
Young can’t pinpoint exactly when she first picked up the roundball – it’s about two decades in the rearview, after all – but she estimates it was around the age of four or five. Running around at home with family and friends soon gave way to a more organized pursuit: a co-ed league at the local Salvation Army.
“I was too young,” says Young, “but we just lied on the sheet and said that I was older because the guy that ran it was basically family. Honestly, I just had a lot of fun.”
Family. Nothing Jackie Young has accomplished in the game of basketball would have been possible without her mother, Linda, a single mom who placed the needs and dreams of her children above her own comfort.
“She’s been here through it all,” says Young. “She made a lot of sacrifices for me and my siblings. She went without so that we could have things that we needed–so that we could have food on the table, clothes on our back. She would always go without.”
You get the sense that core values of kindness and devotion were instilled in Jackie at an early age.
“I think [my mom]really raised me into the woman I am today, just by being a good person,” she says. “It isn’t hard to be a good person. Just super blessed and thankful for her, for making all the sacrifices for me and my siblings.”
As Young got older, she began to see results on the basketball court. A turning point in her friendly duels against Terrence came in high school, when she started to put the ball in the bucket against big bro on a consistent basis.
“He definitely wouldn’t take it easy on me,” she recalls. “Obviously, he was taller than me. He would just block me and stuff. When I was in high school I started to be able to score on him.”
With her natural humility, Young makes it sound as if her progress in hoops was moderate and casual, nothing to raise an eyebrow at. Yet those who attended games at Princeton Community High School would say otherwise.
Per the USA Basketball website, Young graduated as the leading scorer (girls or boys) in Indiana High School basketball history. She was selected to the all-state team all four years, helping the school post a 97-9 record with averages of 30.8 points, 10.3 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and 3.5 steals on 58 percent shooting. One day, she scored 53 points. She hit or exceeded the 40-point mark ten times. In 2016, she was named a McDonald’s All-American and won the Naismith National Player of the Year award.
However, nothing tops what happened for Young as a junior in 2014-15. Alongside her younger sister, Kiare, Young willed PCHS to a victory in the Indiana Class 3A state championship. Older sis scored 36 points in the triumph, but – in true Jackie Young fashion – what she remembers first about that day was Kiare’s personal feat.
“I remember my sister hitting a huge three,” says Young. “There’s a picture of us out there somewhere, right after she hit it.”
Long before Princeton Community High won state, Young had gotten the attention of a college basketball powerhouse, Notre Dame. Young had attended Fighting Irish games as a kid, watching some of the best hoopers in the nation compete up close.
“I would always go to a Notre Dame – UConn game,” she reminisces. “I was at Notre Dame a lot, honestly.”
One year as a Christmas present, Young received tickets to attend a camp at the university. Young remembers garnering attention from Notre Dame starting in 8th or 9th grade. Impressed by her ability, coaches at the camp soon began recruiting the Princeton superstar.
Nearly half-a-decade later, Young graduated high school and set off to South Bend on a journey that would change her life.
The moment for Jackie Young’s national recognition arrived March 30, 2018. Although sports fans across Indiana were aware of her transcendence, many folks around the country had yet to meet the soft-spoken sniper. Now here was Young, poised to oppose the most successful program in women’s college basketball history, the University of Connecticut. 19,564 fans packed Nationwide Arena in Columbus, Ohio, for this marquee Final Four matchup.
Young had made her mark as a freshman the previous season (2016-17), averaging over 21 minutes per game for the blue and gold. Notre Dame reached the Elite Eight, but fell to Stanford in devastating fashion, losing by a point and putting their Final Four hopes on ice. But 2017-18 was different. Notre Dame was a powerhouse, and Young was blossoming into one of the strongest two-way forces in the country.
Young held onto a bitter taste in her mouth from Notre Dame’s previous meeting with UConn back in December. The Huskies had handed Notre Dame its first loss of the season and limited Young to just two points on 1-of-5 shooting. The confidence she’d built over years dominating the Indiana hoops circuit had seemingly abandoned her.
“I was in my head,” remembers Young. “It was just mental. I played bad.”
Determined to make up for her poor showing against the top team in the nation, Young heeded the advice of her teammate Arike Ogunbowale.
“I remember Arike saying something to me before the game,” says Young. “‘Just go out there, be yourself. Play hard, have fun.’ Not those exact words, but like, ‘We need you’ and just to play hard, shoot the open shots, take the open shots, be yourself.”
The conversation stuck with Ogunbowale as well.
“I just told her, ‘obviously they’re going to be paying a lot of attention to me and Marina, so be aggressive,’” recalls Ogunbowale. “They were sagging off a little bit on her because she was a great driver but she didn’t like to shoot it that much, so I’m like, ‘Just take what they give you. Be aggressive.’”
To get a gist of the challenge facing Notre Dame that evening in Ohio, look no further than the caliber of the six players who touched the floor for UConn: Napheesa Collier, Gabby Williams, Azurá Stevens, Crystal Dangerfield, Kia Nurse, and Katie Lou Samuelson. The Huskies took the floor boasting a 36-0 record.
With Ogunbowale’s affirming words reverberating in her brain, Young pounced at the opportunity to shape her own legacy in college basketball lore. She zoomed past her previous career high of 24 points, scoring 32 on 10-of-15 shooting, as well as snaring 11 rebounds. Young and Ogunbowale combined for 18 of Notre Dame’s 22 fourth-quarter points, sending the game to overtime.
If you follow college hoops, you know what happened next. With the score knotted at 89 and the clock nearing expiration, Ogunbowale hit Collier with a crossover, then drained the game-winning jumper.
For Young, the game meant so much that at one point she erupted in exuberance, pumping her fist and releasing a passionate, “Let’s go!” For her fans, this celebratory gesture was both shocking and delightful.
Two days later, Notre Dame won the national championship, Ogunbowale providing another buzzer-beating stunner to down Mississippi State.
“2018 – that’s when Arike hit two big shots, you know?” recalls Young, followed by a laugh. “Hard to forget that. It was great.”
The Fighting Irish returned for another championship game in 2019, again having bested UConn in the Final Four. This time, however, Notre Dame was on the crushing end of a spectacular contest, losing by a point to Baylor.
The loss stung, but Young didn’t indulge in self-pity. It was decision time: either declare for the WNBA Draft, or return to her home state for her senior season.
“It was a fast process for me,” says Young. “We lost in the championship, and then I had 24 hours after that game to decide.”
Just a single day to make one of the biggest life decisions she could imagine, but Young knew exactly where her priorities lay.
“I sat down with my family, talked about it,” she remembers. “Really it came down to me knowing I needed to help provide for my family. I think that’s what made it easy on me–that if I could help lift some weight off my mom’s shoulders, then I would do that. That was my dream as a little girl. We had struggled my whole life. My mom’s a single mother, so if I could just help provide for my family, my siblings, then that’s what I was going to do.”
The moment Jackie Young once dreamed about had finally arrived, and it went according to plan.
“With the number-one pick in the 2019 WNBA Draft, the Las Vegas Aces select … Jackie Young.”
Sure, as a kid you fantasize your name being called first, but how many people actually manifest it?
“I remember saying as a little girl, ‘Yeah, I want to be the number-one pick,’ and even as I got older, but I didn’t know it was going to happen,” says Young.
What was impossible for her to grasp at that moment, however, was the extraordinary expectations that come with number-one status.
Young joined an Aces team primed for contention after years of rebuilding. She was thrust into action immediately and started all 34 games her rookie season. The flashes of brilliance first glimpsed at Princeton and Notre Dame were evident: she averaged 4.5 assists per game and competed fearsomely on defense. Yet, adjusting to professional ball was a struggle.
“I think my rookie year, it was tough on me,” Young says. “People have their own timeline of things. They expect things from you. They have this list of things of what you’re supposed to accomplish as the number-one pick. I had to sit down and really think about things, sit down with my circle, the people who got me to where I am today and not worry about society’s expectations of what you’re supposed to do as the number one pick.”
Her first year ended with Las Vegas losing to eventual champion Washington in the semifinals.
Year two – the pandemic season in the Bradenton bubble – brought about considerable improvement for Young on the court. Despite coming off the bench in every regular season game, Young’s scoring sprang from 6.6 to 11 points per game, and her field goal percentage climbed from 32% to 49%.
But in the playoffs Young’s rookie-year challenges reappeared. The Aces made the WNBA Finals, but were swept by Seattle. In both the semifinal round against Connecticut and against the Storm, Young was neutralized. The experience she gained was valuable, but the moment proved too much, too soon.
Through the ups and downs that mark the process of acclimating to a new professional environment, one voice in the Aces’ locker room continually supported Young, shoring up her confidence day-by-day.
“[A’ja Wilson] took me under her wing when I got drafted,” says Young. “Just kind of showed me the way. She was the number-one pick. She understood those things and what came with it.
“We’ve been through it all together. I’m just super thankful for her. She’s definitely one of my best friends on the team. She’s helped me along the way. When I was struggling mentally, she’s encouraging me, telling me to have confidence. She always trusted in me.”
Young realized that at the end of the day, it was on her to give Wilson support to accomplish the team’s ultimate goal. And so, with her confidence on the upswing again, she repeated the two phrases that carried her through childhood and into the WNBA:
If she could come back a little better each season, adding one new element to her game, the cumulative effect would eventually be undeniable. In 2021, Young took another leap, garnering “Most Improved Player” buzz throughout the regular season and upping her shooting efficiency to 51% from the field. Yet again, she and her team fell short in the postseason, losing a five-game heartbreaker to Phoenix in the semifinals.
Young took stock of her game and came to two conclusions. First, she realized that she could improve her fitness, even though she was already in spectacular shape. She improved her diet in Australia, and she spent much time at 12 Rounds. The decisions paid off. Her second conclusion was a frank assessment of her most glaring weakness: long-range shooting. Being a mid-range assassin was not enough. To pry open more driving lanes and put more pressure on the defense, she must add a three-pointer.
During training camp prior to the 2022 season, Young worked with Aces assistant coach (and head of player development) Tyler Marsh, to tweak her shot. One point of emphasis was increasing the arc on the ball’s trajectory. Another was keeping the basketball decidedly on the right side of her body rather than letting it stray into her range of vision.
“I would shoot in front of my face a little bit,” Young explains. “We worked on keeping it in the pocket and making it all one motion, just keeping my chin tucked down a little bit too. I think the biggest thing is just getting it up and keeping it on the right side of my body.”
With the adjustments in place, Young spent hours upon hours in the gym, getting in as many reps as possible. It reached a point where Hammon wanted Young not to work so hard.
“She’s a reps person,” says the Aces’ head coach. “She’s a worker. She’s somebody I have to kick out of the gym. She will stay there for hours and hours. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna need you to go home and rest and get off your feet.’ Her work ethic is unmatched. She’s just a pro’s pro.”
Working very hard really can beget confidence. It’s evident in Young’s play this season. Her legs provide a little more lift when she shoots. Her assuredness is no longer fleeting; it’s a staple. The player who once was hesitant to launch from deep now steps into three-pointers like an inviting pool on a sultry summer day.
“I’m loving the confidence that’s beaming through her,” said Wilson after the Aces’ second game of the season, a win over Seattle in which Young scored 19 points and played all but 77 seconds.
Her teammates have observed an important shift Hammon was after.
“I think what I’ve noticed since I’ve been back is she’s talking more,” said Aces guard Sydney Colson, who played with Las Vegas in 2019, then returned for the 2022 season. “I think there’s much more comfortability in the voice that she has now. She was always really quiet. She always did what she was supposed to do on the court and worked hard but didn’t talk a ton. Now you see times where she’ll step in and say what needs to be said.”
These changes are subtle; Young remains who she’s always been.
“Vocal and Jackie don’t exist together,” says Aces forward Dearica Hamby, chuckling at the suggestion of a more talkative Young, “but there are little ways that we see her popping out.”
It’s a result of Young’s mentality. She knows she belongs as a star on this stage, and she is playing that way every time she takes the floor.
“She just is hooping right now,” raves Aces point guard Chelsea Gray. “She has this mindset that she’s not going to be stopped. She’s playing with a chip on her shoulder every time she steps on the court, and that’s what we need. That’s what we love.”
It’s not just her current teammates who’ve taken notice. Ogunbowale, who has followed Young since the two entered the league together, is thrilled to see her former backcourt-mate thriving.
“Jackie’s a great player and I’m super proud of how she’s been playing this year,” she says. “Obviously she had a little slow start in the league, but she’s always been a killer. She just had to get comfortable. Now she’s coming into her own. I’m super proud of how she’s grown and just stuck with it.”
For Young, nothing was more rewarding than calling her mom with the news she received in June: she would be starting the 2022 All-Star game.
“It felt great,” says Young of her phone call with Linda. “She was super excited for me. She’s quiet like me, but I know she was super proud of me. It’s something else that we’ve checked off the list.”
Now it’s back to work. No time to revel in personal accolades, for there’s a championship to win. Young won’t offer a glimpse of what’s next on her personal checklist, insisting that her ultimate focus is winning a ring.
“Just keep working, keep grinding,” she repeats, “and I think some of the other individual awards will come with it.”
By now you know that Jackie Young is the epitome of unselfishness, regularly crediting others instead of tooting her own horn. To get a true taste of what may lie ahead for Young in the game of basketball, you must consult those who work with her.
Look no further than Hammon, who offered perhaps the most auspicious take on Young’s potential back in May after the Aces dismantled the Sparks.
“Oh man … Jackie,” Hammon said, reflecting on Young’s 19 points, 9 rebounds, 5 assists, and 64% shooting that evening. Then she pauses.
“Her ceiling is – there is no ceiling.”