Jackie Young has found her place with the Las Vegas Aces and as a WNBA All-Star
After struggling early in her career, the 2019 No. 1 pick has grown into one of the league’s best players
Jackie Young walked up to A’ja Wilson with a sense of disappointment.
It was the day after the Las Vegas Aces beat the Washington Mystics in a regular-season game in 2020 during the WNBA bubble season in Bradenton, Florida. Young, who played 15 minutes against the Mystics, went scoreless in the game.
“Dang, you had a doughnut?” Aces center Wilson said.
Wilson’s reaction ultimately became her nickname for Young, who has been called “doughnut” ever since.
Young reflects on the origin of her nickname fondly now, but at the time, she was still trying to find her footing in the league. Young had just come off a tough rookie season in which she struggled to manage the weight of expectations that came with being the No. 1 pick in the 2019 WNBA draft. Her doughnut in that game against the Mystics was one of five times she had gone scoreless in her career. Young had shown flashes of potential excellence, but hadn’t quite found the consistency. Wilson’s nickname served as a kind of motivation for Young to never go scoreless again.
In the 104 regular season games since, she hasn’t.
“We don’t want any more of those,” Young joked.
Young’s play has rendered her moniker irrelevant and ironic. When she takes the floor in her second WNBA All-Star Game on Saturday in Vegas, she’ll do so as a top-10 scorer in the league who has played at a MVP level for the defending champion Aces who are filled with All-Stars.
Said Aces All-Star point guard Chelsea Gray, “She’s like our silent assassin.”
The road to get to this point wasn’t easy for Young. An emphasis on mental conditioning, retooled shooting mechanics and an intrinsic desire to be great has helped her turn a career initially defined by struggle to one defined by triumph. A second straight appearance as an All-Star game starter is simply the result of trusting her process.
“It kind of validates me as a player, that I’m willing to work on my game, try to become a better player every year,” Young said. “The hard work is paying off.”
Young remembers reaching a low point early in her pro career. As a No. 1 pick, Young had been placed in an elite category of some of the WNBA’s greatest talents, burdened with the expectations that come with that storied selection. During her first season, Young struggled to play to the level that had been expected of her.
“Society created their own expectations of when you’re supposed to achieve things and when you’re supposed to accomplish things on their own timeline,” Young said. “That was one of the hardest things for me.”
Young went back to her inner circle – her mom, her older brother, younger sister, some best friends from Notre Dame and Wilson, who has been like a sister to Young since she entered the league.
“It was about getting back to who I was and being around the people who helped me get to where I am today,” Young said.
After Young’s second season with the Aces, she went overseas to play for A.S. Ramat Hasharon, a pro team in Israel. She worked with a sports therapist and focused on breaking down the mental barriers that affected her game.
“We knew the basketball side would be good. I’m going to put in the work, but I think just being mentally OK was the biggest thing,” Young said.
Young worked to implement positive affirmations on the court. When she returned to the U.S., she began to apply her work in Israel to her play with the Aces, having a next-play mentality: not dwelling on a missed shot, leaving mistakes behind, trusting herself.
“To be able to shine in the WNBA, such a competitive league, you have to have confidence in order to make an impact on that league or it will just eat you up,” said Niele Ivey, Young’s former coach at Notre Dame, where they won a national championship in 2018. “I think that’s what she’s figured out during her time with the Aces.”
When Tyler Marsh joined the Aces in March 2022 as an assistant and player development coach under head coach Becky Hammon, Young was coming off a career year. She had proven herself as one of the team’s top defensive presences while offensively demonstrating an exceptional ability to score in the paint and in the midrange. But opposing scouting reports goaded her to beat them from outside. She was a career 28.6% shooter from 3-point range. Young understood that to become the player she wanted to be, she was going to need to develop a long-range game.
The two worked on the mechanics of Young’s shot. In her earlier seasons, Young’s shot would start on one side of her body and end up on the other. Marsh’s goal was to be more centered and aligned. The pair focused first on form shooting, working on keeping the ball on one side of the body, then moved to improving the alignment of Young’s feet. The goal once full-body alignment had been achieved, Marsh said, was to speed up Young’s shot and establish a comfort with her shot’s new rhythm.
“When it’s slower, there’s more room for error,” Marsh said. “That was kind of the point of emphasis we tried to lock in on from day one.”
Marsh, who before coaching the Aces served as an assistant coach for the Indiana Pacers from 2020-22, added that the ability to improve a player’s shot in the WNBA comes with additional challenges due to the league’s lack of a true offseason. With less time to work on mechanics or attempt to reconstruct a shot as a player dives into their overseas season, Marsh focused on incremental progress.
“We made minor improvements that turned into having a major impact on her,” Marsh said.
Young took her game to an All-Star level in 2022, averaging 15.9 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists per game for the Aces. Most importantly, she emerged as a 3-point threat, shooting 43.1% from beyond the arc on 3.4 attempts per game. She’d finish the season with a championship while being named the league’s Most Improved Player.
This past offseason, with Young established as a shooting threat for Las Vegas, Marsh focused on Young’s shooting versatility – getting shots off in tighter spaces and shorter windows, shooting over contests, getting her shot off the dribble.
“After shooting 40% last year, there’s going to be a little more attention,” Marsh said. “Teams are going to force her off the line a little bit more, so how can we work on her still being comfortable with getting those shots off in less amount of time.”
The results of Young’s offseason work have been staggering. She’ll enter the All-Star break averaging 19.1 points, 3.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. Young, who will participate in the 3-point contest on Friday, leads the league in 3-point percentage (48.5%) and boasts a league-leading effective field goal percentage of 67.1%.
Young’s ability to stretch the floor has aided her ability to attack the basket. Her combination of size, strength, body control and natural athleticism – typically the first attributes that jump out at any viewer upon seeing Young hoop – makes her an extremely tough guard around the rim.
Young is having a career year when it comes to scoring in the paint, averaging 8.4 paint points on 66.2% shooting – best in the WNBA for players with at least 80 paint shot attempts.
“She’s able to get whatever she wants on the court offensively,” Gray said. “What’s crazy is she hasn’t really even hit her peak yet.”
Ivey has been most impressed with Young’s willingness and confidence to step into a lead scoring role with the Aces. While at Notre Dame with Mabrina Mabrey to her right and Arike Ogunbowale to her left, Young tended to play unselfishly within the offense. Watching her as a pro have the confidence to be a shotmaker while being flanked by names such as Wilson, Gray, Kelsey Plum and Candace Parker, is welcomed sight for Ivey.
“She knows ‘I am a scorer,’ and she can be that scorer with so many talented vets, All-Stars, future Hall of Famers around her,” Ivey said. “She’s found her niche within that offense.”
With Young’s ability to score from anywhere on the court, Marsh said, there really is no weakness to her game. The key for Young now, and an emphasis from the Aces coaching staff, is making the right reads and taking advantage of whatever the defense opts to give her.
“She’s very much a student of the game, she sees the game,” said Hammon following Las Vegas’ victory over the Phoenix Mercury on July 11. “She doesn’t talk a lot, but let me tell you, she don’t miss a thing. She sees it all. We’re still prodding her, getting her to talk more. It’s coming out slowly.”
“She’s talking a lot more and having fun even on the court. I think you can see her being more comfortable and having the freedom to be herself.” — Chelsea Gray
Among an Aces cohort known for its eccentric and boisterous personalities, from Wilson to Gray to Plum or fan favorite guard Sydney Colson, Young is known for being more reserved and bashful. Whenever Young is seen in an Aces social media video, she is often providing a tranquil contrast to the high-energy output of her teammates.
“I’m always going to be who I am,” Young said. “It’s cool being around people who are extroverts and loud and stuff like that, but at the same time I’m always just going to be me.”
Young, 25, prefers a more private, low-key lifestyle. When she’s not in the gym you can find her chilling poolside or exploring her love of food. Her Vegas staples include Juan’s Flaming Fajitas & Cantina, Yanni’s Greek Grill and a brunch spot called Breakfast Junkies. She used to be a “huge Nacho Daddy girl,” but not so much these days.
Young also loves country music. During a postgame lift you’ll hear the sounds of artists such as Morgan Wallen or Luke Combs blasting through Aces headquarters.
“You know that when you walk into our building and you hear country music, you know Jackie is in the building,” Marsh joked.
Young’s affinity for country has been a playful point of contention among her Aces teammates, some of whom, like Wilson, have previously joked about Young having the worst playlist on the team.
“A’ja likes a little bit of country, don’t let her fool you,” said Young, who will play for Team Wilson on Saturday.
Despite Young’s more reserved nature, her presence on the team is felt – it’s simply packaged and delivered differently. Ask anyone in the Aces organization and they’ll say Young is as funny as any other member of the team.
“For me, I’m obviously shy,” Young said. “I feel like I’ll always be shy. I’ll never outgrow it. It’s getting a little better.”
Gray has said she’s seen that change in Young on the floor.
“She’s talking a lot more and having fun even on the court,” Gray said. “I think you can see her being more comfortable and having the freedom to be herself.”
Marsh knew it was coming.
As the Aces came out of a huddle in the locker room following a home win against the Connecticut Sun, Marsh made eye contact with Young before making a shooting motion. Young nodded. If there’s a game in which Young feels dissatisfied with her shooting performance, Marsh can expect the star guard to want to put in extra work.
Against Connecticut, Young finished with 11 points on 40% shooting. As the last spectators exited and concession items still littered the arena seats, Young walked back onto the court with Marsh and put up 100 shots before heading home.
When Young was at Notre Dame, Ivey said Young lived in the gym, constantly working to improve and expand her game. It’s Young’s work ethic that has validated her sense of belonging amongst the game’s best.
“I’ve always been a worker and I just try and get better every year,” Young said. “I think the work that I put in just kind of speaks for itself and knowing that I belong here.”
That strong work ethic was cultivated during Young’s youth growing up in Princeton, Indiana. Young watched the hard work of her mother Linda, who is a single mother.
“I think that’s where I developed that, then it just kind of carried on to the court,” Young said. “Whenever I stepped on the court, I always wanted to be the hardest worker.”
Young’s mother has been her biggest supporter, present at every stage of her career. She was in the stands when Young broke the Indiana high school scoring record and when she won a national championship. She was there when Young was drafted No. 1 overall and when she won a WNBA title. The pair talk every day. Linda sends her daughter a good luck text on game days and Young calls her after the buzzer sounds.
“She’s just the happy mom who is superproud and always posting on Facebook about games,” Young said of her mom, who will be in Vegas for All-Star Weekend. “She loves to be a supportive parent.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be able to repay her for everything that she has done. Just being able to do what I love brings her happiness. Me being able to achieve my dreams is like her being able to achieve hers, too.”
As Young has ascended from her beginnings in Indiana to her latest chapter in Las Vegas, she’s made goals for herself along the way. During that time, she’s managed to check every box. First it was a state championship in high school. Then a national championship at Notre Dame. An Olympic gold medal with Team USA. A WNBA championship with the Aces.
What’s the next goal on her list? When asked if it’s being an MVP, Young laughed lightly.
“For me it’s just winning,” Young said. “Winning again.
“I try not to worry about things like that. People are going to talk about it but at the end of the day I’m just going to go out there and try and go play my game. Coach always says winning takes care of a lot.”