Jackie Young Is Always Hunting For Ways To Get Better

Coming off back-to-back WNBA championships and the best individual season of her career with the Las Vegas Aces, Jackie Young kept the same approach this offseason. She assessed her game and tried to find areas to continue improving.

The Aces guard has steadily gotten better over her five years in the WNBA, earning Most Improved Player honors in 2022, making the last two All-Star teams, and landing a second team All-WNBA spot in 2023. Young’s ascent to being one of the league’s best required a personal drive to seek out ways to adapt quickly to the pro game, as slow development isn’t a luxury afforded many players given the roster crunch with just 144 spots in the entire league.

Because of that, there is very much a sink or swim aspect to the WNBA, and as Young explains, it is vital for players to be willing to accept criticism and coaching and put the work in to improve in those areas.

“I want to be the best player that I can be, and I think that comes with being able to take criticism, being able to handle that, and just wanting to get better,” Young told DIME as the Aces prepared for their opener. “I tell the coaches to be completely honest with me, and I like the feedback. I’m always looking at Tyler [Marsh], looking at Becky [Hammon], just all the coaches. I love feedback so I can be better next time around. So I just try to take whatever they’re telling me and apply it.”

As a rookie, Young dealt with the same challenges most young guards do, as everyone around her was suddenly bigger, faster, and stronger. An adjustment period was needed to get comfortable with not just the speed and physicality of the game, but the heightened attention to detail from opponents who know your strengths and try taking them away. That first year was a crash course in pro ball, as she shot 32.2 percent from the field and averaged just 6.6 points per game, but within the struggles laid the blueprint for what she needed to work on, from building strength in the weight room to differentiating her finishing to keep defenders off balance.

That work started by building her routine and embracing what it meant to be a professional off the court, something she still commits to every day, even when the Aces have a game.

“I’ve always liked lifting. So I just spend a lot of time in the offseason lifting and right now I spent a lot of time with J [Jeremiah Welch], just so I can get in the best possible shape,” Young said. “I really pride myself in being one of the most in shape players in the league. We spend a lot of time together before practice, after practice, just getting lifts in, trying to get stronger and build that strength. We also lift after games, because it’s like, you don’t want to lose a day. Like, yeah, we have a game, but I think it’s important to still get that lift in after the game. Really just building good habits. Trying to be a pro and doing what pros do. I mean, I pride myself in being in great shape, and I love to workout. I love to lift. I love to be in the gym. I love to shoot. I love what I do. And so I just spend a lot of time doing it.”

That time paid off as she saw progress during in her sophomore season in the Bubble and again in her third year, when she shot 50.7 percent from the field and upped her minutes load to 31.8 per game. Those first three years came under the tutelage of Bill Laimbeer, who asked his team to work the ball inside, lean on their star bigs, and almost ignored the three-point line — the Aces were last in the league in three-point attempts in each of Young’s three seasons playing for Laimbeer. Young had acclimated herself to that style, working on differentiating finishes inside, pull-ups in the midrange, and gaining that physicality needed to play the way the Aces wanted to.

Ahead of the 2022 season, the Aces made a coaching change and hired Hammon away from the San Antonio Spurs, and she brought an entirely different offensive philosophy to Las Vegas. Young was in Australia, playing for Perth, when she had her first conversation with her new head coach, who wasted no time detailing the changes she’d need to make in her game when she got back stateside.

“She called me and said, ‘I need you to shoot threes,'” Young recalled. “I think at that point, it was maybe attempting like three a game that she wanted. And so whenever I got back from Australia, I got in the gym with Tyler.”

Young quickly built a bond with Marsh, the Aces assistant and head of player development, and has spent her offseasons working with him ever since. That first year was all about shooting threes, and while there were some adjustments to form, Young explained the biggest thing was getting comfortable letting it fly.

“As soon as we met, we just kind of clicked, and Becky was like, ‘This is gonna be your guy.’ And so, we spent a lot of time in the gym.” Young said of that first offseason with Marsh. “He made a few tweaks to my shot, but nothing too crazy, honestly. We just got a lot of reps in with that, and I think the biggest thing was just shooting it. I could be wide open from three, like nobody guarding me, and I still wouldn’t shoot that thing in the past.

“So, I think just actually shooting it was the biggest thing, and just getting those reps up and getting them up in practice, so that whenever the games got here, I was able to just step into it and shoot it. I think the tweaks obviously made a difference, but I think it’s just the amount of time that we spent in the gym, just getting reps up so that I would have the confidence to shoot it during the games.”

The result was an MIP season and her first All-Star selection, with Young meeting that goal by taking 3.4 threes per game and hitting on 43.1 percent of them. Young averaged 15.9 points a night in her first year under Hammon, blending her newfound long-range shooting with the driving and finishing she’d steadily honed in her first three seasons. Young has continued building on that foundation each season, looking for new ways to get better. She credits Marsh with coming up with film cut-ups that blend the good and the bad, providing her with a visual look at the areas she needs to continue improving.

This offseason, Young stayed in Las Vegas to work with Marsh and the Aces staff to further dial in her game and find that next level. The focus was on becoming a better shooter off movement and continuing to diversify her game inside the arc, with finishing and post-ups.

“We worked on a lot of things [this offseason], obviously, but my three, we worked on that and getting it off in tight spaces, coming off staggers, getting it off a little bit faster,” Young detailed. “Being able to create for myself and get the three off, but also worked on getting downhill, finishing at the rim, post-ups. Just all things, really. I just try to come back each year a better player than I was the year before. So we spend a lot of time in the gym fine-tuning things and just working on things that we thought I could have done better last year.”

The three-point shot has taken a bit to warm up to start this season, but Young is also taking on a new, temporary role as the Aces point guard while Chelsea Gray works back from injury. Young has spent the last three years watching Gray operate on offense and has tried to be a sponge, learning how one of the league’s best sees the game, makes her reads, and always operates at her pace.

“Chelsea’s been great. As soon as she got here, I was just always asking her questions, I still do,” Young said of the veteran All-Star. “And so I learn a lot from her with the way that she plays. She’s super shifty, keeps the defense on their heels, and even in the post, like, her post-up game is ridiculous. So, I just try to learn things from her, just having post patience, I think that’s a big thing. Not getting antsy in the post whenever you get it and just making the right read, whether that’s scoring or kicking it to your teammates. But I think also just with passing, her court vision is amazing and so just kind of like learning from her and just trying to make the right read.”

The challenge for Young is to take those lessons and apply them to how she plays the game, rather than trying to replicate what Gray does. She sees herself as something of a middle ground between her co-stars in the backcourt, trying to combine some of the floor general work of Gray with the burst and athleticism of Kelsey Plum. While the jump shot hasn’t fallen in the early going at the same rate as the past two seasons (30 percent on 6.7 attempts), Young’s playmaking has impressed.

Young is scoring 22.7 points and dishing out 8.3 assists with just 1.3 turnovers per night in the first three games of the season, taking on a much larger creative load for the Aces while also taking care of the ball. While Young has spent years learning from Gray, watching film and drilling reads on the practice court, it’s a different challenge doing it on game day. Her quick acclimation to her role to start this year is a testament to the way she and the Aces approach their practice work, simulating game speed constantly to make sure what happens on practice court transfers to the arena.

“I think that’s just part of being a pro. Just your approach to the game every day. I think once we get warm, we go game speed. I think just shooting game speed, and doing the reps hard at game speed is what really helps translate it into whenever you’re actually in a game,” Young said. “So, yeah, it’s practice, but we just try to build great habits every day. And that’s playing at game speed everyday, playing hard, and just taking every every rep seriously like it is a game attempt in order to be able to do it, whenever the games are actually here.”

The same goes for the defensive end, where Young has long prided herself on being one of the league’s top perimeter defenders. She’s stated her goal is to be in the conversation for Defensive Player of the Year, with teammate A’ja Wilson as some of her chief competition.

All the while, she’s continued to build her reputation as one of the league’s peskiest defenders. While there’s plenty of focus on growing her offensive skillset, Young and the Aces make sure to drill the basics constantly on defense. Young says the Aces practice their shell defense daily, ensuring the fundamentals never slip so that on game day, their movements and base coverages are second nature. That gives them something to always fall back on, and also gives them a level to maintain, with the players keeping each other accountable for playing — as Young calls it constantly — Aces basketball.

“We all pride ourselves in defense, and holding each other accountable is the biggest thing. And everyone we have can defend,” Young explained. “A’ja is a Defensive Player of the Year. AC [Alysha Clark] is a great defender and she’s kind of like the defensive leader. She has a voice and she uses it. She’s always on me about my defense and just holding me accountable. Chelsea, she’s gonna get her charges. KP is going to be up and be disruptive. And so everyone takes pride in the defense. Whenever you play good defense, you’re able to get going in transition and the offense comes easier. So get stops on defense so that you can play offense.”

Beyond the practice work, Young has become a film junkie. Understanding that she’ll take on the opponent’s top guard most games, she dives into cutups to be prepared for the unique challenges each opponent presents.

“I spend a lot of time watching a lot of film on my matchups so I know their go-to moves and what they like to do,” Young said. “So I think, just making sure I’m prepared, I spend a lot of time watching film and watching my opponents. I mean, I like to play defense. It’s fun, and I think the preparation aspect of it is probably the biggest thing, and then just being able to apply it once I do get on the court.”

That love of the work is something that you can’t fake and is a major reason Young has steadily improved and grown into a star. From conditioning to film to on-court work, making improvements to your game is as much a personal commitment as it is a professional one. Coaches and staffers won’t chase you down to get in the gym, and in the hyper-competitive chase for roster spots in the WNBA, there’s always someone ready to take your place.

Being on a team that shares that commitment throughout the locker room and has the organizational structure to support it helps tremendously. For Young, Aces basketball isn’t just about what they do on the court, but how the group genuinely wants the best for each other.

“We all love each other. And we have fun while we’re playing the game. Playing the game the right way, and just building great friendships along the way,” Young explained. “I mean, it’s fun being on this team. The chemistry that we have, everyone kind of sees it on social media a little bit, but yeah, that’s really who we are. And so it’s fun being able to come to work every day and do what we love with people that we love.”

Young and the Aces will spend this season looking to show the work they put in this offseason has kept them at the top of the WNBA, chasing a rare three-peat. Once that’s over, she’ll start the process of finding a way to raise her level all over again.