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Jackie Young’s Game 1 Barrage Arrived Right On Schedule

Jackie Young #0 of the Las Vegas Aces handles the ball under pressure from Jonquel Jones #35, Betnijah Laney #44 and Courtney Vandersloot #22 of the New York Liberty in the fourth quarter of Game One of the 2023 WNBA Playoffs finals at Michelob ULTRA Arena on October 08, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The Aces defeated the Liberty 99-82.
Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Jackie Young took two threes total in her first trip to the WNBA Finals. She missed them both. If there has been a basketball glow-up more fun to watch than hers—an afterthought three years ago, the best player on the floor Sunday afternoon—it would be news to me. In Game 1 of the WNBA Finals, Young co-led her Aces in scoring, her 26 points and five three-point makes marking a playoff career high. She led them to their 99-82 win in other ways, too, forcing New York’s backcourt stars to second guess themselves and cutting off the Liberty’s circulation. Rare athletic gifts made Young the first overall pick in 2019. But her refusal to rest on them, her emergence as a confident and deadly sniper to boot, made her the “X-factor” her team knew she could be. The X-factor her team needed her to be. Sunday's game showed that even with three MVPs stalking the frontcourt, this series will still be swung by the guards. 

As Becky Hammon put it, Young entered “baby Bron mode,” taking advantage of the space she got with New York's best defenders focused on A'ja Wilson and Chelsea Gray. Her strength and size as a 6-foot guard let her pick on Sabrina Ionescu and Courtney Vandersloot, who had about the worst games an All-Star backcourt can have and will desperately need to give their teams more on offense to make up for their, ah, turnstility at the point of attack. (They and Betnijah Laney combined for 28 points to the Plum-Young-Gray trio's 72.)

Young had fared well in the regular-season series between the two teams, but this was probably the best yet showing from Kelsey Plum, who continued to shoot poorly against New York and instead came by her 26 points on quick drives to the rim. “When we get stops and we’re able to run, the defense can’t get set. Lanes open up,” she said. Those transition plays often started with Young's pressure on the ball. In every way, she was the MVP of Game 1. Hammon confessed in the postgame interview that while she's hardest on Plum, Young is something of a favorite child. “I just can’t be mad at the girl,” Hammon said. “She does so many things that help you win the game—not that you guys don’t, of course you do,” she reassured Plum and Wilson, sitting on either side of her. They smiled and shook their heads, like Yeah, sure. “She’s just one of those people that just keeps her nose to the ground.”

Wilson mentioned "pulling" these performances out of Young, who was typically soft-spoken in her own postgame interview. But that demeanor belies Young's more intense commitment. She is always trying to get better—you don't just start shooting 45 percent from three without lots of work—and it's easy to endear yourself to coaches and teammates when you put in the hours Young has. She spent offseasons training with the Aces' head of player development, Tyler Marsh, who helped her make mechanical adjustments to her shooting form. Game 1 was an organizational victory, too. The Aces' short rotation may be cast as a weakness, but it reflects a real strength. There is no better-conditioned team in the WNBA. There is no group of players more ready to absorb all those minutes and to operate at the speed the Aces do. Not coincidentally, there is no organization as invested in that outcome.

The team's strength coach once described Vegas's philosophy like this: “We are great at basketball, but we are also going to beat other teams because we’re in better shape and we are faster.” Shiny practice facilities and player development coaches might woo free agents and earn nice press, but they're much more than vanity projects. You can draw a line from them to the scoreboard. The best teams inspire players to get better, give them the tools to do that, and reap the results. 

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