September 12, 2021 

Fast and Furious: Jackie Young boosts Aces’ playoff run

"It's about being aggressive and doing a little bit more and stepping out of my comfort zone," Young said

And then there were three. Three games left in the regular season for the Las Vegas Aces, that is, and they’ve got huge consequences. Two more Vegas wins would give them a 23-9 record and secure a top-two spot in the postseason.

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The Aces played a very different game against the Minnesota Lynx than they had earlier in the season, winning by 21 points (102-81) and crossing the century-mark for the sixth time this year.

So what was the difference-maker in this match-up compared to those closer contests? Head coach Bill Laimbeer and his squad would agree on one word: aggressiveness.

Young makes her case

No one embodied that aggressive mindset better than Jackie Young on Wednesday night. She had not one, but two new career highs – 29 points and 14 made field goals.

More importantly, her performance was driving the pace of the game. The Aces are one of the quickest teams in the league and when they get hot, it’s just plain hard to keep up with them.

They’ll need to keep that energy up if they want to bypass the first two rounds of playoffs by locking in one of the top two seeds. Skipping out on those single-elimination games would launch Vegas straight to the best three-out-of-five semifinals.

Young isn’t backing down from the challenge.

“It’s about being aggressive and doing a little bit more and stepping out of my comfort zone,” Young said after her career night. “My teammates have the confidence in me and so I just have to have that same confidence in myself to knock down shots and just be aggressive at the start.”

In the meantime, Young is tossing her name back into the Most Improved Player conversation. The 2019 No. 1 overall draft pick is on track for her best season yet. Here’s a look at her numbers.

2019 (LVA) 34 22.6 32.2 31.8 80.8 3.3 4.5 0.8 0.4 1.6 6.6
2020 (LVA) 22 25.8 49.2 23.1 85.2 4.3 3.0 0.7 0.1 1.6 11.0
2021 (LVA) 29 32.2 50.4 29.4 84.5 4.0 3.2 1.1 0.4 1.5 12.3

There are some other strong contenders in the race for MIP, though, including Brionna Jones (Connecticut Sun), Mercedes Russell (Seattle Storm) and more, so it’ll be interesting to see how that shakes out.

Hot hands

A unique factor to the Aces’ play style this year has been their absolutely stacked deck of talented athletes. On paper, it seems like a no-brainer a team with so much depth would be great, but sometimes it takes a little extra work to get all those pieces to gel together just right.

Well, Vegas seems to have it all figured out by now: figure out who’s hot that night and put the ball in their hands. Just ask Chelsea Gray, who posted a career- and franchise-high 14 assists against the Lynx on Wednesday.

“It’s just supporting my teammates when their number is called,” Gray said after the game. “[Jackie] deserved a night like this, she puts in the work … It’s part of being a point guard, being aware on the floor of who has the hot hand … I was able to find her and I was just like, ‘Move to an open spot and I’ll get you the rock.’ And that’s what she was able to do and she was knocking down jumpers.”

Very rarely has offense been an issue for Vegas this season. In fact, they have the highest scoring average in the league right now at 89.1 points per game (the next closest is Seattle at 85.6). On top of that, they excel at tacking on those extra points by getting themselves to the stripe, boasting an 81.7 FT% on the most free throw attempts in the league (22.4).

And it wasn’t just offense that was firing on all cylinders Wednesday night. The Aces turned the ball over a franchise-record-low 5 times, representing a turn in the right direction in terms of ball-handling and ball movement – something Laimbeer has been harping on all season.

“I thought they came out on fire in the first three or four minutes and we got right back in, where last time we played they got on fire and we folded, so that’s a positive step,” Laimbeer said after the game. “I think the ball movement and the player movement today was as good as we’ve had in quite a while, maybe since the break. We move the ball like that, and we move bodies around like that and we open up seams for our talent to take over.”

Dual-edged sword

That’s where Riquna Williams comes into play. She’s had a unique role to fill this season, being a talented shooter surrounded by so many other scoring threats.

Despite what broadcasts may have you believe, Williams has always been a powerful offensive weapon to her teams throughout the years, from the perimeter and beyond the arc too. Yes, this year her PPG average is slightly lower than what we’re used to seeing from her (9.9), but her grittiness and ability to consistently drop tough buckets has been huge for the Aces this season.

Not only that, but Williams is a menace on defense too, stepping up to the plate this season to improve areas of her game like rebounding (75 DREB), blocking (10) and swiping (21). She’s even tightened up her ball-handling, with her current 0.7 turnover average being the second-lowest in her nine-year career. Laimbeer calls her the total package.

“Riquna’s a phenomenal scorer – that’s what she’s done her whole life – and most of the season she’s taken a backseat because that’s what was required and necessary for everybody else to be involved in the offense,” Laimbeer said. “But come playoff time I’ve had numerous conversations with her about being much more aggressive offensively because she can do things that no one else on this team can … She can come off really hard and jump three feet in the air … She has range and she has quickness and she has a mid-range game. She has the full package offensively, and she plays defense. It’s just that the hand she’s been dealt this year during the regular season hasn’t been conducive to showing how valuable she is for us.”

Williams isn’t just all of a sudden becoming a shooter, she just has more opportunities to hit shots. Those will be crucial in these final three games, especially with no update on the timeline of Liz Cambage‘s return.

Eyes forward

Enter Bria Holmes. The Aces just signed her to a second seven-day contract on Thursday. During her first, she saw action in two games and grabbed a pair of rebounds.

Laimbeer isn’t afraid to play a guard-heavy squad, as we saw at points in the game against the Lynx. Adding Holmes provides more depth at this position, and leads one to believe Liz won’t suit up again during the regular season.

“Without Liz being here we have a lot more guard-oriented play,” Laimbeer said. “Today, our guards were the ones who really went out and took control of this game, both from a leadership perspective and a scoring perspective … When you get into playoffs guards are normally the ones that can score because their team’s going to set their defense for the bigs, so you have to have guards that can go up there and score.”

As usual, the Aces are just taking it one game at a time, but these last three will have big implications on what exactly the playoff journey looks like for Vegas.

Up next, they’ll take on the Dallas Wings at home on Monday at noon PT. There will be a ceremony at halftime, honoring San Antonio Stars/Las Vegas Aces alum Becky Hammon and hoisting her No. 25 jersey into the rafters at Michelob ULTRA Arena.

Written by Sydney Olmstead

Pac-12 and Las Vegas Aces reporter.

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