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Las Vegas Aces rookie Jackie Young flashes All-Star potential

Aces guard and former Notre Dame standout Kayla McBride still smiles when she thinks about the summer when she coached an eighth grade phenom named Jackie Young at the school’s basketball camp.

“It makes me feel old,” McBride said with a laugh as she glanced toward Young, now her teammate in Las Vegas. “We knew she was special from the beginning.”

The Aces think so, too.

Young, another Notre Dame standout drafted No. 1 overall in April, is swiftly navigating the challenges of her rookie season and becoming a key contributor as the franchise prepares for its first playoff berth since 2014.

The 6-foot guard was tentative at times earlier this season alongside All-Stars A’ja Wilson, Liz Cambage and McBride, but has scored in double figures in her last four full games while flashing a penchant for penetrating, passing and defending.

The personal success feels good, she says, but not nearly as good as winning, which is what drives her to play the game.

She won at Princeton Community High School in her native Indiana.

She won at Notre Dame.

She’s winning now with the Aces, too.

“That’s just the goal I’ve had,” the 21-year-old said. “To win in high school. To win in college. And to try and do it as a pro.”

The amateur

Young is the pride of Princeton, Indiana, a tiny town nestled in the southwest corner of the state, populated by 8,602 people, some of whom commute to Las Vegas to watch her play. She began basketball at age 5, inspired by her parents and older brother, who initially didn’t want Young to play with him or his friends.

“They would never let me because I was so small,” she said. “As I got older, I was able to prove myself that I can play with them.”

And practically anybody else in Indiana.

Young starred in local leagues until sixth grade, when she tried out for a local club basketball program, Indiana Elite. She missed the sixth grade tryouts, though, and made the eighth grade team instead, spawning an internal urge to improve.

She received from Purdue her first scholarship offer as an eighth grader and garnered attention from Division I colleges — including Notre Dame, her dream school — throughout her storied prep career.

“She has a lot of natural talent, but she worked,” said her mother, Linda. “She knew what she had to do to get where she wanted to go. She put a lot of time in. There were no days off for her.”

Young awoke at 5 a.m. to train in high school and often practiced alone during holiday breaks. She scored a state-record 3,268 points from 2012 to 2016 and won a state championship in 2015.

She begrudgingly acknowledged she could score at will but often deferred to her teammates until late in games, known affectionately in Princeton as “Jackie Time.”

“She has such a complete game,” Notre Dame women’s coach Muffet McGraw said. “(It’s) so rare for one person to be able to do pretty much anything she wanted on the basketball court.”

Young arrived to Notre Dame as a five-star recruit with the potential, McGraw said, to be the best player in program history. She was a reserve during her freshman season of 2016-17, then averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 rebounds as a positionless sophomore. She scored 32 points in the Final Four against Connecticut en route to a national title.

Potential became production.

And she became a marquee professional prospect.

As a junior, Young averaged 14.7 points, 7.4 rebounds and 5.1 assists and led the Fighting Irish to another national championship game, one they lost to Baylor. Then, instead of returning to Notre Dame for her senior season, she decided to pursue her lifelong dream and declared for the WNBA draft.

“The biggest thing was wanting to provide for my family,” she said. “When the opportunity came, I think it was just a great time. I couldn’t really pass it up.”

The professional

The Aces won the WNBA Draft lottery and coveted Young’s talents long before their April selection, knowing for certain they would take her if they had the opportunity. They installed her as their lead guard during training camp alongside Wilson, Cambage, McBride and former No. 1 overall pick Kelsey Plum.

But Young struggled to find her niche and had three scoreless games in the first month of the season, acknowledging bouts of occasional self-doubt along the way.

“I think it’s just trying to understand and to figure things out,” she said. “It’s a lot harder than it seems. It took me a little while.”

Aces coach Bill Laimbeer remained confident in Young and often talked about her All-Star potential. Sure, she wasn’t scoring consistently. But she didn’t necessarily need to because she was defending, leading an explosive transition offense and creating open shots for teammates in the half-court offense.

All the while, Las Vegas emerged as one of the WNBA’s best teams.

“And she was an integral part of that,” Laimbeer said.

Young scored a then career-high 13 points against the Seattle Storm on July 23 and since has been more involved offensively while maintaining the versatility that rounds out her game.

She’s no longer bypassing open catch-and-shoot 3-pointers and is stepping into open midrange jumpers and attacking the rim with conspicuous confidence. She has scored a career-high 17 points twice and is averaging 14.3 points and 5.3 assists in her last four full games to improve her season averages to 6.6 points and 4.2 assists.

Laimbeer doubled down on her ability again, suggesting that she can become one of the league’s best players.

“She can handle the ball, and she can pass with the best of them. She’s fast. Her shot is coming around,” Laimbeer said. “She can do it all. It’s just a matter of when it all comes together.”

More Aces: Follow at reviewjournal.com/aces and @RJ_Sports on Twitter.

Contact reporter Sam Gordon at sgordon@reviewjournal.com. Follow @BySamGordon on Twitter.

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