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Three Up, Three Down: Jackie Young emerging as early candidate for Most Improved Player

International basketball events have created interesting roster situations for several WNBA teams and have given certain players an opportunity to carry more of a load for their respective rosters. The Aces’ Jackie Young is one of those players.

Las Vegas Aces v Phoenix Mercury
Jackie Young has stepped up in the absence of several key perimeter players for Las Vegas.
Photo by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Throughout the course of a WNBA season, opportunities will inevitably arise due to injuries and other player absences. With multiple FIBA events taking place this summer, including the Tokyo Olympics and Women’s EuroBasket, 2021 was always going to be one of the more chaotic WNBA seasons in terms of players coming and going and the ensuing roster juggling, and FIBA’s 3x3 Olympic qualifying tournament further complicated things for some teams.

Such movement is critical to monitor for fantasy basketball fans, as just one absence can completely change another player’s role. Jackie Young of the Las Vegas Aces is one example: On a team that is currently shorthanded, she’s playing the best basketball of her WNBA career, greatly increasing her fantasy basketball value and putting her in early consideration for 2021’s Most Improved Player award.

Let’s take a look at who else in the WNBA is hot, as well as who’s not...

Three Up

Los Angeles Sparks v Chicago Sky
Ruthy Hebard has made the most out of her time in Chicago’s starting lineup, though she’ll likely be returning to the bench soon.
Photo by Randy Belice/NBAE via Getty Images

Ruthy Hebard (Chicago Sky)

Both Candace Parker (ankle) and Stefanie Dolson (FIBA 3x3 Olympic qualifiers) have been out since Chicago’s second game of the season, severely limiting the team’s frontcourt options. Hebard has started each of the Sky’s five games since then, playing just over 30 minutes per game and posting very respectable averages of 12 points, 8 rebounds, 1.2 steals and two blocks. It’s hard to ask much more of her from a fantasy perspective.

Outlook: Hebard is always going to be a valuable per-minute fantasy player because of her scoring efficiency and rebounding, and the defensive stats during her time as a starter have made fantasy owners even happier. Her role will be reduced significantly once Dolson and Parker return, however; Parker is without a timetable, but Dolson just wrapped up her Olympic qualifying stint with Team USA, so she should be back in Chicago’s lineup soon.

Jackie Young (Las Vegas Aces)

With Angel McCoughtry (ACL) out for the season, Young has had a lot more on her plate, and Aces head coach Bill Laimbeer has shifted her role to that of a play finisher rather than a playmaker. As a result, Young’s scoring has taken off; she’s averaging a career-high 14.7 points per game, and she’s shooting 4.3 free throws per contest. Young has been even more valuable for Las Vegas with Kelsey Plum competing overseas with Team USA’s 3x3 team, scoring 16.3 points per game on 57.6 percent shooting during that span.

Outlook: As a guard who provides little in 3-point shooting (along with dwindling assist numbers thanks to the addition of Chelsea Gray), Young’s fantasy ceiling may seem limited, but she’s as durable as they come, and given the Aces’ lack of depth on the perimeter, she’s going to be given plenty of burn this season. Plum will be returning soon, but it won’t matter much for Young’s fantasy value; she’s found her WNBA niche as a big guard, and she’s shooting the ball with a ton of confidence right now, so expect her to keep up the production.

Amanda Zahui B. (Los Angeles Sparks)

Zahui B. missed the start of the Sparks’ season due to a back injury, but the team’s friendly early-season scheduling gave her ample time to recover, and she played very well in two Los Angeles victories over Chicago, shooting 10-of-13 (76.9 percent) from the field and racking up seven defensive stats (three steals and four blocked shots). Perhaps most encouraging were her 35 minutes played in the Sparks’ overtime win on May 30.

Outlook: Chiney Ogwumike sat out that overtime game, but that many minutes for a player coming off a back injury is promising no matter which way you slice it. Sparks head coach Derek Fisher has been known to play his bench liberally, so Zahui B. won’t be getting that much playing time often, but her rebounding and 3-point shooting will make her a valuable fantasy asset regardless.

Three Down

Indiana Fever v Las Vegas Aces
Kelsey Mitchell has struggled with her shot early on, but she’ll get every opportunity to turn things around.
Photo by David Becker/NBAE via Getty Images

Kelsey Mitchell (Indiana Fever)

The Fever are off to another poor start, which perhaps isn’t that surprising. What is surprising is how poorly Mitchell has shot the ball: 38.6 percent from the floor and just 22.2 percent from 3-point range. She’s not going to set the world on fire with her passing and she’s not a great source of defensive stats, either, so Mitchell’s cold shooting is sinking her fantasy value.

Outlook: It’s just a speed bump for one of the WNBA’s most talented scorers. Of course, a player who relies so heavily on her jumpshot is going to have some volatile production, but Mitchell turned a corner last season with regards to her patience and shot selection, so she’ll get it going again sooner or later. The Fever don’t have much scoring in their backcourt as it is, so they’re going to keep letting Mitchell do her thing.

Kristi Toliver (Los Angeles Sparks)

After sitting out the 2020 season, Toliver is back with the Sparks, but she hasn’t made much of an impact thus far. Through four games, Toliver is shooting the ball just four times per game, averaging a career-low 6.3 points. It’s a strange turn of events for a player who has been one of the WNBA’s deadliest scorers for nearly a decade.

Outlook: It’s not entirely clear why Toliver hasn’t been featured in the Sparks’ offense. Her backcourt partner Erica Wheeler has had no issue getting her own shots up, so perhaps Fisher is asking Toliver to be more of a table-setter than a scorer. Regardless, she’s not going to generate much fantasy value if she’s not shooting the ball, so it’s a concerning development.

Moriah Jefferson (Dallas Wings)

On a team full of position battles between veterans and younger players, Jefferson has staved off Tyasha Harris as the Wings’ starting point guard, but her production has not been on the same level as that of Harris. Through four games, Jefferson is shooting just 26.3 percent from the floor (42.9 percent for Harris), and her assist/turnover ratio has been unimpressive compared to her backup’s.

Outlook: Wing head coach Vickie Johnson has not exactly been consistent when doling out minutes, but it’s worth noting that while Jefferson remains the team’s starter, Harris is playing 25.5 minutes per game to Jefferson’s 20.3. Harris is the steadier option at the moment, and chances are it will remain that way as the Wings continue their rebuild.