THUNDER BAY – Heading into this season, all eyes were on Lakehead’s Leashja Grant.
Lakehead opponents probably should have kept an eye on Nikki Ylagan.
The third-year guard, on Tuesday named the program’s athlete of the month for October, has been the surprise of 2018-19 for the Thunderwolves.
Ylagan is third in the OUA in scoring, averaging 21 points per night, tops the league in three-pointers, having made 20 of 32 attempted in four games and has give the Wolves another weapon to help take the pressure off of Grant, the reigning league most valuable player.
She’s as automatic as anyone this side of Steph Curry, who happens to be her basketball idol.
“He is my favourite player, so a lot of the time before games I usually watch his highlight videos, just to get myself in that zone. I look up to him a lot,” said Ylagan, who averaged 10.3 points a game in her rookie season, but slipped a bit in 2017-18, putting up just 8.7 points and two three-pointers a night as a sophomore.
“A lot of it comes with the team. Getting on a streak, getting hot in a game comes from moving the ball and taking the right shots too. It’s getting it into our bigs, like Leashja and Lily (Gruber-Schulz), which will open up shots for me and other shooters too.”
Ylagan was at her finest on Oct. 26 in the regular-season opener, helping the team pour in a school record 110 points against the Thunderbirds, thanks in part to a hot start that saw the Mississauga, Ont. native put up 22 points – including six three-pointers – in the first quarter alone.
She’d finish with 31, 10 more than her previous career high, the damage long done by the time the Algoma coaching staff and players made the necessary adjustments to try to shut her down.
Lakehead coach Jon Kreiner said Ylagan’s rookie season put her on the map. Combined with a few nagging injuries last season, it partially explained the drop-off in production. Her size makes her easier to guard, he added, and the wear and tear of the season creeps up on her more than others.
It just means managing her minutes, to get the most out of Ylagan while she’s on the court, while not wearing her down.
That’s when she’s most effective, Kreiner said.
It helps having multiple weapons at his disposal, especially in the perimeter game. Kajorinne can be deadly from beyond the arc, as can newcomer Sofia Lluch. It’s causing other teams fits in the early going of the season.
“I think you’ve got to pick your poison on who’s going to go double Leashja and who you’re going to leave,” he said. “The other thing with Nikki is she can shoot from so far out that people think, ‘She’s not shooting from here,’ and actually she is.
“Quite frankly, the further out she is, the better it is.”
With top 10 ranked teams Ottawa and Carleton up next, on the road next weekend, Kreiner said he expects the coaching staff will have Ylagan square in their sights
That can work too, Kreiner said.
“She’s going to become more closely guarded and we have to find ways to take advantage of that, because really it’s going to become more of a four-on-four game because Nikki’s going to be face-guarded and taken out,” he said.