Paige Bueckers embracing adversity at UConn
Few women’s basketball recruits have garnered as much hype and attention as Paige Bueckers. As the top player in the class of 2020, she won every national player of the year award that exists. Her highlight tapes routinely go viral. And after committing to UConn, Bueckers started to be mentioned in the same breath as legendary players like Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, and Breanna Stewart.
But during her first official workout as a Husky, Bueckers looked like just another outmatched, overwhelmed freshman finding out that high school ball is a big step up from major college basketball.
“I watched her the very first workout we did and I said ‘Man, they’re gonna kill you. They’re going to eat you up. You’ve got no chance,’” head coach Geno Auriemma said. “She just looks at me and she always has this great look on her face.”
It didn’t take long for Bueckers to adjust, though. As of Monday, the team has only had three workouts, yet the coach is already noticing an improvement. Bueckers feels it too.
“I’ve actually grown a lot, just being here one week,” she said. “I’ve improved and I’ve gotten under their wing and they taught me stuff that I didn’t even really know in the high school game.”
Auriemma noted that because of the virus, not only is the team getting a later start than usual, a lot of players haven’t spent much time on the court since the beginning of March. Because of that, the focus for everyone has been on basic skill work. For Bueckers, that means improving her footwork.
“Right now, there’s a lot of emphasis on footwork and pivoting. I didn’t really focus on that a lot in high school because I didn’t really need to,” she said. “But now this game in college, it’s fast but it’s slowed down. You have to work on the minor details in your game. I really try to focus on that: my footwork and how I use my pivots and my jabs just to get open because it’s a lot harder to get open at the college level.”
The coaching staff has also stressed that Bueckers needs to bulk up in order to survive the long grind of a college basketball season.
“They tell me all the time that I need to live in the weight room, I need to stay in the weight room so that’s a big thing for me is getting stronger and getting quicker,” she said.
Bueckers is only three summer workouts into her UConn career – far from a large enough sample size to make any determination about the impact she’ll make on the court this season. But the way she’s already embraced the struggle and challenge in front of her provided insight into the highly-touted freshman’s mentality.
For a freshman who’s been at college for barely two weeks, Bueckers has a remarkable level of maturity and self-awareness. She understands the difficulty of what she’s facing and is already prepared to embrace it.
“I knew that it was going to be hard, it was going to be challenging, [the coaches] were going to push me and that’s exactly what it’s been like,” Bueckers said.
However, she’s also gotten some guidance from a few players who have been through it before. Bueckers has talked with Sue Bird, Napheesa Collier, Katie Lou Samuelson and Breanna Stewart about what to expect at UConn. All of them passed along a similar message.
“They said freshman year is probably going to be the hardest year – maybe of your life – in school and in basketball,” Bueckers relayed. “So I’m kind of going in expecting that but I’m willing to learn. They said just soak it in and enjoy every second of it and go in with a positive attitude and be willing to work hard and be coachable and it’ll make it a lot easier.”
It also helps that for all the attention she’s received throughout her high school career, Bueckers has never bought into her own hype. She also doesn’t feel the weight of the expectations thrown on her by anyone other than herself, either. Instead, all the pressure she feels comes from her own determination to become the best player she can possibly be.
“It’s awesome seeing (the banners in the practice gym) and knowing that people at this program have done amazing things,” Bueckers said. “They have two people (Bird and Diana Taurasi) here that have been four-time Olympians, working on being five and that’s something that I want to do: Represent my country and win championships at every level and just succeed in the game as much as I can.”
And if it wasn’t already clear, Bueckers isn’t just planning to use her time in Storrs as a springboard to the next level. She wants to make UConn bad for women’s basketball again.
“It’s just never a plan for me to lose,” she said. “I’m not going to go out and say I only want to win one or two (national titles), I want to win four. Everybody should want to win four. I don’t really understand the problem with people saying that but that’s obviously a goal of mine: Win four national championships, as it should be everyone else’s.”
The Paige Bueckers Era may have officially begun at UConn, but it’s still in its infant stages. For now, she’s just another bright-eyed freshman adjusting to her new college life. But at the same time, there’s good reason to believe she won’t stay like that for long.
“So how good is she?” Auriemma wondered aloud. “I’ll put it this way: I’m glad we have her. There’s some things that she does that other players wish they could do.”
Even if she still needs to work on her footwork.
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