UConn's Paige Bueckers has 'Magic Johnson-type potential'
By Kieran Darcy
Special to FOX Sports
Paige Bueckers is a college freshman with 662,000 followers on Instagram — quite an audience for a 19-year-old only scratching the surface of her basketball ability and the fame it will bring.
Her post last week was her first in three months, yet it has already garnered nearly 200,000 likes. There wasn’t much to it: three pictures of Bueckers in her University of Connecticut basketball gear. And there aren’t many more clues about her at the top of the page, other than a reference to the Bible: "Proverbs 3: 5-6."
If you look up the passage, it reads:
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not rely on your own insight. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths."
Bueckers’ path through her first season at UConn has been a spectacular one. She is leading the Huskies in scoring (19.6 PPG), assists (6.2 APG) and steals (2.3 SPG) while shooting 46.4% from 3-point range. Last week, Bueckers was named both the Big East Freshman of the Year and the conference’s Player of the Year.
Only one other player in Big East history has pulled that off: former UConn great Maya Moore, back in 2008.
"I’m not surprised at all," said Tara Starks, Bueckers’ former AAU coach with the Minnesota Metro Stars. "You don’t put in time like she does, you don’t work like she does, to go in and do average things. She’s a winner. She wants to be the best."
Starks has known Bueckers since the player was in fifth grade and was blown away by her from the very beginning.
"She was making passes that, at that level, no kid makes," Starks said. "And she was excited about it! She’s passing to kids that are open, and she’s not looking to score. She’s looking to distribute the ball.
"It’s just like, geez, this kid’s got Magic Johnson-type potential."
Some things haven’t changed. Early this season, UConn coach Geno Auriemma had to prod Bueckers to look for her own offense. She averaged just 12 shots per game in the first eight games of the season before upping that number to more than 18 in the next seven contests.
"I can’t count how many times he told me to stop passing the ball so much and just shoot it," Bueckers said last week. "I’ve always been a pass-first player, always liked to get everyone else involved. But I think this team needs me to look to shoot more."
Bueckers took a season-high 26 shots on Feb. 8 against South Carolina, and no one was complaining afterward. She finished with 31 points in the Huskies’ 63-59 victory over the previously No. 1-ranked Gamecocks — including a go-ahead 3-pointer late in overtime that people are still talking about.
It’s an unusual UConn team that Bueckers finds herself on. There isn’t a senior on the roster, and Bueckers is one of seven freshmen.
That isn't exactly the standard recipe for success at the most successful women’s college basketball program in the country. The Huskies have won a record 11 national championships, but since Breanna Stewart led them to a historic four-peat from 2013 to '16, the team hasn’t cut down the nets.
In Storrs, that qualifies as a drought.
And it piles a whole lot of pressure on the shoulders of a 19-year-old.
But Bueckers is leading her team in almost every major statistical category — a team that is 23-1, by the way, and projected to be the No. 1 overall seed in the NCAA tournament. UConn demolished Villanova 84-39 on Sunday in the Big East tournament semifinals — Bueckers had 18 points and eight assists — and will play Marquette in the championship game Monday (8 p.m. ET on FS1).
"I don’t think there’s been a time, since I’ve been here, that a freshman’s had to be in that position," Auriemma said last week. "So I don’t know how [former players] would have handled it. It’s hard to say. She’s been given a unique opportunity, and she’s taken advantage of it."
Then there’s the pandemic, which has thrown a wrench in everyone’s lives, to say the least. Bueckers’ freshman season certainly hasn’t gone the way she envisioned, with canceled games, rearranged schedules and all the health restrictions made necessary by COVID-19.
How has she handled it all so well? "I love my team. I love my coaches — the environment I’m in, I couldn’t ask for anything better in the times we’re in," Bueckers said. "Everybody’s living through the pandemic. Everybody’s going through it. I can’t have a negative mindset knowing that everybody else is going through it, [too]. I just have to power through it and try to stay as positive as I can."
That attitude has served her well in trying times. And it extends off the court, too. In fact, Bueckers’ "silliness" came up with both Auriemma and Starks.
"She’d come over to the house, we’d barbecue and have food, she’d dance and sing, and she thinks she has all this rhythm," Starks said, chuckling. "She’s full of personality. She’s always laughing, giggling, talking — she might make a smart remark to you every now and again, too, but just like a typical kid."
"Paige is serious about her basketball, and she’s serious about her academics, and she’s serious about life," Auriemma said. "And she’s also a young kid, in college for the first time, who is trying to have the time of her life and have some fun, which is pretty healthy. It’s pretty normal."
A normal kid, perhaps. But not a normal basketball player and one living under anything but normal circumstances.
"I kinda look at everything as a challenge," Bueckers said. "I love challenges. Nobody can put bigger pressure on me than I put on myself. I have really high expectations of myself."
It sounds like Bueckers has plenty of maturity to go with her playful side.
"I think a lot of that comes from her faith and her belief in God," Starks said. "[Paige] prays all the time, and she truly believes that this is what He has planned for her. If she really wasn’t faithful, she’d probably be pissed — losing your opportunity to play in your senior year state championship, going to college not being able to play right away, having a shortened season, good games that you want to play being canceled or rescheduled.
"Talking to her, she truly believes that this is the plan. This is what was planned for me."
Kieran Darcy is a contributor to FOX Sports after spending 20 years as a staff writer and editor at ESPN.com.