Bueckers exceeds expectations in her UConn debut

Dec 12, 2020; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) reacts after her basket and being fouled Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks guard Kharis Idom (5) (not pictured) in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

In her long-awaited collegiate debut Saturday, UConn freshman Paige Bueckers showed the sports world that she was all she had been hyped up to be, and then some.

The Minnesota native’s stat line was impressive, even against mid-major UMass Lowell. She scored a team-high 17 points on 8-11 shooting, grabbed nine rebounds, dished five assists, and added five steals. And Bueckers did it all without attempting a three-pointer.

More impressive than the numbers, however, was the confidence, poise, and versatility she displayed the whole time she was on the floor.

Coach Geno Auriemma, well-known for his critical approach to his best players, was anything but fault-finding after watching her lead his team in every phase of the win.

“I think she played great,” Auriemma said. “I think Paige was Paige. Paige did all the things that Paige does. She scored some points. She rebounded the ball. She stole the ball. She passed the ball. She had a feel for our offense.”

“It doesn’t really matter what part of the game you want to analyze. Can she pass the ball? You saw that. Can she shoot it? You saw that. Can she get to the basket? Yeah. She’ll try to play defense and get in the passing lane. In baseball they would call that a five-tool player. When you look at Paige, she’s a five-tool basketball player.”

Bueckers also shares with those guards a belief that she is responsible for her team, and an unselfishness that goes with it.

“Yeah, I mean I do a little bit of everything,” she said, “but [I focus on] mostly doing whatever my coach wants me to do, whatever my teammates need me to do.”

“If that’s passing, if that’s scoring, if that’s rebounding, if that’s getting steals. Just whatever they need me to do. I think the number one priority for me is just to make my teammates and everybody around me better.”

In the natural order of things, the Huskies’ returning starters, Christyn Williams and Olivia Nelson-Ododa, should be leading this team. But that is not what we saw in a season opener that was delayed two weeks after a positive COVID test in the program.

In our first glimpse of this year’s squad, we saw a freshman who was by far the best player on the court. We saw a guard whose skillset may be the most developed of any player her age in recent memory. And we saw a young athlete who will be the actual team leader very soon, if she is not already.

This being UConn, with its storied history of greats, Bueckers has already drawn comparisons to her predecessors – most notably Diana Taurasi, who similarly burst onto the college scene with uncommon maturity. TV commentators Saturday spoke of Bueckers’ “swagger,” which Taurasi had in spades. But that is not what I see in her.

Dec 12, 2020; Storrs, Connecticut, USA; Connecticut Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives to the basket against Massachusetts Lowell River Hawks forward Sydney Coombs (20) and guard Kaylen Banwareesingh (13) in the first half at Harry A. Gampel Pavilion. Mandatory Credit: David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

She plays with simple confidence, executing a complete skill range with a smoothness that is more reminiscent of former Oregon great Sabrina Ionescu, and Husky legend Sue Bird. But Bueckers has already demonstrated defensive abilities neither of them had as a freshman. (Ionescu had five or more steals (6) only twice in her four-year career, both her sophomore year. Bueckers had five in her first game).

Bueckers was selected everyone’s high school player of the year in 2020. She was on a flip cover of Sports Illustrated. She has 605,000 Instagram followers, at one time last year more than Joe Biden (his following has grown a lot since his election).

She is aware of the hype, of course, but it seems to have no effect on her. She is confident (that word again), but humble in interviews. Asked how she avoids getting wrapped up in her own press, she said, “I try not to get too much into that because it can, if I have a bad game, it can get me down, and if I have a really good game it could bring my spirits up too high.”

“I want to have that calm balance where I’m confident but I’m not like too big-headed,” Bueckers said. “It’s just knowing that I can’t live up to anybody else’s expectations, and my expectations for myself are pretty high. I would say it’s higher than a lot of other people have for me. . . I’m not going to be perfect at the end of the day, but I just have, I just want to be the best version of myself.”

Like many great players before her, Bueckers deflects attention from herself to the team.

“I think the number one priority for me is just to make my teammates and everybody around me better,” she said. “If I have a good shot, I want to get my teammates even better shots. I don’t know if that’s just who I am but I like to see my teammates and everybody else around me do great things.”

This approach is one reason why many consider Taurasi the UConn GOAT. It’s what made Ionescu so successful. Bueckers may not surpass those players. But she already, after just one game, shows signs that absent injury, she could well stand alongside them. And, she has that unusual confidence.

“You hate to say this, because she’s so young,” Auriemma said. “But there really isn’t a segment of the game that Paige doesn’t feel comfortable doing. From the first week of practice that we had to today, there hasn’t been a time where we would say as a coaching staff that Paige looked really uncomfortable.”