Sports

The Ludicrous, Unprecedented Greatness of Paige Bueckers

She’s a freshman, and she already might be the best player in the history of UConn women’s basketball.

Paige Bueckers points at her right forearm while standing on a basketball court
Paige Bueckers points at the greatest player in UConn history. Zach Bolinger/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

All nine of the UConn women’s basketball team’s national titles in the past two decades were won by teams featuring Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore, or Breanna Stewart. The three best players in UConn history also happen to be three of the best players in the history of the sport. Stewart, the youngest of the trio, graduated five years ago. The Huskies haven’t won a championship since. The architect of UConn’s greatness, coach Geno Auriemma, is about to turn 67 years old. It was possible, going into this season, to imagine that the program’s best days were long gone.

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Enter Paige Bueckers. Even though UConn has three juniors who were the No. 1, No. 2, and No. 5 overall recruits in their high school classes, the 19-year-old freshman point guard from Minnesota has been by far the best player on the team from her first game in college. As ludicrous as this might sound, we can’t rule out the possibility that Bueckers is better right now, as a freshman, than Taurasi, Moore, Stewart, or any other UConn player has ever been at any point of her college career.

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Consider, as a point of comparison, the combined stats from Taurasi’s legendary junior and senior seasons, when she won back-to-back national player of the year awards: 17 points, 5 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 1.2 steals, and 2.7 turnovers per game, while shooting 46.5 percent from the field and 37 percent on 3s. Bueckers has similar or better numbers in every category: 19.8 points, 4.6 rebounds, 6.2 assists, 2.4 steals, 2.5 turnovers, 53.6 percent from the field, and a ridiculous 47.6 percent on 3s.

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In her short college career, Bueckers has led the Huskies to a 21–1 record and the No. 1 ranking. In a win over Butler on Saturday, she set the program record with 14 assists in a single game. Earlier this season, she became the first UConn woman ever to score 30 points in three straight games. If she merely maintains her current scoring pace—that is, even if she doesn’t score more in her upper-class years than she has in her freshman season, which almost everyone does—she will end up with the highest points per game average in UConn history.

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But it’s not just what Bueckers has done—it’s how she’s done it. While she’s played only 21 college games as of this writing (she missed one of the Huskies’ contests due to injury) and most have been mismatches, she’s left indelible impressions in UConn’s most important matchups. Against then top-ranked South Carolina, Bueckers scored about as many points as all her teammates combined, including UConn’s final 13, while playing every minute of regulation and overtime. She hit an instantly legendary 3-pointer to decide the game—a shot that bounced about as high as you’ll ever see off the back of the rim before falling in.

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Against Tennessee, in the sport’s greatest rivalry, UConn led by 9 midway through the fourth quarter. Bueckers got injured and went to the bench, and Tennessee made a run. Fearing defeat, Auriemma reinserted a limping Bueckers, and with UConn clinging to a 2-point lead with 30 seconds to play and the shot clock running down, she nailed a long 3-pointer that sealed the win.

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While Bueckers may be more advanced than Taurasi at the same age, their styles of play are very similar. They’re about the same height (Bueckers is listed at 5-foot-11, Taurasi at 6-foot) and are both combo guards who are adept at creating off the dribble for themselves and others. They’re incredible passers and shooters, and deadly in the clutch. Unlike Stewart and Moore, who did a lot of damage off the ball and required a bit more discernment to appreciate, Bueckers and Taurasi make flashy plays with the ball that are easy for anyone to like.

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Making plays with the ball is much more than flashy, though. It’s the most valuable and effective skill in basketball. Auriemma has a similar philosophy to Steve Kerr, who has won three NBA titles with Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors. Auriemma and Kerr have superstars who can rain points on their opponents, yet both run motion offenses that involve every player on the court and are designed to create easier shots by confusing and disrupting the defense. That strategy usually works, but when the very best defenses give maximum effort, those clever movements can get stifled. And when that happens, the only effective counter is for the best player on the court to take the ball and put it in the basket.

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What does that player look like? They must be able to handle the ball, create their own shots, make those shots, make free throws in case they get fouled, and find open teammates when they get double-teamed. They also need to be at their best when it’s most important. Who are some players who check all those boxes? Steph Curry, Larry Bird, Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Diana Taurasi, and Paige Bueckers.

If you’re inclined to nitpick Bueckers, it’s fair to say that she’ll never be a shot-blocking game-changer on the defensive end like Breanna Stewart. (That said, Bueckers’ steal rate is shockingly high already.) And perhaps Bueckers’ numbers have been inflated by a small sample size, weak competition, a lack of superstar teammates to share the shots with her, and the fact that she plays so many minutes.

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But the competition wasn’t weak when UConn played South Carolina, and Bueckers dominated. Her teammates would also probably look better if we weren’t comparing them with her. And playing so many minutes is both a symptom and a cause of her greatness: She gets asked to do it because she’s so good, and her ability to stay on the court adds to her value. And as for the sample size, she’s mostly gotten better as the season goes on and the sample expands to include more games.

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At UConn, greatness is measured in championships, and we don’t know yet how many Bueckers will win. Next year, she will be joined by her close friend Azzi Fudd. If Fudd, who’s still recovering from a knee injury, dominates in college like she did at her high school peak, Bueckers might end up being the Huskies’ second best player. If so, the UConn teams of the future could resemble UConn’s juggernauts of the past. But those are big ifs. We’ll have to wait and see how Fudd plays at the college level.

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And even with Bueckers, anything could still happen—an injury, a plateau, a regression, or … continued improvement. The last option is by far the most likely for any freshman, and if she does get better, then it’s almost unimaginable how good she might become. Nothing is common about Bueckers, but for fans of athletic greatness, let’s hope that in this one way—getting better as she gets a bit older—she’ll be perfectly normal.

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