Last season Bueckers averaged 20 points — the most by a freshman in program history — on 52.4 percent shooting (46.4 percent on 3s), while adding 5.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. The first-team All-American took home every national player of the year award for which she was eligible, in addition to being named Big East player of the year and the recipient of the Nancy Lieberman Award for the nation’s top point guard.
So what could Bueckers’ sophomore season, one where she’s coming off an April ankle surgery that limited what she could in the offseason, look like?
If all goes to plan Bueckers won’t have to produce the same numbers she did in 2020-21. Not because she can’t, but because she doesn’t need to.
A self-described pass-first point guard, Bueckers reluctantly shouldered the scoring load for a young, inexperienced and at times inconsistent team last year. She was by far the Huskies’ best 3-point shooter (the next best were Christyn Williams and Nika Mühl at 34.3%). Her 31 points against South Carolina, 28 against Baylor and 27 against Arkansas compensated for the absence of consistent productivity from others. Against the Gamecocks Bueckers was the only Husky with more than eight points.
No matter how excellent she was, it wasn’t a sustainable model for a championship run.
“You’re only as good as the team around you,” UConn coach Geno Auriemma said following the Huskies’ Final Four loss to Arizona. “As good as Paige was this year, and she carried our team through most of the season, that’s not how you win championships … with one player having to do everything.”
With nine freshmen and sophomores, this year’s UConn team is still young, but nearly as as inexperienced. The Huskies have three seniors — Williams, Evina Westbrook and Olivia Nelson-Ododa — hungry to conclude their careers with their best basketball yet.
Sophomores Mühl and Aaliyah Edwards, who earned big minutes as the 2020-21 season went on, are another year old and wiser, as will be junior Aubrey Griffin. Transfer Dorka Juhász may be new to Storrs, but has three years of college ball under her belt. And if freshmen Azzi Fudd and Caroline Ducharme continue to integrate smoothly, their 3-point shooting could take some of the pressure off of Bueckers.
What Auriemma will ask of Bueckers this season will largely depend on how the pieces around her establish themselves. But even with more depth and experience around her she’s still likely going to have the ball in her hands when the game’s on the line.
“If she defers to people that are shooting 45% from the 3-point line, I’m okay with that. If she’s deferring to people that are shooting 31% from the 3-point line, I’m not okay with that,” Auriemma said. “Part of growing up is understanding ‘Who do I give the ball to, when and why am I giving it to them?’ And I think as you get older you start to get a better sense of that.
“I don’t think Paige will ever be the kind of player that needs a lot of shots or wants to take a lot of shots. She is a pass-first player. That’s what makes her, I think, so valuable to a team. And I don’t know that that’s going to change. But at the same time, she understands what we need her to do.”
So far through preseason practice Bueckers has threaded that needle well, Auriemma said. “There’s a big difference in her already, just watching her play, because there’s more experience around her.”
With Bueckers being the most talented yet one of the youngest players on the team last year, she felt the need to earn the trust and respect of her teammates. Having secured that, her comfort level to carry the team as needed and serve as a leader should be greater as a sophomore.
“I’m also trying to get better with the leadership aspect now that I’m a sophomore,” Bueckers said. “I’m trying to help the younger guys and even the older guys. If I know something I want to be able to share it and just be able to be comfortable to use my voice.”
“The better you feel about your teammates, I think, the more comfortable you are just taking over certain situations,” Auriemma added. “When you’re a freshman you might not feel that way.”
And regardless of how the pieces fit around her, Bueckers still got back to the drawing board during the offseason to assess what she individually could do better. Though her defense has a ways to go, Auriemma seemed pleased with the progress she made throughout the season. That’ll certainly remain a focus of hers as opponents look to attack that (relative) weakness in her game.
What else has she learned? Primarily, the devil is in the details.
“I sort of brushed those away sometimes last year,” Bueckers admitted. “I wouldn’t wait for screens, I wouldn’t set up screens, so when coach is harping on the little details with me, I try to focus really hard on them.”
“For her, [the improvement is] more subtle,” Auriemma said.
A renewed focus also came in the weight room. Because she was limited in what she could do on the court while rehabbing from surgery, she spent a lot of time on strength and conditioning. Bueckers identified finishing through contact as one area she wants to improve.
So far, she’s already seeing some promising results. She feels stronger on the court, she said, and Auriemma noted that Bueckers won a lot of sprint drills.
“Nobody works harder on our team that she does,” Auriemma said. “[Andrea] Hudy, our strength-and-conditioning coach, told me that by the numbers and all the metrics that she uses to measure what kids have done, she said she can’t remember the last time she had guys do [what Bueckers does] and she was at Kansas for 15 years. Paige works her ass off to be as good as she is.”
Bueckers will have plenty of regular-season opportunities to find her footing in this slightly altered role. And after feeling his team, including Bueckers, was too “immature” to handle the challenge of last season’s national semifinal game, Auriemma will be looking for his superstar to show how she’s grown up. At least, in all the right ways.
“She’s still the same annoying person that she was last year,” he said, tongue-in-cheek. “She’s never fouled anybody, she’s never made a mistake, she’s never thrown the ball away. She’s never missed a shot where she didn’t get fouled. She hasn’t changed one iota.
“She’s a little bigger, she’s a little stronger. Her body’s starting to mature a little bit. And there’s a little bit of a comfort level that she has walking around. It’s like, I don’t know that she feels like she has to prove anything to anybody. So I think that’s the maturity, the growth that she’s made.”