How UConn star Paige Bueckers juggles basketball, NIL activity, academics: ‘Priorities are straight’

When Paige Bueckers was a freshman and the UConn women’s basketball team was operating mostly in a series of pandemic bubbles, she had all the time in the world and a new coach she took pride in harassing.

“You can tell that she’s busy because she’s not hanging around my office like a little puppy waiting to go outside for a walk or something,” Geno Auriemma said Friday, meeting the media in the lobby of the Werth Champions Center, just outside Huskies’ practice gym.

“Now I never see her, which is a great sign because she is busy and she does have a lot on her plate. Yet, if you come in here and it’s dark out and you hear a ball bouncing — pretty good chance, if you look in there, it’s probably her. She keeps the first things first.”

Bueckers was named Big East Player of the Year and Big East Scholar-Athlete of the Year on Wednesday, which means she’s not only the best player in the conference but also as versatile as any teammates or opponents.

CHICAGO, IL - FEBRUARY 25: UConn Huskies guard Paige Bueckers (5) drives to the basket during the women's college basketball game between the UConn Huskies and the Depaul Blue Demons on February 25, 2024, at Wintrust Arena in Chicago, IL.

She missed most of the past two seasons with injuries — including all of 2022-23 with a torn ACL — and returned to averaged 20.7 points, 4.4 rebounds and 3.7 assists while shooting 54 percent from the field, 41.2 percent on 3-pointers and 86 percent from the free-throw line.

Throw in the fact that UConn was depleted, with five injured players out for the season, and it’s even more impressive how efficiently Bueckers played through program complications.

She started all 31 regular season games, averaging 30.3 minutes, and spent considerable time defending post players as part the Huskies’ guard-heavy lineups.

That’s the long and short of the basketball situation, at the heart of college world she’s helped change.

Bueckers, since her arrival, become one of the leading figures of the NIL era, with numerous endorsement deals that certainly pay well but pull her in numerous directions.

She put in about a full year of intense rehabilitation just to be able to play this season. And she pushed her cumulative grade-point average to 3.497 by posting a 3.93 this past fall.

All the while, Bueckers has taken up numerous volunteer initiatives, from a local food pantry to a grocery store in her native Minnesota. One night in January, UConn played Marquette in Milwaukee and Bueckers, who had 26 points and hit a halftime buzzer-beater from half-court, was in Enfield for an appearance on behalf of Dunkin’ the very next morning.

This is why Auriemma jokes that he never sees her.

“Time management, for sure,” Bueckers said. “Just making sure my priorities are straight. … My faith keeps me grounded, keeps me humble, keeps me staying in a moment, staying present and appreciating everything that comes my way.

I try not to get too hyped up with the big things but just looking at all the little blessings in life and being appreciative of those, and I guess just living every day for itself and trying to make the most of the 24 hours.”

Bueckers, who has announced she will return next season, has become an even more refined player than she was as national player of the year in 2020-21. Now she’s fully healthy in March for the first time since that season’s run to the Final Four, and her production gives ninth-ranked UConn a puncher’s chance at reaching another.

“When you have it taken away from you, there’s always a fear, I’m sure,” Auriemma said.

“And there’s doubts like ‘Will I ever get back to who I was?’ She’s worked really, really hard to make sure that she was able to do what we need her to do, and what she wanted to do. And it’s ongoing. It’s still an everyday thing for her.

There’s no days when she’s not doing something to continue to rehab process. That’s not going away.

Then throw all the minutes on top of that. It’s bad enough on the other guys, but for her, not playing for a whole year and then throwing all those minutes on top of it, I didn’t know what effect that would have by the end of the year, but she’s had some of her best games towards the end.”

The Huskies open Big East Tournament play Saturday with a quarterfinal against Providence at Mohegan Sun Arena. From there, UConn is expected to host, as always, first- and second-round NCAA Tournament games. Two victories at Gampel Pavilion would send the team to Albany or Portland, Ore., for regional play.

The world doesn’t stop spinning for such events, of course. Academic pursuits don’t end.

“I do work hard in the classroom,” Bueckers said. “I take pride in getting good grades. I take pride in turning in my assignments on time. It’s something my parents instilled in me, being a student-athlete, and not just caring about your accomplishments and having that pride, that sense of taking everything seriously, taking everything as importantly as you do the basketball court.

So my parents were proud of that [award]. It’s kind of nice to get a different award and be acknowledged for your hard work in other places.”

Bueckers is majoring in human development and family studies. What if there wasn’t a basketball career for her to pursue?

“When I was a kid, I wanted to be in the FBI,” said Bueckers, fascinated by that field because of the show “Criminal Minds.” Then she added, “I feel like I’m really good arguer. So maybe a lawyer.”

That lines up, Auriemma said.

“She argues a lot, with everybody,” he said. “Her opinion is the only one that matters. And that’s why it’s so much fun to have her around.”

Bueckers keeps Auriemma young, even if she doesn’t come down the hallways of the basketball offices with time to kill as often as she once did.

“Somebody said, ‘Wouldn’t you want to spend time with your grandkids?’” Auriemma, in his 39th season, said. “I said, ‘I don’t have to spend time my grandkids. I’ve got Paige. That’s the same thing as a 14-year-old. …

The things that she says, the things that she does, she’s very convincing. The FBI part, yeah, she’s nosy. I will give you that. She wants to know everything about everybody. She’s in everybody’s business all around the country, too.”

She’s also playing basketball as well as she ever has.

“When I was watching her play in November, I thought, ‘This isn’t the same Paige that used to play,’” Auriemma said.

“So from November until the present, I think she’s had an opportunity to grow back into her game, have the players learn how to play alongside her, not watch her. With very few exceptions, makes big shots, makes big plays.”

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