Paige Bueckers was a freshman sensation. She’s even better now

The last time Paige Bueckers played a full season of college basketball, she was the national player of the year, a superstar freshman who immediately lived up to the promise as the country’s top recruit.

As the point guard, Bueckers ranked 11th nationally in total points and sixth in total assists, leading UConn to Big East regular-season and tournament titles before a trip to the Final Four.

Three years and two major knee injuries later, Bueckers is even better. It was a high bar to clear after the success of her freshman season, but she has come back from her rehab as an improved player.

UConn has needed every bit of that brilliance to return to the Final Four. And it will again Friday when Bueckers will meet Caitlin Clark and Iowa.

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“She spent that year getting bigger, getting stronger, getting smarter, learning how to take care of herself,” coach Geno Auriemma said. “So the same freshman Paige, sophomore Paige that took us to the Final Four, that’s not the Paige that’s here today.”

The first thing that jumps out in Bueckers’ stat line is her increased scoring.

Although she is playing fewer minutes, Bueckers is taking more shots (15.5 per game) and shooting more efficiently (60.3 effective field goal percentage) from the field, despite her 3-pointer percentage taking a dip from her shockingly hot start as a freshman.

Her shot attempts come in different ways since she is no longer the primary ballhandler. She cuts more frequently and comes off of screens and handoffs more often, and she’s significantly increased her points per possession on all those off-ball actions, per Synergy Sports.

For context, UConn’s average points per possession is 0.991, which places the Huskies in the 99th percentile of all offenses.

Bueckers’ ability to work without the ball in her hands allows UConn to play her alongside KK Arnold and Nika Mühl, who have to function as creators.

Even though Bueckers is by nature more of a playmaker, the Huskies needed her to shape-shift to accommodate the skills of their roster. Not only has Bueckers adapted her game, but she has excelled in the new role.

It used to be her size (Bueckers stands at 5 feet 11) was an asset against guards, but even when she’s defended by bigger wings and forwards, she can still elevate into clean looks and use her speed to create space. Plus, she’s a master of making tough shots.

Because of UConn’s injuries, there aren’t many pure scoring threats on the court at all times. Bueckers has to score at a higher rate, and she has aced that challenge.

“I truly believe that this season was the time when she finally realized that, if she wanted to reach a certain level, that she was going to have to become a little more uncomfortable … at how many times she tried to score to take the pressure off our other guys,” Auriemma said.

Even though she is tasked less with being the lead guard, and her overall assist numbers are down, Bueckers’ playmaking has also become more efficient.

Her pick-and-roll partnership with Aaliyah Edwards has blossomed, as have the dump-offs to Edwards when Bueckers drives into the lane. Bueckers’ assist-to-turnover ratio is the best of her career, and the Huskies’ turnover percentage is their lowest since 2019.

Edwards joked after the Elite Eight win that she still has to gird herself against the velocity of Bueckers’ passes and has no idea how her teammate sees her – “thank God for that face mask” — but that’s the price of playing next to greatness.

Bueckers has also become a more versatile defender. She has always been good at jumping passing lanes and creating turnovers, and she’s continued to collect steals at an elite rate even as she defends more often in the interior than on the perimeter. Considering how well Bueckers finishes in transition, those takeaways are even more advantageous for UConn.

She’s added shot-blocking artist to her resume this season, becoming especially good at trailing the guard (or ballhandler) on a pick-and-roll to reject the shot from behind.

Her block percentage ranks in the 99th percentile of all Division I players, per CBB Analytics. What’s impressive about Bueckers’ defensive activity is that she’s still averaging fewer than two fouls per game; she’s retained her discipline on that end while becoming more disruptive.

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Now that she’s a senior, Bueckers has to assert herself as a leader on the Huskies, something she reflected on when asked about the burden JuJu Watkins has carried for USC this season.

“I think success is a process,” Bueckers said. “It’s tough, especially as a freshman to be leading your team like that, have no experience in this sort of environment, on this stage, and lead your team.

You feel a lot of pressure. … Getting here, feeling this loss, we’ve been a part of it, it’s very motivating. It lets you build experience on how to be better, how to learn from it.”

When Auriemma was recruiting Bueckers, he said his staff knew she would have to figure out how to become more vocal. She used to expect that she could lead by example, simply working hard and trusting her teammates would replicate her approach. As Bueckers has grown, she’s learned she has to actually use her voice.

The results seem to be paying off. Redshirt freshman Ice Brady, who was rehab buddies with Bueckers while the pair were sidelined last season, calls her a great leader.

Edwards says playing with Bueckers makes the team better and her better individually. The Huskies are back in the Final Four, and they’ve all noted that despite the personnel challenges, their confidence level is dramatically higher than last season because they have Bueckers.

The sting of experiencing defeat, and then the pain of not being able to contribute at all for long stretches, has helped morph Bueckers’ psyche. She’s more grateful to be in this position than in 2021 or 2022.

Paige Bueckers making a difference in UConn's early practices

That attitude, combined with the work it took to get back on the court, has made her the best version of herself. Whether it’s her scoring, her defensive playmaking, or the way she brings her teammates along with her, Bueckers is reaching a new peak, as is her team.

“It’s no coincidence that, when you have someone like that on the court, it changes everything about what you can do, and things become possible that weren’t possible before that,” Auriemma said.

(Photo: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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