STORRS, Conn. (AP) — Paige Bueckers was about 7, sitting on a couch watching the Los Angeles Lakers, when her dad told her to pay close attention to Kobe Bryant because he was such a clutch player.
Paige asked what that meant and Bob Bueckers explained that Bryant played his best when his team needed him the most.
It was a lesson she took to heart.
The 19-year-old freshman has already hit 3-pointers that sealed wins against rival Tennessee and then-No. 1 South Carolina. She leads the nation in 3-point shooting, hitting just under 56% of her attempts and is UConn’s leader in scoring (21.1 points per game), minutes played (36.5), assists (100) and steals (40).
“It just means a whole lot to me for me to be able to be there for my team, especially when they are counting on me to hit those shots,” Bueckers explained. “Because if I don’t, we lose.”
She is the fourth straight Gatorade high school player of the year to join UConn and the 11th since 1997. But Geno Auriemma said he has asked her to do more than star players such as Diana Taurasi, Maya Moore or Breanna Stewart needed to do in their first years.
“Most of the iconic freshman who’ve come in here have been surrounded by kids that had already been All-Americans,” he said.
Bueckers became a leader early. She can remember a game when she was a third grader, playing on a fifth-grade team that was losing by five points with about seven seconds to go. She hit a 3-pointer, stole the inbounds pass and laid it in.
It wasn’t luck, Bob Beuckers said. He recalls his daughter spending hours practicing her dribbling in the community garage under her family’s condominium in suburban Minneapolis. When she wasn’t there or in a nearby park shooting, she was in her room, working on her form or jumping up against a wall trying to improve her vertical leap, she said.
“Every hour of every single day, I always wanted to have a basketball in my hand,” she said. “I just wanted to be super good at it because I loved it so much and that’s just what I did all the time was play basketball.”
She also played soccer and baseball (she liked that better than softball), where her dad said she excelled as a pitcher, catcher and shortstop with extraordinary hand-eye coordination.
“It’s in her DNA for sure, being able to do what she does,” Bob Bueckers said. “She is blessed with not only talent, but a mind for the game, confidence and athleticism. She got a lethal combo, that’s for sure.”
Bueckers deflects praise, instead crediting her teammates, coaches and a deep faith in God for her success. Former UConn star and now ESPN analyst Rebecca Lobo said that may be one reason those players accept her has a leader, despite her youth.
“She celebrates her teammates more than she ever celebrates herself and that is the kind of teammate that is really, really easy to like,” she said.
Eighteen gams into her college career at the top women’s program of all time, Bueckers has already set records. She’s been named the Big East’s player and freshman of the week for two consecutive weeks. Her 31-point effort against the Gamecocks was the her third straight game scoring at least 30, something no other UConn player — including Taurasi, Moore or Stewart — has ever done.
The coach said he has been impressed by the way his freshman star studies the game. She understands what the other team is doing, when they are switching on screens or going underneath them. To Auriemma, she plays with a calmness that reminds him of NFL great Jim Brown setting up his blocks before exploding through a hole.
“She’s that player,” he said. “She’s that player that comes along that people talk about — ‘Hey did you see that kid from Connecticut?’ She’s that kid.”
Bueckers and Auriemma also seem to understand each other. She said she enjoys being challenged, and knows that is what her 66-year-old coach is doing when he gets on her in practice, calling her a “walking turnover” or asking if she plans to hit any shots that day.
“I’m just trying to prove him wrong and make him be quiet sometimes,” she said. “You have to take it, swallow it and get better from it.”
Lobo said she has been impressed by Bueckers’ confidence and ability to get her teammates to listen to her, something Lobo and other stars at Connecticut weren’t asked to do until they were upperclassmen.
“The whole time, she’s seeing things that others don’t see,” Lobo said. “So for her to grow and feel comfortable to say to a junior, ‘This is what you need to do or this is what they are doing and this is how we counter it,’ to be that voice in the huddle is important.”
Bueckers has heard the talk that she would be an WNBA lottery pick as soon as she is eligible. But she said she plans to earn her degree at UConn before moving on to fulfill her dream of playing professionally.
One of her best friends, 2018-19 high school player of the year Azzi Fudd, has been recruited to join her at UConn next season and she’s looking forward to that partnership and to playing in front of UConn fans once the pandemic is over.
She’s also thought about her future after basketball and is considering a degree in communications and sports broadcasting. She was asked recently by assistant coach Jamelle Elliott about one day becoming a coach.
“That will always be in the back of my head, because I never want to get away from basketball,” she said. “But I told (Elliott) that kids don’t listen well enough and I don’t have the patience.”