Ask people who know about Paige Bueckers’ game, and they will provide long, specific lists of all the things she needs to do better. Tara Starks, her AAU coach with the Minnesota Metro Stars, says Bueckers can improve her on-court communication, get stronger, and tighten up her jumper. Her trainer, Chauncee Hollingsworth, points to all those areas, and adds that she could stand to tighten up her handle and get better defensively, too. Point is, Bueckers still has a lot of room to improve.
Which is pretty scary when you realize she’s already the best high school player in the country.
Ask the recruiting analysts, ask Starks or Hollingsworth, ask her teammates, and definitely ask anyone who’s tried to guard her: Bueckers already does a lot of things really well. The 5-11 senior at Hopkins HS in suburban Minneapolis is hyper-skilled, a ferocious competitor and also arguably the most entertaining player in the prep ranks. “I have a certain way I carry myself on the court—confident, not too cocky,” Bueckers says. “I don’t know if there’s another word for ‘swaggy,’ but that’s what people say about my game.”
People say a lot, but a couple of assessments stand out.
“First of all, she’s skilled—super skilled,” Hollingsworth says, before adding with a laugh that “nobody expects her to be that skilled and a white girl.”
Then there’s Starks, who highlights the ability that pops out to anyone who’s ever seen Bueckers play: “She’s like a Magic Johnson type. She sees the floor two or three plays in advance. She passes the ball better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
There’s a lot that sets Bueckers apart, and the differences were apparent early. She doesn’t come from a particularly athletic family, but she embraced the game. “I was one of those kids who played all of the sports, but basketball was different for me,” she says. “I used to be down in the basement drilling [when] it was too cold to go outside. I just fell in love with it.” And while she’s driven to put in the sometimes lonely work that greatness requires, Bueckers’ love for the game is all about the people around her.
“The thing I love most is probably the relationships, playing with my team,” she says. “I don’t think I’d have as much fun if I was playing one-on-one. I put my teammates first, and I love seeing other people succeed. For me it’s all about seeing other people do great things.”
That helps explain the passing—Bueckers’ highlight reel is a ridiculous mix of behind-the-back and no-look dimes—but it’s also at the essence of how she approaches the game. Starks says she sometimes teases Bueckers about “over-cheering” for her teammates, but the coach knows her star player’s enthusiasm is genuine. “If she’s on the bench, she’s cheering, she’s coaching the younger kids. Even if it’s just as simple as a nice pass and someone scores off of it, she’s off the bench cheering.”
Just don’t take that kindness for weakness. Bueckers has that killer instinct that all the greats possess, and woe to the opponent who brings it out of her—like one high school foe last year who got in Bueckers’ face after fouling her to say, “Be quiet, you haven’t even won state.” Bueckers’ reply: “OK, cool. But I do have three gold medals…” To be clear, she was talking about international tournament victories with USA Basketball, and she added a fourth last summer at the FIBA U19 World Cup. Oh, and last spring? She finally led Hopkins to that elusive state title. “We ended up winning by 30,” Bueckers says. “We were not losing that game.”
Now it’s about defending that state title, chasing national POY honors and setting her school’s career scoring record before suiting up for UConn next winter. Yes, she’s still got plenty to work on. Imagine the best getting that much better.
Ryan Jones is a Contributing Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter at @thefarmerjones.
Portraits by Wale Agboola/DEEN