This past December, when SLAM reached out to Paige Bueckers to tell her that she was going to be on the next cover, she responded with just two words: “Why me?” Bueckers, the No. 1 high school girls basketball player in the country and UConn commit, had just received a wave of honors, including the prestigious USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year award. But SLAM cover star? She didn’t see that coming.
“Seeing all the people who were on [the cover] before, I was like, Why me? I’m just a little white hooper from Minnesota,” she laughs. “Seeing that I was going to be on the cover as a high school athlete, it was just amazing, especially because the women’s basketball game doesn’t get as much love.”
Fewer than a handful of high school athletes—Bueckers included—have appeared on a solo SLAM cover over the course of the brand’s 26-year history. That could be some added pressure for an 18-year-old who is already viewed as one of the rising stars of women’s basketball.
But Bueckers has a different relationship to pressure. She seeks high-stakes situations because, quite simply, she wants to be great. Pressure is baked into the path she’s taken.
So when Geno Auriemma told reporters that he expects Bueckers to be an integral part of a UConn title run next season, the pressure didn’t faze her. “Coach told me pressure is when someone’s asking you to do something that you can’t do,” Bueckers says.
But what really drives Bueckers—more than any accolade, trophy or championship—is achieving her full potential. She made a pact with her best friend and 2021 No. 1 recruit Azzi Fudd that they would push each other to become the greatest they can be (“and that would be the greatest of all time”). With a goal as lofty as that, it’s easy to see why expectations of winning NCAA championships or having a solo SLAM cover as a high schooler wouldn’t seem like pressure at all.
“I’m so grateful and I thank God [for my accomplishments]. But at the same time, nobody talks about high school accomplishments or accolades,” Bueckers says. “I don’t want to just be a high school legend. I want to be someone that does it at college and then the pro level. I don’t want to be a bust or somebody that just washes away.”
With a mentality like that, how can you not bet on Paige Bueckers to succeed?
It’s a typically cold and snowy day at Hopkins High School in Minnetonka, MN. The school’s field house contains six full-size basketball courts to accommodate the community throughout the frigid months when it’s too cold to go outside. At least 50 state championship banners stretch across the wall—the latest, a 2019 girls basketball state title.
Gunna and Drake reverberate off the walls as Bueckers poses for the camera in her black high school uniform with royal blue trim. Completing the look with the “Pinnacle” Air Jordan VIs and her signature dutch braids, Bueckers’ photo shoot drip is as swaggy as her play on the court.
Bueckers does an in-and-out dribble and goes between her legs before pointing at the camera. A grin crosses her face as if she’s saying to a defender, Don’t smile, you’re next. On the next shot, Bueckers whips the ball around her back, always on target, always without a glance to where she’s passing. The moves are done slowly for the camera, but they’re executed so well that they could work in a game.
These are just some of the indisputable facts about Paige Bueckers’ game: She does not look when she passes the ball. She successfully pulled a Shammgod in a game. And she’s certified #UnicornFam. Just ask Jalen Green.
Her high school coach, Brian Cosgriff, compares her game to “Pistol” Pete Maravich, one of the most creative offensive players in the history of basketball. Her AAU coach, Tara Starks, compares her game to Magic Johnson, a preternatural passer and OG #UnicornFam. Others compare her game to Diana Taurasi, who plays with unmatched passion and makes a strong case for being the GOAT of women’s basketball.
Bueckers’ game also has high levels of swagginess that would make any of the previously mentioned greats proud. “I don’t know if there’s another word for swaggy, but I guess that’s what people say,” Bueckers explains. “I have a certain way I carry myself on the court. I’m confident. I’m not too cocky, but if someone talks trash to me, then I’m going to talk trash.”
By nature, Bueckers looks to make the right play for her teammates and put them in positions to succeed. But when the offense breaks down or the game is on the line, she wants to take the big shot. “We always say, We have Plan A, and if that doesn’t work, we go to Plan P,” Cosgriff laughs.
It might be an oversimplification, but the origin of the Paige Bueckers who regularly embarrasses defenders on social media feeds can be traced back to a number. Bueckers began to wear No. 1 during the eighth grade, and the rest was history. “That’s when I became a killa,” she says. “I became a true hooper.”
Bueckers was still very skinny, earning her the nickname “Olive Oyl” from her coaches. But she began to feel comfortable enough with her dribble moves that she brought out a few during games (defenders’ ankles be damned).
“I always practiced [the moves], but I never had the audacity to do it in a game,” Bueckers says. “It’s still like how I am now. I have a couple of moves in my bag that I’m too scared to pull out in a game yet just because I might lose it or something might go wrong.”
As an eighth grader, she came off the bench to shoot 7-8 from three-point range, and according to Cosgriff, “She basically won us the game.” Later that season, she would lead Hopkins to the first of four straight state championship games.
By her freshman year, she was already the best player on her team.
With high-major colleges already taking notice, she sat down with Starks and made some goals for her high school career.
One by one, she completed each goal: Make Team USA, get a scholarship offer from UConn, win an EYBL national championship. But one goal—winning a state championship—kept eluding her. After losing three straight years in the state championship game, literally nothing was going to stop Bueckers from taking home the trophy last spring.
“I woke up at 5 in the morning, and I threw up. I was sick the rest of the week after the state championship, but I definitely played in the state championship and won,” Bueckers recalls with a smile.
The win capped off an undefeated season—a feat that Hopkins is trying to replicate this year. And with her final goal completed, Bueckers gave herself a few more: Win a GEICO national championship, play in the McDonald’s and Jordan All-American games, win a national championship at UConn, become an NCAA All-American, go No. 1 in the WNBA Draft, win a WNBA championship and become an Olympian.
Ask Paige Bueckers, and she’s just as likely to go viral on TikTok as she is on the basketball court (“I’m going TikTok famous pretty soon here. I’m a good dancer for sure”). She’s a self-professed night owl who’s hooked on Disney+ (“Now, it’s Hannah Montana. I’m stuck on that right now”). She’s a picky eater who wants to put the world on to strawberries with Nutella (“I usually stick to the basic or the unhealthy foods”). Even though she’s lived her whole life in Minnesota and will play college ball in Connecticut, she says she despises cold weather (“I don’t like snowstorms, I don’t like being cold, I don’t like winter. Snow, it’s just gross”).
Before the bright lights of college basketball come calling, Bueckers is unapologetically enjoying her senior year of high school. When she’s with her friends away from the court, Bueckers is always making jokes, dancing and just being downright silly. Despite her hundreds of thousands of followers, you can’t detect even one ounce of ego.
“[I try to] never get any type of way because I’m getting more attention or have more followers or I get more likes than somebody,” Bueckers says. “It makes no sense at the end of the [day] to just think that I’m better than a person just because of that. I just try to stay humble and stay true to myself.”
After practice and film, her teammates hang around to support Paige during her cover shoot. Between shots, they joke around and encourage Paige to show off some of her famous dance moves. Of course, Paige obliges them by hitting a perfectly-timed Woah when they least expect it—causing her friends to erupt in laughter. You’d never know it, but just yesterday, Bueckers dropped 14 dimes in a game with a 101.3-degree fever.
UConn can wait, turning pro can wait. For now, she’s just being a kid and enjoying her first SLAM cover shoot.
In a few years, she could be carrying the torch for women’s basketball. She knows that this particular torch isn’t made for everyone. It will take a special talent and a person with thick skin and plenty of resiliency. It will require doing what’s necessary to grow the sport. It will take compassion for the small-minded people whose Twitter fingers make cowardly comments.
“Girls sports don’t get a lot of attention and definitely don’t get the attention they deserve. Obviously, if you look at some of the posts that go around with me or other girl hoopers, there’s a lot of negativity, negative comments saying how we shouldn’t be playing sports. I just think that those people who are commenting, they’re not on the SLAM cover,” Bueckers says.
“So just being able to set that standard that we girls can do amazing stuff just like the guys can, it means a lot to me to be able to be the face of something that big.”
So back to the original question: Why Paige Bueckers? Because she’s doing absolutely amazing stuff right now.
Ryne Nelson is a Senior Editor at SLAM. Follow him on Twitter @slaman10.
Portraits by Matthew Coughlin.