2020 Gatorade high school female athlete of the year: Paige Bueckers - Sports Illustrated

Paige Bueckers is the Gatorade Female High School Athlete of the Year

She torched Minnesota high school hoops and is headed to UConn. With a following already bigger than many pros, she's basketball's next star.
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At one of her basketball games last winter, Paige Bueckers’s extended family made small talk with the people seated next to them. Where are you from? North Carolina. And what brought you here to Minnesota?

Paige, they said. The North Carolina family had flown to Minneapolis just to come to this high school gym and watch the 18-year-old phenom: Their young daughter was obsessed with her.

That seemed unbelievable, recalls Paige’s mother, Amy. But perhaps it shouldn’t have. Bueckers had recently been named USA Basketball Female Athlete of the Year. She’d just graced her first solo national magazine cover. (SLAM, in January, which deemed her “the most electrifying high school player in the world.”) The 5' 11" UConn-bound guard had hundreds of thousands of social media followers and dozens of dedicated fan pages. Amy knew her daughter could fill a gym—but prompting a pilgrimage from several states away? That seemed like another level.

And yet, that would be eclipsed a few weeks later, when another set of new faces showed up to the gym at Bueckers’s Hopkins High School: Timberwolves stars Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell, who sat at center court for one of the last games of her high school career. (She scored 33, with seven assists and seven rebounds.) “Next time, I need a jersey,” Russell tweeted. “She’s different ... sheesh,” Towns replied.

It’s a good summary of the Paige Bueckers Experience: She’s different. Now, she wants to make sure everyone knows it.

Bueckers’s high school coach, Brian Cosgriff, knew that the point guard was special long before she was on his team. He saw her play for the first time when she was in elementary school—the tiniest one on the court, playing up a few grades, but “just tearing everybody up,” he says.

That didn’t go away. When Bueckers was ready to join his varsity squad in eighth grade, she was still small and so thin that she earned the nickname Olive Oyl. But her game was impossible to ignore. “Honestly, anybody who tries to sit there and say they taught her this, or they taught her that—no,” Cosgriff says. “She was born with it.”

Watch Bueckers play, and that seems evident. Any given highlight reel will include some slick baskets and probably a few steals, but what especially stands out is her passing. It suggests an uncommon relationship with the laws of physics—seemingly unconstrained by pressure, time or space. No target is off-limits. Bueckers sees everything. The result is a passing catalog that includes every flavor of jaw-dropping: no-look, cross-court, off the break. It’s all pulled off with an economy of movement that would seem automated if it wasn’t so balletic.

“Yeah, I don’t know where I got that from,” Bueckers laughs. “I just feel like I see plays two or three steps ahead.”

This kind of vision allows her to elevate the game of everyone around her and makes her a natural leader on the floor. “She’s got the mentality that if I pass and you score, that’s just as fun for me as if I have the bucket,” says UConn women’s basketball coach Geno Auriemma. “And that’s rare in a player that can score so easily herself.”

Hopkins’s record with Bueckers speaks for itself. The team qualified for the state title game in each of her five seasons and was undefeated across her junior and senior years. Her career was cut short by COVID-19: The state championship game was canceled just before it was scheduled to take place, denying her a chance at a second consecutive title and for a 62-game winning streak to become 63. But there’s no question about her legacy.

This means that she has little experience with losing. (Bueckers has won plenty on Team USA, too, with gold medals at the U-17 and U-19 FIBA World Cups.) At UConn, she’s planning for more of the same: It’s been her “dream school” forever, she says, and she’s hoping to join a new era of domination in Storrs. While the storied program has not won a title since 2016—a serious drought, by its standards—she’s determined to return the Huskies to glory.

“I hate losing. If we could go undefeated all four years, that would be great,” Bueckers says. “Being realistic, though, that’s probably not going to happen.”

More pragmatically, then? She’d take four national titles.

“You have to have a little bit of cockiness,” Auriemma says, “and she’s got just enough of it. But at the same time, there’s a humble quality to her that I really admire.”

Bueckers says that, in Storrs, she wants to let her game speak for itself. To that end, she says she’s trying to cut down on her trash talk, but Cosgriff laughs at that idea: “She might think that, but I’ve had enough arguments with her to know, Paige has to have the last word.”

Paige Bueckers is the 2020 Gatorade high school female athlete of the year

If all this seems liable to invite a lot of hype, Bueckers was going to have the hype, and then some, anyway: There’s never been a female player who’s entered her freshman year with such an established fan base.

Bueckers’s 550,000-plus followers on Instagram are unmatched for a teen in her shoes. (For context, it’s more than double the followers of Breanna Stewart, triple that of Chiney Ogwumike, and six times that of Diana Taurasi, all of whom are active on the platform.) Bueckers has grown increasingly comfortable under that spotlight, however, which reflects a shift in the last few years, says her mother.

“I just noticed a transition in her confidence level,” says Amy. “How she would handle the big-pressure situations—she just took everything in stride. She took it very seriously, but she didn’t have a lot of nerves, and she became so much more comfortable. Her personality started to come through.”

As she received more buzz, Bueckers became more secure as the “goofy kid” that she was with her family, now at ease with herself in front of crowds and cameras. “She just reminds me of an old-fashioned kid,” Auriemma says. “It almost feels like 30 years ago when I first came to UConn—those kids walked around like, what’s the big deal? ... She doesn’t seem like this kid walking around with an aura.”

If not for the basketball highlights—and the thousands of comments—her social media presence could pass for that of any teen, playing around with her siblings and dancing on TikTok. She’d never had trouble putting all of herself on the court. But now, she was more confident off it—which also meant speaking up more about what matters to her, like Black Lives Matter.

“I’m just trying to use this in a positive way,” she says. “It’s kind of cool to think about how someone my age, a female athlete, can have all that attention.”

Her combination of platform and game has come with proclamations that she’s the future of women’s basketball—if not of basketball, period. But she feels ready for that, too.

“I think the women’s game deserves a lot more respect,” she says. “And it’s a really exciting time right now for us, because I think we’re getting there. ... I feel like I can really try to help that.”

Because of the pandemic, Bueckers’s move-in date at UConn was pushed from May to June to July. The delays made it a bit anticlimactic—enough so that she asked her parents if they’d be hurt that she wasn’t sad when it was time for her to finally leave. (Her mother jokingly asked why she was so sure they’d be sad to finally watch her leave.) Now, at last, she’s trying to settle in as she begins workouts with her new teammates.

As she does, people could do worse than adopting some wisdom from her high school coach.

“The best thing I ever did,” Cosgriff says, “was stay the hell out of her way.”