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The whole world is watching, but UConn prize freshman Paige Bueckers would rather pass

Usually, freshmen on the UConn women's basketball team are afforded a little bit of leeway by coach Geno Auriemma. Paige Bueckers, the No. 1 recruit nationwide in the high school class of 2020, who immediately landed herself in the Huskies' starting lineup, is not one of those freshmen.

"Our freshmen get away with murder," Auriemma was saying on a recent video conference about the difference between what is expected of a normal freshman and what is expected of Bueckers. "They can do whatever they want. Some freshmen though, when they get here, they're so good. I know they're good and they know they're good.

"They don't have it so easy here."

And so following each of third-ranked UConn's six games so far, Auriemma has fielded questions about Bueckers, the personable 5-foot-11 guard from Hopkins, Minn.

Bueckers leads No. 3 UConn (6-0 overall, 5-0 Big East) in scoring with 18.2 points per game headed into Saturday's league matchup with Providence at Gampel Pavilion. She also leads in assists with (5.2), steals (2.7) and is shooting 50% from 3-point range (9-for-18).

Always, Auriemma leads with how supremely talented Bueckers is. He's called her a five-tool player, a potential national player of the year candidate, a deft passer, a good teammate, a second coming of UConn great Diana Taurasi.

Generally, his depiction of her leads to a few jabs revolving around why Bueckers won't shoot more.

"Paige didn't feel like shooting the ball tonight for whatever reason," Auriemma said following UConn's win over Creighton on Dec. 17, in which Bueckers finished 4-for-10 shooting for 11 points. "I think she was too pass-happy. She wants to make everybody feel great, you know?"

Auriemma wasn't done yet.

"If I could shoot like Paige, first I'd get 20, then I'd make everybody else feel great. She's got it backwards a little bit. ... Man oh man. Man, let me shoot like that. I'd still be playing even at my age. I'd be playing in those beer leagues: 66-and-under."

Auriemma is working to make a star a star, even if Bueckers is still somewhat reticent.

Bueckers' high school resume was marquee material. She was the 2020 Gatorade National Girls' Basketball Player of the Year, then Gatorade Female Athlete of the Year for all sports.

She arrived at UConn speaking easily to the media about using the platform she's been afforded to advocate for Black Lives Matter on behalf of her little brother Drew, who is Black. Bueckers is at times almost giddy when asked to speak about one of her teammates.

But when it comes to herself ... Bueckers averaged 21.0 points, 9.2 assists per game as a senior in high school, guiding Hopkins to a 30-0 record. And it's been difficult for her to want to change that ratio, using her remarkable court vision to always find an open teammate, no matter how much Auriemma implores her to shoot.

"I've always been a pass-first player, so it's definitely different for me coming in," Bueckers said, "especially me being new to the team for him to want me to take that many shots. But it's something I'm trying to adjust to each and every game."

In UConn's last game against DePaul, Dec. 29, Bueckers had 18 points, six rebounds and four steals with only one turnover. She shot 4-for-6 from 3-point range. She was named Big East Freshman of the Week for the third time.

"I mean, I didn't have a very good shooting night under my standards," Bueckers said. "I think I got to the spots I wanted to, (but) the shots didn't fall. For me it's just trying to keep up my confidence and knowing that shots aren't always going to fall but I have to take the next one."

****

Back to Auriemma's comparison this week of a typical UConn freshman vs. Bueckers.

"Somebody like Paige. Paige is really good. Paige is really good," Auriemma said. "I'm not boasting, but if I talked to every single coach in America and they told you they'd rather have their freshmen than Paige, I would tell you they're only saying that to be nice to their own players because there's things they've seen Paige do that no other freshman can do."

Her first career basket against UMass Lowell on Dec. 12, Bueckers scored on an offensive rebound, collecting a miss at the top of the key off a 3-point shot by teammate Christyn Williams and winding her way to the hoop.

At Seton Hall a few days later, Bueckers took an inbounds pass with 5.3 seconds remaining in the third quarter and tiptoed her way down the left sideline to score and draw a foul at the buzzer, completing the three-point play.

She is shooting 55.1% (43-for-78), not just a freshman but an otherworldly one.

That's why Auriemma treats her differently.

"My goals for Paige are to be Paige," Auriemma said. "'Listen, this is your first year in college, so these are the mistakes you're going to make.' Having said that, 'Paige, if you play like a freshman, we're going to lose. So no pressure or anything and I don't want you to not sleep good at night, but I'm telling you right now, if you play like a freshman, we're going to lose.

"'How do you feel? OK with that?' The look on her face is, 'Well, why would I expect anything different.' Some freshmen, you can treat them like juniors and seniors and that's how I treat Paige. In my mind, there isn't anything Paige can't do on the court."

****

In Bueckers' first game, she shot 8-for-11 and finished with 17 points, nine rebounds, five assists and five steals. (She was 19-for-25 in her first two games with a career-high 25 points coming at Seton Hall).

It was after Bueckers' debut Auriemma gave one of his lengthiest assessments of his prized freshman, saying that he doesn't believe there's any facet of the game with which she's not comfortable. He said it will only get better from here.

"Well, I don't know," Auriemma began. "I mean, when you come advertised as you're better than every flavor of ice cream that ever was invented and you play a game like you played today, there's probably some people out there that are probably going to go, 'Ahh, she's not all she's cracked up to be.'

"I think Paige was Paige. Paige did all the things that Paige does. ... It doesn't really matter what part of the game you want to analyze. Can she pass the ball? You saw that. Can she shoot it? You saw that. Can she get to the basket? Yeah. She'll try to play defense and she gets in the passing lanes.

"In baseball they would call that a five-tool player. When you look at Paige she's a five-tool basketball player."

Auriemma said that Bueckers is akin to Taurasi in that she makes every player on the floor better with her talent and her unselfish play — "that's why all the other players love her, that's why they feel so comfortable around her," Auriemma said.

UConn redshirt junior Evina Westbrook called Bueckers "a joy to play with, honestly."

"She's amazing," Westbrook said. "She loves to facilitate the ball, get a lot of people involved when she can create her own shot at any time. Just make sure you're always looking for her; she will get you the ball. Just the type of teammate that she is is outstanding."

Bueckers isn't much for reading her own press clippings. Her modesty won't allow her to celebrate too vociferously or to be too disappointed over a missed shot.

The same thing goes for other peoples' expectations of her. She knows that her own expectations for herself are maybe higher than anyone else's anyway.

"I talked to coach about that the other day," Bueckers said of the lofty expectations that surround her. "... Just trying to live up to what I know I can do and what my coaches want me to do and what my teammates need me to do. I try not to focus on what everybody else thinks and what everybody else wants me to do because I'm not going to be perfect at the end of the day.

"I just work to be the best version of myself."

Said Auriemma of Bueckers: "She just has a little bit of a knack for the game. ... She's got a lot to learn, don't get me wrong. But there's something special about her. There's something unique about her. And anybody who watches her play, it doesn't take long for them to figure that out."

v.fulkerson@theday.com 

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