July 14, 2024

If there’s an overriding lesson from the last four years of Paige Bueckers’ college basketball career, it’s this, she explains: “You never know what each day will bring. You never know what life is gonna throw at you.”

There was a time when Bueckers didn’t necessary think that way, when she assumed her plans would come to pass. Like when she arrived in Storrs, Conn., in the fall of 2020. She knew then that her freshman season — already outlined with the COVID-19 protocols of testing, masks and isolation — wouldn’t look exactly the way she always imagined as a kid. Still, when she thought about the four seasons in front of her, there was a sense of expectation and progress: Four years of healthy play, a few national titles, a graduation and at the end of it, a seat at the 2024 WNBA Draft.

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Very little has gone to plan. Bueckers was, in fact, at the 2024 WNBA Draft, but she was there supporting her teammates Aaliyah Edwards and Nika Mühl being drafted. She described the night as “surreal,” having always imagined that the class she entered with alongside Edwards and Mühl would be the class with which she exited. Instead, she’s now watching them begin their WNBA careers on television as she returns to college offseason workouts, using one of the two available redshirt years.

Bueckers has played only two healthy seasons of college basketball, as a freshman, when she was named national Player of the Year, and last season, when she was again an All-American. She has advanced to three Final Fours in four years but never won a title.

She has readjusted her expectations, imagining her name called in the 2025 WNBA Draft. She plans to make the 2024-25 season her last at UConn, she told The Athletic.

“There’s a much larger sense of urgency,” Bueckers said. “This is my last year to get what I came here for, which is a national championship. … No more ‘Passive Paige.’”

As Bueckers enters her final chapter in Storrs, going through her first (and last) college offseason workouts in which she’s completely healthy, she’s focused on definitively shifting her mentality while recognizing the need for flexibility. After all, that’s the lesson the last four years have taught her.

Bueckers’ final shot at a national title will come with some adjustments. Edwards and Mühl are gone. The three returning upperclassmen — Azzi Fudd, Aubrey Griffin and Caroline Ducharme — are coming off injuries. Kaitlyn Chen, a Princeton transfer, is settling into the program after arriving on campus in late May.

But that turnover in roster — nothing new to Bueckers — makes her mental shift that much more important as she prepares to shoulder so much more.

UConn coach Geno Auriemma can point to March to remind Bueckers of her focus. Conversation around Bueckers’ aggressive mentality have been “constant” since she arrived on campus in 2020, he said. But the Huskies’ recent history, an unexpected run to the Final Four, led by Bueckers, provides all the evidence she needs to continue to be a bit more selfish on the floor. Before the Big East tournament, Auriemma said he told Bueckers, “Paige, you need it to get 30 every night. Just make life easier on everybody else. We don’t have a lot of options. We don’t have a lot of choices. So this is what we got. And we can’t be milling around with this stuff.”

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In short: No more Passive Paige.

Through five NCAA Tournament games, Bueckers’ game completely elevated. After averaging 21.3 points, 3.7 assists and 4.8 rebounds a game during the regular season, she averaged 25.8 points, 4.6 assists and 8 rebounds a game, pulling the Huskies to their 23rd Final Four.

“I love to score. I’ve always felt like I’m a pass-first player. I love to get my teammates involved. I love to make sure everybody’s happy,” Bueckers said. “But at the end of the day, everyone is happy when we win, and I think we have a better chance of winning when I’m aggressive.”

Added Auriemma: “She’s too nice, too caring about what other people think. Don’t get me wrong, that’s a great, great quality. I just don’t know if it’s a great quality for (a) killer superstar.”

Bueckers has learned too much over the past four seasons to make too many plans. Everything can change in an instant. She knows, because she has been there (multiple times). But with a heightened sense of urgency, she’s approaching this offseason differently. She wants to come in as a better scorer, passer and rebounder. Ask her where her game can improve, and there is no shortage of options that come to Bueckers’ mind: her range, 3-point shooting, off-the-dribble shooting, one-on-one moves, ballhandling, playing off two feet, experimenting with tempo.

She’s trying not to live in the past too much and also not look too far into the future. She hasn’t rewatched the Huskies’ final game of the 2024 NCAA Tournament yet — a loss to Iowa — but she’ll get there. She knows she has to watch it to completely turn the page from last season. Just like the NCAA Tournament, there will be lessons to glean from those 40 minutes, but Bueckers still wonders if she had been just a bit more aggressive, maybe the game would’ve turned out differently. With one final year at UConn, she’ll make sure not to feel that after any game again, she said.

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“I want to be an unselfish player, somebody that people love to play with, but at the same time, I’m trying to balance that with also being like, a killer, a scorer, a bucket getter,” she said. “It’s always been a battle of me trying to find the happy medium, but I think for the most part from here on out I gotta be more aggressive first.”

(Photo of Paige Bueckers: Steph Chambers / Getty Images)

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