Tuesday, April 23, 2024
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Paige Bueckers’ dominant performance for UConn vs. Syracuse is why she’ll be WNBA Draft’s No. 1 pick in 2025

UConn was on the ropes. The Huskies hadn’t missed a Sweet 16 since 1993, and it was starting to look like that decades long streak might come to a close.

Late in the fourth quarter of their 72-64 win in the second round of the 2024 NCAA Women’s Basketball Tournament on Monday night, starting point guard Nika Muhl had fouled out and Syracuse had cut UConn’s lead to just two points with an 8-0 run. That’s when Paige Bueckers took control of the situation. 

First, with just under two minutes to play, she sized up the defense at the top of the key, got to her spot in the mid-range and buried a jumper to push the Huskies’ lead back to four points. A minute later, down on the other end of the floor, she dove on a loose ball and wisely called timeout to get her team an extra possession. Then, on the ensuing play, she drew a triple team and made a perfect pass to KK Arnold, who buried a 3-pointer to seal the game. 

Bueckers’ three game-saving moments were a microcosm of her brilliant overall performance. She finished with 32 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and four steals on 14-of-25 shooting to send UConn to the Sweet 16 for a record 30th consecutive year. In the process, she showed why she’ll be the No. 1 overall pick in the 2025 WNBA Draft. 

Last month, after UConn’s win over Georgetown on senior night, Bueckers addressed the adoring crowd inside Gampel Pavilion and told them exactly what they were hoping to hear: she had decided not to turn pro and would return to school for the 2024-25 season. That ensured more nights like Monday, but Bueckers will eventually leave for the WNBA. When she does, she’ll be one of the best perimeter prospects to ever enter the league. 

Bueckers can truly do it all, and it starts with her scoring. As we saw against Syracuse, she can create her own look at any point, and is comfortable and efficient at all three levels. She’s averaging 21.5 points, and the only reason she is not going to join the 50/40/90 club this season is because she’s shooting only 84.6% from the free throw line. 

Her off-the-dribble prowess, especially from the mid-range — 49.2% on pull-up two-pointers — makes her extremely difficult to stop. At six-feet, she has the size to see over any perimeter defender, and once she gets to her spot there’s not much you can do besides hope that she misses. Against Syracuse, that didn’t happen very often. 

When she needs to, Bueckers can turn it on and really pile up the points. For the most part, though, she picks and chooses her spots, and makes sure to get her teammates involved. Don’t let her career-low 3.8 assists per game fool you, that number undersells her vision and passing ability. 

Just look at these two feeds. On the first, she gets into the teeth of the defense, reads the big stepping up and delivers a perfect drop-off bounce pass to Aaliyah Edwards for a bucket. Later, she once again draws multiple defenders with a dribble drive. This time, she kicks the ball out to the corner and Ashlynn Shade buries a 3 to beat the buzzer. 

Bueckers’ defense is the most underrated aspect of her game. She may not rack up awards on that side of the ball, but she has great size and length on the perimeter and understands the game. That alone can get you pretty far, and Bueckers combines it with a real desire to make an impact on defense. 

Early on against Syracuse, Bueckers made an impact off the ball by jumping into passing lanes. But down the stretch, after Muhl had fouled out, she became the primary defender on Dyaisha Fair, the Orange star who became the third-leading scorer in Division I women’s basketball during the game. Bueckers shut her down, which helped ensure the victory. 

“We have the best player in America,” UConn head coach Geno Auriemma said. “Just saying that because the numbers, in this world of analytics, say that she is. And the stat sheet says that she is. And everybody that watched knows it.”

Whether Bueckers is actually the best player in the country could be up for debate. What’s not is that very few players, at any level, have her combination of size, skills and feel for the game. When she does decide to make the leap to the WNBA, she should be the No. 1 pick in the 2025 draft. 

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