UConn's Paige Bueckers: Expectations, pandemic don't dampen start of college career

Paige Bueckers won't predict four NCAA titles like Breanna Stewart did, but it's her goal. "I want to win four. Everybody should want to win four," Bueckers said. Aaron Lavinsky/Star Tribune via Getty Images

As often as she hears some variation of the question, UConn freshman Paige Bueckers admits she still doesn't have a good answer. What is someone still two months shy of her 19th birthday supposed to say about comparisons to Breanna Stewart and Diana Taurasi?

Legends who preceded Bueckers won championships. They won gold medals. They changed the sport. Barely two weeks after arriving on campus for her freshman year -- and what she adamantly hopes will be her freshman season amid the uncertainty of a pandemic -- the nation's top recruit is just getting started.

She is still hearing her footwork critiqued in workouts, for goodness' sake.

She doesn't know what to make of comparisons to people whose lived experiences remain for now the stuff of her dreams.

But they didn't live Bueckers' reality, either. Not as college freshmen. Not amid a pandemic that endangers far more than a college basketball season. And not amidst a social justice movement that the Minneapolis-area native watched gain the national spotlight after the death of George Floyd in police custody -- a movement that she fervently hopes makes the world safer and kinder for her 7-year-old biracial brother.

Bueckers is living through a year unlike any that her predecessors experienced at her age. She might well be a generational talent. But first she has to get through a year that will shape a generation.

She hopes that the year still includes basketball games -- even as she and her UConn teammates are currently limited to contact, on and off court, with "pods" of housemates as part of the school's coronavirus protocols. In her case, that means sophomore Aubrey Griffin, junior Christyn Williams and fellow freshman Piath Gabriel are the only players she can practice or hang out with.

Facing myriad challenges because of the pandemic, UConn last week became the first FBS program to call off its football season. Still, while Williams admitted Monday that the football decision was worrying in relation to basketball season and Geno Auriemma expressed skepticism about college sports, Bueckers held firm.

"We don't really talk about it a whole lot as a team, but I'm confident there will be a season," Bueckers said Monday during Zoom media calls with UConn women's basketball players. "I'm not really sure how they're going to do it, but we're working and we're practicing and we're lifting as if the season is normal and the season is going to continue. ... Until they cancel the season we're going to work."

She is hopeful, on the other hand, the other force animating 2020 will lead to long-lasting change. Not for her sake as much as for the sake of her younger brother, Drew.

If not for the pandemic, Bueckers said she would have left for Storrs toward the end of May. Instead she was still home in Minnesota in the days that followed George Floyd's death in police custody on May 25. She said she participated in marches and food drives for the communities affected by the protests that roiled Minneapolis. Bueckers, who is white, acknowledged that she understands she doesn't experience the same injustice as members of the Black community. She also knows Drew might.

"It sucks having to have those conversations with your little brother on how he should act because of his skin color," said Bueckers. "And him being only 7, it's even harder because he's so young he doesn't truly understand it. It's been hard having those conversations. And yeah, I'm scared for him and scared for myself because that's my little brother, my best friend, really. I'm really close to him. Just having that fear of one wrong judgement and his life could be on the line, it's super scary and it's something I want to change -- something I want to help change."

Less than a week after Floyd's death, UConn's women's basketball players issued their own statement supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and decrying the country's history of racial injustice -- a statement Williams said was solicited with input from everyone. With six freshmen and only two players who have played more than a season for the Huskies, it's all we know of this team's identity for the time being.

During Monday's video conferences, for example, freshman Autumn Chassion was among a handful of players who wore T-shirts with "Arrest the cops who killed Breonna Taylor" printed on the front.

"Being a Black girl in this world right now and with everything going on," Chassion said, "Just to have this platform and see other women having that same platform and using it to their advantage to advocate for Black Lives Matter and police brutality and that type of thing, absolutely that does weigh in on my [wanting to be a part of UConn basketball]."

The past two months haven't diminished the belief they can make a difference and effect permanent change.

"I'm very optimistic," Williams said. "I think some things have already changed. I think it was our best foot forward. Like when was the last time you saw all this stuff on social media? People are supporting the movement, people are talking about it, people are having hard conversations about it. So I'm really hopeful. It's very unfortunate that [Floyd's death] had to happen for it to move forward, but I am very hopeful that it is going to move forward and make positive change."

Even with the national player-of-the-year awards and all of the recruiting accolades, that might also be as much a part of Bueckers' initial UConn identity as anything else.

"I'm all for it," Bueckers said of Black Lives Matter. "And if I lose supporters because they don't agree with it, then I don't need those people anyway on my side."

She is in regular contact with Stewart and other recent UConn players who are using the shortened WNBA season to call attention to the same issues.

"They've really used their platform to do great things in the social justice campaign, and I've just tried to follow in their footsteps," Bueckers said. "We talked about it and they just said to keep your voice and don't ever be silent, don't ever let up. We don't want this to be a one month thing or something that dies down, we want it to continue. Just keep pushing for social justice and equality."

It's one way, at least, she finds herself a peer to the players to whom she is often compared. She will have the opportunity to prove the rest with time. Sooner rather than later, she hopes.

And while she wouldn't follow Stewart out onto the limb of predicting four championships before she plays a game for Huskies, a promise Stewart kept, Bueckers left no doubt about the company she aspires to keep on the court.

"It's just never a plan for me to lose -- I'm not going to go out and say I only want to win one or two," Bueckers said with apparent angst at how those words would sound. "I want to win four. Everybody should want to win four. So I don't really understand the problem with people saying that. I mean, that's obviously a goal of mine is to win four national championships, as it should be everybody else's."