Why UConn women’s freshman Paige Bueckers could be the national player of the year

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Anyone who had seen Paige Bueckers play before she arrived at UConn knew she was on the verge of taking the women’s college basketball world by storm.

But for her to do so as a freshman, so much so that she’s in the conversation for national player of the year awards? That was less expected.

The 5-11 guard out of Hopkins, Minnesota has already been tabbed Big East player and freshman of the year; Big East Tournament Most Outstanding Player, ESPN.com’s player of the year and an Associated Press First Team All-American. Among other national awards she’s a Nancy Lieberman Award finalist, Naismith Trophy finalist and Wooden Award candidate. The AP and USBWA also give out player of the year awards, and freshmen are not eligible for the Wade Trophy.

”Will she win a player of the year award? Absolutely,” women’s basketball analyst Debbie Antonelli said. “She’ll win one or two or three.”

As she prepares to play in her first NCAA Tournament game Sunday, here’s Bueckers’ case for national player of the year.

She’s one of the most lethal offensive threats

Bueckers came to UConn priding herself as a pass-first point guard. As the season went on, UConn coach Geno Auriemma challenged her to be more selfish.

Ever since, Bueckers has emerged as one of the most lethal offensive threats in the country.

Her field goal percentage (53.9 percent) is 24th in the country but best among guards, and she’s able to score at all levels. She’s the only player in the nation averaging at least 19 points per game and shooting 47 percent or better on 3s, while also making 88.2 percent of her attempts at the rim.

And Bueckers’ signature pull-up jumper? “Magnificent,” in the words of DePaul coach Doug Bruno.

“You just don’t want to see her shoot because you know when she shoots, it’s going in,” said Bruno, whose Blue Demons faced Bueckers twice in the regular season. “You’re already adding the score to UConn’s total when the ball leaves her hand.”

Her visual athleticism, Bruno explains, is what sets her apart, allowing her to see things as they unfold on the court and make quick decisions. It’s something you either have or you don’t, Bruno argues. And Bueckers certainly has it.

Bueckers’ 6.1 assists per game are on pace to set a single-season UConn record. She and fellow freshmen Caitlin Clark of Iowa are the only two players nationally to average at least 19 points and six assists per game.

“[Bueckers] knows the actions of the Princeton [offense] and can read them so well,” Antonelli said. “She can make every shot. She gets herself open because she can work without the ball, and she knows how to read the screening action. She has a high intellect when it comes to reading the defense, reading the second level before she even catches it.”

“I think we toss around the term ‘playmaker’ a little bit too lightly,” added analyst Monica McNutt. “But [Bueckers] is arguably one of the best playmakers in the game right now.”

In nonconference play earlier this season, Bruno’s Blue Demons faced off against Kentucky’s Rhyne Howard and Louisville’s Dana Evans, both of whom are first team All-Americans and Naismith finalists alongside Bueckers.

“I think Paige is better than both of those two,” Bruno said.

“This is a very, very special basketball player,” he said. “She certainly is going to go down as one of the most elite players in the most elite program in the history of college basketball.”

Her impact is felt beyond scoring

Bueckers became the first UConn player to put up 30 points in three straight games, including scoring nearly half of the Huskies’ points when they dethroned then-No. 1 South Carolina on Feb. 8.

But her game isn’t all about flash.

“[Her game] can be very subtle,” McNutt said, “but you can’t miss it at the same time.

When she has command of the floor, Bueckers rarely looks rushed. She averages 4.5 rebounds a game, mostly on the defensive end. Her defense, arguably the area where she can grow the most, has steadily improved since the start of the season. She leads UConn with 2.3 steals per game.

Her consistency stands out, as well. In the single game where she’s scored fewer than 10 points — Jan. 21 at Tennessee — she came close to a triple-double with nine points, eight rebounds and seven assists.

That was also night she hit a 3 with 24 seconds remaining to seal the Huskies’ victory.

“She gives UConn exactly what they need on that night,” play-by-play commentator Lisa Byington said. “If it’s 14 assists, she’ll give it to you. If it’s three-straight 30-point games, she’s going to give it to. If you need a big shot when you twist your ankle on national TV against Tennessee, she’s going make that shot for you. ... She just figures it out in-game ‘this is what I need to do to help my team win.’”

What she’s done on the big stage

A knock on Bueckers’ case is that she hasn’t regularly been tested by the top competition in the country. UConn’s nonconference schedule took a hit this year when high-profile games against Louisville and Baylor were canceled due to COVID-19 issues.

Bueckers will have a chance to prove herself against the top teams in the nation over the next few weeks, but the Huskies did manage three high-profile non-league games against SEC competition: Tennessee (a three-seed in the NCAA Tournament), Arkansas (a four-seed) and South Carolina (a one-seed).

Bueckers’ averages in those games: 22.3 points on 49 percent shooting (33.3 percent on 3s), 4.7 rebounds, 4.7 assists, 2.3 turnovers and 3.0 steals.

No performance was as dazzling as her 31 points against then-No. 1 South Carolina. Bueckers scored the final four points in regulation to force overtime and all of UConn’s nine points in extra time. Her final shot, an off-balanced 3-point heave with 10.8 seconds left in overtime, showed the nation that she wasn’t just destined for greatness, she was already exhibiting it.

“The great ones make you drop your jaw,” said Byington. “I had the luxury of being able to call that moment in that game and my jaw dropped. There’s a little bit of luck there, right? But a little bit of luck and a little bit of specialness, and it just goes hand-in-hand with some one-of-a-kind players.”

What she’s meant to UConn

It was evident early on that Bueckers was UConn’s best player. Going into the NCAA Tournament, she leads the Huskies in scoring (19.7 points per game), assists (6.1 per game), steals (2.3 per game) and minutes (35.7 per game).

UConn finished the regular season No. 1 in the AP poll, andBueckers is a massive reason why.

“The teams that I’m looking at as the best in the country, if you take Paige off of UConn, that team is completely different,” McNutt said. “I think she is such an important part of what they do at the point guard spot, in terms of scoring. UConn, to me, falls out of the top 10 without Paige.”

“I think to be a serious, serious candidate for national player of the year, you have to help your team win,” analyst and former UConn great Rebecca Lobo said. “And she’s certainly done that.”

According to Her Hoop Stats, Bueckers owns 11.0 win shares this season — the most in the country, with Kierstan Bell’s 10.3 being the next highest. Win shares are an advanced stat that “approximates the total number of wins a player produces for her team” through offensive and defensive play. Bueckers’ offensive win shares (7.0) are tied for fifth in the country, and her defensive win shares (4.0) are the most.

“Name one player that’s done more [for her team], let’s put it this way,” Auriemma said at the conclusion of the Big East Tournament. “Name one player that’s taken a team this young to where we are today. Who’s done more than her? And if you can give me a better argument, then I’d say I’ll vote for them, too. But I don’t think you can.”

What voters think

Previous national player of the year races have had clear frontrunners. This year, the race is open. Bueckers is certainly in the conversation, but so are Evans, Howard, Clark and maybe even Baylor’s NaLyssa Smith and Arizona’s Aari McDonald.

Some are more certain than others on how to make their pick.

“Paige’s case as a freshman to be player of the year is incredible,” said McNutt. “You came in with all this hype, in an unusual year and are arguably the biggest piece to your team’s success. And you’re a freshman. Like, come on now. You put all these factors together, and she’s rolled with the punches and won every award and held her own.”

Antonelli is “perplexed” to vote, but she does know she loves watching Bueckers do her thing.

“As a fan, come on now. Who has been more exciting with the ball in her hands [than Bueckers], besides Caitlin Clark? When she has the ball in her hands, she’s exciting. Dana Evans, when she has the ball in her hands, she’s exciting. But they’re not many.”

Different voters have different approaches to voting. Former coach and current analyst Carolyn Peck says she heavily weighs what players are able to accomplish in more regular play against Power 5 competition.

No matter how you look at the national player of the year race, one thing’s for certain: “I would guarantee you the majority if not all of these players would rather win a national championship than be crowned player of the year,” Peck said.

There’s little doubt Bueckers feels the same way.

Alexa Philippou can be reached at aphilippou@courant.com