Paige Bueckers twirls a pencil in her hand and stares at the blank form. It’s a Thursday night in February, and she’s sitting with teammates at a post-practice pizza-and-pasta party in the Hopkins (Minn.) High School cafeteria. The form is for the team’s forthcoming end-of-year banquet, and the questions are layups. Her nickname? P. Diddy. Her childhood dream job? FBI agent. Where she wants to be in 10 years? The WNBA.
Still, she hesitates over each answer. Turning in this form means facing the end. Right now, she’s the consensus No. 1 player in the 2020 girls recruiting class. There’s a good argument that she’s the best player in high school basketball, regardless of gender. She’s put four gold medals around her neck and a state championship ring on her finger. Before games, she and her teammates go to the mall and gorge on Chick-fil-A sandwiches, and then they beat their opponents by an average of 34.9 points. Her Royals haven’t lost in two years. Her father, Bob, and her seven-year-old brother, Drew, are in the bleachers every night.
Unlike the best boys’ basketball players, who experience the business side of the game as high school freshmen, Bueckers has been able to enjoy a relatively normal teenage life until this season. She’s never transferred high schools, and she still doesn’t have to worry too much about the ulterior motives of teammates or friends. She’s savoring that sweet spot of life, the spring of a senior year, that adults daydream about when they’re pretending to answer emails at work.
But after she turns the form in, everything will be a blur. She’ll be honored at the banquet. She’ll play her last game at Hopkins. She’ll walk across the stage to receive her diploma. She’ll drive across the country to enroll at UConn. She’ll put on her Huskies uniform for her first game. She’ll become the most scrutinized freshman in the country. Basketball will still be a joy, but it will no longer be just that. It will also be a job.
She looks down at the next question: “What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?” She looks up at her teammates, who are loudly debating their favorite Netflix shows and recording TikTok dance videos. She puts her pencil to the paper: “Never forget to have fun.”
“If I sent a message to myself in the future,” she’ll say later, “it would definitely just be to stay true to myself, to always be the same Paige Bueckers I was when I was 18 years old.”
So who is that self? As she scribbles answers to the final questions, a freshman named Taylor Woodson tries to take advantage of her distraction. Bueckers has two frosted cookies on her plate, and Woodson asks for one. Bueckers asks if Woodson already ate one, and she says no. Bueckers stands up to pass her the treat when her teammates’ giggles stop her short. Woodson has one of the very same cookies on her plate. Bueckers rolls her eyes. But Woodson, emboldened, still asks Bueckers to split it with her. Bueckers pauses.
“You remember that three-on-one in our last game,” she asks, “when you pulled up instead of passing?”
“Yeah…” Woodson replies.
“If we get a fast break tomorrow,” Bueckers asks, “what are you going to do?”
“Pass it to you,” Woodson says.
The entire team laughs. They know by now that if you’re running a fast break with Bueckers, she’s going to let you have the bucket. She has no problem scoring her own points, so she tends to give the easy ones away. And she gives the cookie away, too.
“I’m letting you have my favorite cookie,” she says, “just so you know that I love you.”
Then she puts her backpack on and walks out of the cafeteria, leaving the form on the table unfinished.
The next night, Bueckers (pronounced “Beckers”) boards a bus to Buffalo High School for a game. She falls asleep as her suburban city gives way to small towns and frozen cornfields during the 45-minute drive. She yawns as she enters the school’s gym, and hugs a girl on JV as she sits on the bench during the opening game, which Hopkins wins handily. The Buffalo varsity team is 6-14 on the season, and everyone expects the main show to be a blowout. But that doesn’t seem to affect the turnout.
Along the baseline, seven photographers and videographers have assembled in hopes of capturing Bueckers’ next viral highlight. And in the stands, Buffalo’s student section, “The Herd,” has gathered for the first time during the girls’ basketball season. More than 50 students are on their feet in the bleachers before the game tips off, hoping for a long-shot upset. Bueckers puts them back on their butts within minutes.
Five seconds into the game, the 5’11” guard scores on a mid-range pull-up. On the ensuing Buffalo possession, she intercepts a pass at midcourt and jogs in for a layup. On defense, the Royals are pressing, and Bueckers is everywhere. One minute, she’s setting a trap in the corner and forcing a timeout. The next she’s baiting another bad pass and blowing by defenders for another bunny. On offense, she threads double-teams like she’s strolling the through the cafeteria at lunch. Her passes are so stealthy they sometimes land with a thud on her own teammates’ chests. More often, though, they land in the hoop after a wide-open look.
This season, she’s averaging “only” 21.4 points per game—a four-year low—in part because she rarely has to score in the second half, and in part because she’s nearly doubled her number of assists (9.2 per game) from a season ago (5.4). “I think what’s special about Paige is her passing,” Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff says. “I haven’t seen too many females pass like Paige. Plus, she can shoot the basketball, and she’s faster than you think, and she jumps higher than you think. And she’s just got that—she’s just got it. And you don’t know where she got it because Mom and Dad are not very big, and they weren’t great athletes or anything like that. She’s just been blessed.”
Her dad played point guard in high school and coached Paige until she was in elementary school. He and Paige’s mom, Amy, divorced when their daughter was three. Paige stayed in Minnesota with her dad while her mom remarried and moved to Billings, Montana. Bob tried to put Paige in plenty of other sports as a kid, but it was clear by first grade that she was going basketball or bust. Not even the track coach’s promise to buy her ice cream after meets could convince Paige to leave the hardwood for a full day. By fourth grade, people were talking about the possibility of her playing for UConn. By seventh grade, she was playing with high schoolers. By eighth grade, she was on varsity.
At this point in her career, her trophy case would be the envy of some small high schools. She’s won four gold medals and three international tournament titles with USA Basketball. She’s a two-time Gatorade State Player of the Year, and she’s appeared on every All-America list imagined. And she still has another season’s worth of accolades to earn this spring. The only things she’s collected more regularly than these honors are her opponents’ ankles and egos.
Brianna Lewerke for B/R
Last spring, she won her first state championship despite having spent the entire day leading up to the game vomiting. That’s right, she’s already had her own flu game. All of it amounts to a resume that, at 18, has her thinking not just about becoming the best player in the WNBA but also about what it will take to maintain that title for years. “There’s always going to be somebody chasing me, or there’s always going to be somebody better than me,” she says. “I’ll never be able to reach perfection, so I can always strive to be perfect. I’m not at my full potential yet, and I’m just in high school, and I want to keep going—in college and the pros. I want to just keep playing basketball and keep getting better and never get complacent with where I’m at right now.”
Right now, she and the Royals are heading to the locker room with a 47-15 lead at the half. The only drama in the second half comes when an opposing player actually crosses up Bueckers and puts her on the floor. The long-dormant student section rises like a wave and cheers like the home team has tied the score.
In previous seasons, she might have responded with a reckless drive and some spirited trash talk. Last year, she got so fired up at a perceived slight from an opponent that she described the Royals’ next play to her in detail. “There’s gonna be a screen on your left,” Bueckers told her, “but I’m gonna let you come off it clean. And then I’m gonna hit a three in your face.” And she did just that. But now she saves her trash talk for teasing her teammates in practice and for demoralizing opponents who dare try to get under her skin. “If someone talks trash to me,” she says, “I’m going to get hyped. And they’re going to get it back much worse than they gave it.”
But on this night, there’s no boasting, so Bueckers takes it easy on Buffalo, rifling a no-look pass on the next possession that only seemed possible with X-ray vision. “She could score on every possession if she wanted to,” says sophomore Maya Nnaji, herself a coveted recruit. “She’s the best scorer in the nation. But she chooses to be unselfish so that the rest of us can get better and we can win more games.”
A few minutes later, the Royals finish off a 69-34 win. It’s the fifth time this season they’ve more than doubled their challenger’s final tally. (Only two teams have come within 10 points at the final buzzer.) It’s the kind of performance that will result in a half-dozen more clips in her many mixtapes and countless text messages from friends and fellow players. “They’re always saying, ‘Oh, man, UConn needs you right now!'” she says, “but I know it won’t be like that next year. All the players have told me, ‘Your freshman season is going to suck.'”
Indeed, Huskies coach Geno Auriemma is notoriously tough on freshmen, and particularly on his top recruits. And with the program in the kind of mini-slump that only dynastic teams like the New England Patriots can appreciate, the pressure on Bueckers will be enormous. “That’s why I’m just trying to enjoy everything that’s happening now,” she says. “There’s so much left to do before I go.”
Despite the drubbing, a couple dozen Buffalo fans wait for Bueckers after the game. For 18 minutes, she signs every shirt and poster and poses for every picture and selfie. One girl, 13-year-old Allie Leithner, had put the game on her calendar months ago and had reminded her parents to bring her every week since then. After meeting Paige, she started crying. She was so moved that she wasn’t even planning on sharing the image on social media. “I’m going to put it on the poster board in my room,” she says. “That’s where I keep the pictures of all my best friends.”
Already, Bueckers knows she’s an icon for young women. And not just young either: As the line dwindles, two mothers wonder aloud whether it would be weird if they asked Bueckers for a photo. At the end of the impromptu autograph session, Buffalo coach Grant Stewart thanks Bueckers for staying in his school after she just walloped his team. “I’ve never seen something like that at a girls’ high school basketball game,” he says. “But I’ve never seen a player like Paige.”
Brianna Lewerke for B/R
The next morning, Bueckers and her teammates are back at Hopkins to review film from the game. An assistant coach brings doughnuts as a reward for the team’s defensive performance. Bueckers waits for her teammates to make their selections and then plays eenie, meenie, miney, moe to choose her cream-filled, chocolate-frosted and sprinkled breakfast. As the players eat, Cosgriff picks over any small error he can find. But mostly he implores his other players to be more like Bueckers. “Look at Paige run!” he tells the team while watching a loose-ball battle. “Look at her going to get it! What is she doing that the rest of you can’t do? Nothing! It’s just effort!”
His only question for her comes from a moment late in the game, when she appears to say something on the free-throw line. Was she talking trash late in a blowout win? “I was just telling Nnaji that I love her,” she says. The team laughs together.
After film, Bueckers stays behind as Cosgriff checks in on emails between school administrators and organizers of the Geico High School Nationals. State rules forbid teams from participating in tournaments after the conclusion of their season, and it doesn’t seem like the administrators are willing to make an exception. Cosgriff promises Bueckers that he’ll keep pushing for the team to make the trip.
“I hope they let us go,” Bueckers says, “because I’d love to play a little while longer.”