Less than two minutes into UConn's win over Marquette on Jan. 23, Paige Bueckers was at the top of the key when she spotted Jordan King driving to the basket. Bueckers turned, extended her gangly left arm and poked the ball away. Just 90 seconds later, she was down in the post dealing with former AAU teammate Liza Karlen when King again made her way to the paint. This time, Bueckers slid over and took the charge.
Two defensive possessions, two forced turnovers with instincts and positioning.
"I feel like I don't get a lot of credit on the defensive end," Bueckers said later that night. "For me it's more off the ball than on the ball, just using my IQ and how I see the game. Deflecting things, seeing what other people's tendencies are, what the team's tendencies are and communicating that within the team."
Blessed with a 6-foot frame, a silky smooth jumper, the ability to score from all over the floor and high-level passing chops, Bueckers has always been known for her offense, and that side of the ball will be her calling card on the next level.
But to truly thrive in the pros, she'll have to be able to hang on defense. That's where she's made a concerted effort to be a leader this season, whether she's out on the perimeter or banging in the paint for the short-handed Huskies.
"One of the things we talked about a long time ago -- she doesn't even remember it -- is players that become somewhat legendary, they have two things that they do," UConn coach Geno Auriemma said. "One, whoever they assign to guard her can't guard her, and whoever she guards can't score. When you can put those two things together, then you become the kind of person who can win championships, win games, become the kind of player that people have a tremendous amount of respect for. She wants that."
The stats say so. Bueckers is averaging career-highs in both steals (2.3) and blocks (1.1) per game, leads the team in both categories and has failed to record at least one steal or block just once all season (Nov. 24 vs. UCLA). If you're into advanced numbers, she also has the best Defensive Box Plus/Minus (7.8) of her career.
And the film speaks volumes as well. At times she can get overzealous with her help, but she's routinely wreaking havoc off the ball because, as she said in Milwaukee, she is "a person who sees everything a few steps ahead."
Take this play against Seton Hall, when she starts out guarding in the paint, calls out the screen and the switch ahead of time, then jumps the pass for a steal.
Or here versus DePaul, when she realizes in the middle of chasing her mark around multiple screens that the ball is going to be entered into the post, so she darts in and pokes it away.
Bueckers can also use her intuition as a rim protector, like on this play against North Carolina, when she arrives from the weak side for a huge rejection.
Watch her in person, and the intangibles she brings on that end of the floor are immediately apparent. Her belief that "communication solves almost every problem that can happen on the basketball court" is why she's constantly calling out instructions to her teammates. That's particularly noticeable when she's playing on the backline and can see everything unfolding in front of her. "She's a great vocal leader," freshman guard KK Arnold said. "Her yelling at me, getting me going, really helps me on the court."
One of the biggest compliments you can give Bueckers on her defense is that she cares. "I feel like I've progressed on the defensive end and I'm only looking to get better," she said. She may not rack up awards, but she's not a target either. Given her size, length and positional wherewithal, that should hold true at the next level, whenever she decides to take that step.
In the meantime, her focus is squarely on the Huskies, who are hoping to make another deep run in the NCAA Tournament despite a rash of injuries. To do so, they'll need Bueckers at her best and leading the way -- on both sides of the ball.
"You look around the country, the average kid that scores a lot of points, they think it's somebody else's job to guard the other team's best player," Auriemma said. "So, I'm really proud of her. She wants that challenge."