Azzi Fudd was surprised reporters didn’t see her teammate Paige Bueckers flexing her muscles during UConn coach Geno Auriemma’s summer charity golf event.
“She’s in love with her new muscles,” Fudd said with a laugh.
Andrea Hudy, UConn women’s basketball director of sports performance, has seen the same excitement from Bueckers in the weight room. “She’s very proud of herself and that makes me happy,” Hudy said.
Bueckers plays with passion and isn’t shy about following up tough plays by stretching out her arms and flexing her biceps. Bueckers exudes an infectious confidence that hypes up her teammates, a trait even famous UConn alumna Sue Bird has noticed. “When she hits a big shot, she’s getting hype, you can see it on her face de ella, you can see when she flexes her little baby muscles,” Bird told The Athletic this spring.
This offseason, Bueckers has focused on transforming those baby muscles into grown-up muscles. Hudy says Bueckers added 10 pounds since the start of her first full healthy college offseason ― keeping it on more consistently than ever before in her young career.
Bueckers has been one of college basketball’s brightest stars despite her slender 5-foot-11 frame. She won national freshman of the year awards and followed up as a sophomore by coming back from a lengthy in-season injury to lead the Huskies to the national championship game. She plays with fearlessness, and her court vision of her creates highlight-reel plays. She has a clutch shot and produced a team-high 14.6 points and 3.9 assists per game last season.
Bueckers’ plan to bulk up revolves around a plan to help her stay healthy and achieve goals this season and beyond. She can better contend with opponents who gameplan to stymie her by playing physically against her — just look how South Carolina swarmed the point guard in the title game and how Bueckers was tossed around in an NCAA Tournament win over UCF. Though Bueckers loves challenging moments, she’s constantly in the fray and making the play often means ending up on the hardwood. This past season especially, every fall to the floor sent waves of worry through fans who were concerned about another injury.
Success in the WNBA — which could come as early as next season for Bueckers — requires guards who can hold their own physically, too.
“She’s different,” Hudy said. She’s special. You can tell that both mentally and physically. But we knew, though, that she needed to increase some body mass and get some tissue density. We knew that. And the great thing and what I’m so proud of Paige for is that she’s done it on her own de ella, you know, with a little bit of guidance.
It’s a lesson UConn alumna Breanna Stewart understood as she transitioned to a pro career. Though Stewart is a 6-4 forward, she’s had to work to keep lean muscle on her naturally thin frame. Stewart and Bueckers had different UConn strength coaches, but both learned to spend more time in the weight room over their college careers.
“It just makes you have better stability and body control,” said Stewart, who plays for the Seattle Storm. “And just realizing that when you put all this work into your body, it’s going to help make you feel better and make you more efficient at what you do.”
Bueckers knows she’ll likely remain long and lanky, but it’s about adding as much muscle to her frame as possible. She’s already garnered inspiration from new freshmen on campus, Isuneh “Ice” Brady and Ayanna Patterson. Bueckers describes both as gifted in the weight room.
“I’m like, dang, man, must be nice,” Bueckers said. “I feel like there’s some people who cannot lift a weight in their life and go in the weight room for the first time and it looks like they’ve been lifting weights for forever. So I’m just not one of those people. So I have to work extremely hard for every ounce of muscle I have. So not to say that the other people don’t, but it’s just like, I feel like they’re a little bit more gifted in that regard than me.”
Instead of going home like the rest of her teammates, Bueckers is dedicating the time to bulk up by staying on campus. Coach Geno Auriemma said to her, “Paige, you know, you do a lot for a lot of people. I think it’s time to start doing a lot of stuff for yourself.” Bueckers admits she’s “sort of a people pleaser” who likes to do everything for everybody else. So the biggest change for her was taking a step back this summer and staying in Storrs.
Hudy — who rejoined the UConn women last May after 17 years with Kansas and Texas — was already impressed with Bueckers’ work ethic. With the same determination, Hudy is helping Bueckers avoid injuries and build a foundation for a standout junior season. After Bueckers sustained her knee injury, which cost her 19 games and required surgery last season, Hudy’s focus for Bueckers was on rehabbing. Slowly, Hudy reincorporated the weight room into Bueckers’ routine de ella, going from lifting less than her body weight to adding an external load as her technique improved.
During summer sessions, Hudy had about 48 minutes to work with players after they warmed up from pickup or individual workouts. To achieve her goals, many techniques and workouts are encompassed in her plan. There’s bodybuilding, Hudy said, trying to hit all different angles at all different joints. There’s powerlifting as Bueckers needs to increase her squat weights to put that weight on her back and add adaptations to help withstand impact. There’s also weightlifting which includes flexibility, mobility and technique work.
“She’s gotten stronger,” Hudy said. “And I think she feels more confident, she looks more confident. She says she feels better on the court.”
Bueckers’ diet also receives more emphasis. The point guard says Hudy told her to eat like it’s her job from her. With busy days of school and workouts, Bueckers realizes she might not have been eating as well as she should have. That’s changed. She’s eating healthier snacks, including losing her love for hot chips after a bout with COVID-19, drinking more protein shakes and cooking more – her favorite dish right now is chicken stir fry with veggies.
“Basically, I’m trying to stay full the entire day so it’s hard for me because I got a fast metabolism, but it’s a work in progress,” Bueckers said.
Bueckers goes all out in her play and her training. Now, she has more reasons to smile after an up-and-down sophomore campaign. She sat out the 2021 summer training, recovering from an ankle surgery. In December, she underwent knee surgery to repair an anterior tibial plateau fracture and lateral meniscus tear. She endured a waiting game until she joined teammates at the end of February.
“I’m a pretty impatient person just because I want everything to happen and I want everything to come into fruition and I want to see my hard work pay off,” Bueckers said. “This year was really challenging in terms of health. … I’ve never had to miss games like that during the season, like my whole life.”
Hudy, whose own knee injury impacted her volleyball career at Maryland, felt a personal connection to Bueckers. Hudy said: “It broke my heart because (basketball and competition is) who she is and to take that away from somebody is pretty painful.”
She made it a point after the surgery to keep Bueckers thinking positive: Instead of focusing on being hurt, why not think about how the knee felt good on a particular day. The injury reinforced Bueckers’ strengths from her to Hudy: as someone who lifts up teammates and perseveres. Hudy watched as Bueckers practiced the patience she discussed, learning and believing improvements would come when they were meant to.
Though the Huskies fell just short of delivering Bueckers a fairytale comeback, she has found new sources of inspiration this offseason. She and Fudd attended the NBA Finals, watching the Golden State Warriors win an NBA championship. (Fudd is in a business partnership with finals MVP Steph Curry, so the two got an up-close look at the attention to detail pro players put in to reach the playoffs.) Besides witnessing the Warriors celebrate after winning, Bueckers noticed how physical the contests were and just how big NBA stars really are.
Bueckers is beginning to receive attention at the college level like what Curry receives on the NBA floor. It’s all a part of the competition that Bueckers craves, and this offseason should help her maintain an edge.
“I don’t want to get thrown around,” Bueckers said. “I want to be able to hold my ground and be able to withstand whatever any defense throws at me. I know that I’m going to face a lot of different things and the teams are going to try to be physical with me and beat me up and take me out of the game that way. So just be able to withstand that and just be able to fight through that and make sure that my body’s physically ready for that and I’m mentally ready for that, I think that’s a huge key this offseason.”
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(Top photo by Paige Bueckers: Elsa/Getty Images)