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Have we already witnessed Paige Bueckers’ last game at UConn?

Maybe! But maybe not.

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Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

The UConn women’s basketball team will once again be without superstar guard Paige Bueckers this coming season, as the Hopkins, Minnesota native tore her ACL in her left knee in a pickup game in July and will miss the entire 2022-23 season.

The Huskies played more than half of the season without Bueckers last year after she suffered a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in the same left leg in the closing seconds of a win over Notre Dame in December, Bueckers recovered just in time for the stretch run and helped the Huskies return to the national championship game for the first time since 2016. This time around, Bueckers won’t be able to swoop in and save the day — a best-case return of eight months post surgery would put her to return in early April, but more realistically, a return to full strength sometime in the offseason is the most likely scenario.

While Geno Auriemma will have his hands full replacing the superstar’s production this coming season, the timing of her injury for the upcoming campaign gives Bueckers a monumental decision, one that no UConn great has ever had to make: to declare for the WNBA draft this year following an injury, or return to Storrs for at least one more year, but as many as three.

With Bueckers turning 22 on Oct. 20, 2023, she is allowed to forego her remaining eligibility to declare for the 2023 WNBA Draft, since she is turning 22 the same year of the draft. Foregoing eligibility in the women’s game is historically rare, but has become more common as more players received extra years of eligibility via the bonus COVID-19 year.

With that life-altering decision in mind, Bueckers has a decision to make: Head to WNBA to cement herself as one of the best on the planet, or return to UConn to create a legacy that would put her amongst some of the Huskies’ best?

The case to declare for the 2023 WNBA Draft

Even after missing all of this coming season, Bueckers’ game-changing playmaking abilities would likely make her a top pick in the 2023 draft, especially if her rehab is progressing smoothly. She will have to contend with the likes of South Carolina’s Aliyah Boston and Stanford’s Haley Jones for the top spot, but would almost certainly be at least a top-three pick.

Bueckers would likely receive somewhere around $70,000 per year for her rookie contract, assuming she’s a top three selection. While that pales in comparison to what a similar caliber NBA rookie would make out of college, it’s still money that Bueckers could earn. And Bueckers is likely one of the most lucrative college athletes in terms of NIL deals, so she could continue to receive those payments and perhaps garner even more deals as a professional.

Even though the WNBA money isn’t much, that’s just what is available stateside. Even if she does leave following the 2022-23 season, Bueckers will miss a chance to play overseas right away, but could certainly entertain that possibility in 2024 and beyond. While Russia was once the top destination for WNBA superstars to get paid, it’s no longer an option due to their decision to invade Ukraine and detainment of Brittney Griner. However, leagues in Turkey and Hungary offer similarly strong competition and would likely fork over $300,000 to $400,000 to add Bueckers to their starting lineup.

If Bueckers does go pro, it’s possible she’d likely have to wait for the 2024 season for her debut depending on how her rehab progress. A 6-9 month rehab timeline would likely have her back just in time for the start of the WNBA season if everything falls into place. But if there is a setback, a team could select her with the idea that she will continue to recover through 2023, elect not to play overseas, and come back strong for the 2024 season. It would be a risk for that prospective team to punt on a season with their top pick, but it also speaks to Bueckers’ immense talent and ability to transform a franchise.

As she continues to recover, she could practice and rehab with WNBA pros instead of her college teammates, something that could help her improve and return to game speed faster if she wants to try to make a push to join the 2024 United States Olympic Team.

Going pro in 2023 would give Bueckers some extra money in her pocket and possibly some extra time to come back from her second major injury in less than one year. It’s not an exact match, but it’s hard not to think of Morgan Tuck’s situation at UConn when thinking of Bueckers’ next move. Tuck, who suffered two knee injuries in college, eschewed her final year of college eligibility to go pro and make some money before chronic injuries eventually forced her into early retirement. There’s currently no reports or information that Bueckers won’t make anything other than a full recovery, but if that does change, it’s certainly a thought Bueckers will have to have in the back of her mind.

It’s nearly impossible to predict when Buckers will be back to full strength and on a basketball court, but a fully healthy Bueckers would immediately make any WNBA a legitimate title contender and therefore a risk worth taking — both for Bueckers and her future WNBA team.

The case to come back to UConn

Bueckers’ decision to return to UConn only makes sense from a financial perspective due to NIL and the lower salaries offered for young rookie talent in the WNBA.

A prospective NBA player of Bueckers’ caliber would be able to sign a multi-million dollar contract shortly after being drafted — fellow Minnesotan Chet Holmgren signed a two-year, $20 million deal with Oklahoma City after being selected No. 2 overall this year in the NBA Draft, and that deal can stretch to four years and over $40 million after club options. That money is unfortunately not available in the WNBA, with rookie salaries around $70,000, and makes the decision to come back to college a little bit easier, especially with Bueckers purportedly earning nearly that much for each sponsored post on social media — not to mention her deals with Gatorade and StockX.

But Bueckers’ decision is also bigger than the money on the table or playing in the WNBA. Since she committed to UConn, Bueckers has talked about how going to UConn and playing for Auriemma was her dream — would she be willing to pass that up after having just played 41 games for the Huskies?

“As a kid, UConn was my dream school. Seeing them win all those national titles and then visiting campus and seeing them up close, it was everything I’ve dreamed of and more.” Bueckers told ESPN when she committed in 2019. “I want to be a part of what UConn has built.”

Yes, Bueckers has already done incredible things during her short time in Storrs, leading the team to two Final Fours, a national championship appearance and shattering the freshman assist record, but Bueckers wants to establish herself as one of the Huskies’ greats. The best way to do that is by winning titles, something Bueckers still hasn’t done.

Another wrinkle in the mix is that her close friend, teammate Azzi Fudd, is set to graduate in 2025. Bueckers’ mother Amy Fuller has told the media that the plan has always been to stay for four seasons, but prior to Bueckers’ two knee injuries, her mother also didn't rule staying a fifth season and using the COVID year granted to all players who played in the 2020-21 season. With this season already out of the question for Bueckers, the extra year wouldn’t be necessary anymore for her to finish her career at UConn alongside Fudd, but the timing works for Bueckers to play at UConn for two more years, four total, and team up with Fudd to possibly give the Huskies their first national championship since 2016.

“If she has the opportunity to play with, well, her best friend [Fudd], frankly, coming in, and they can play together four years and win four national championships together and especially if she’s making money, I could see it being very, very hard for her to walk away that fifth year,” Fuller told Andy Wittry’s Out of Bounds newsletter in April 2021.

Bueckers herself has even said four years at UConn was always the plan, although that was before her recent ACL injury, so whether that means four academic years or four years of basketball remains to be seen.

“I know for sure I want to get my degrees though,” Bueckers told The Athletic’s Charlotte Carroll in June. “Staying four years is definitely what I want to do. But yeah, I’m not really sure about the fifth year yet, but I’m sure that’ll be a conversation when the time comes around.”

Nonetheless, the potential for Bueckers to still make good money, build her legacy — and in conjunction, her brand — while finishing her career alongside her best friend gives Bueckers a compelling argument to return for at least one more go around — or maybe even three more.