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Paige Bueckers is finally feeling like a basketball player again

After missing most of the last two seasons with knee injuries, Bueckers couldn't be happier to be back on the court.

Photo: Ian Bethune

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Paige Bueckers is finally feeling like a basketball player again

One day during a workout this past month, Paige Bueckers set up Azzi Fudd for a shot with a perfect pass — only the ball never made it to the rim. Instead, it went through Fudd’s hands and out of bounds.

“I was like, ‘I forgot how good your passes were. I’m not used to that anymore,’” Fudd said.

“I said ‘All right, we're about to play together. Get ready, bro. This is real life now,’” Bueckers fired back.

After spending the entire 2022-23 campaign on the sidelines with a torn ACL suffered last August, Bueckers is finally back on the court in her preferred capacity. Gone is Coach P, the role she took on as a result of her injury. Bueckers, the basketball player, has returned.

“Being able to take the contact and being able to play makes me feel like a basketball player again,” she said on Wednesday. “It's been really exciting for me.”

It’s been a long, draining rehab process for Bueckers. The first three months were focused on getting the flex and extension back in her knee. After that was “leg day every day,” as she put it, rebuilding the muscle in the injured leg. At the 3-4 month mark, Bueckers was cleared to jump, meaning she could start shooting again. Roughly a month later, she could step back and attempt 3-pointers again.

“Those were big milestones for me,” Bueckers said. “Being able to put a ball in my hand and shoot just made me extremely happy.”

6-7 months post-surgery, Bueckers began cutting, which opened the door for on-court work. At 8-9 months, she was cleared for contact.

That’s not to say Bueckers’ comeback is complete just yet. While she’s made substantial progress in her recovery, she still has a key hurdle remaining: Clearance to play 5-on-5. Still, Bueckers can play 3-on-3 and 1-on-1, and is a full participant in both individual and team workouts.

There doesn’t appear to be any concern with the timeline, though. With the start of the season still over four months away, Bueckers and the team are just being extra cautious.

“I'm feeling really good. I'm just past the 10-month mark. So I'm definitely starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel and the finishing marks. But there's a long way to go. I mean, ACL recoveries take a long time,” she said. “In terms of like playing and getting cleared, I'm very close… That's the last little benchmark: To be fully cleared. But I'm in no rush. Our whole team and staff is in no rush. We have a lot of time.”

Bueckers will hit 12 months post-injury on Aug. 1 and two weeks later, the Huskies will head to Europe as part of a three-country tour that’ll involve four exhibition contests. At that point, she should be fully cleared — but she didn’t exactly sound like someone planning to play in any games overseas.

"I mean, I probably could (play) but we're still trying to balance [if it's] worth it,” Bueckers said. “Technically, the real games don’t start until November so it's just trying to make sense of it all, get out the pros and the cons, and we'll see."

Even when she gets full clearance to return to 5-on-5 action, Bueckers won’t immediately be back at 100 percent. Not only will she need to knock off the rust, she’ll also have to regain confidence in her knee — especially considering she suffered a tibial plateau fracture and torn meniscus in the same knee back in Dec. 2021.

Bueckers isn’t overlooking that aspect of her recovery.

“The fear is always there but I try not to let it let it consume me and just have trust and go out there and have fun,” she said.

The latter is important to Bueckers this season. While she’s never doubted her love of basketball, the last two years have served as a reminder of how important it is to her. Now that she’s back on the court, Bueckers has a simple aim for the upcoming campaign.

“I have really big goals, really big aspirations this year,” she said. “At the forefront of it, just to have fun playing the game of basketball again.”

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