Hopkins' Paige Bueckers and Park Center's Mikayla Hayes battled under the net during the second half of the Class 4A girls' basketball quarterfinals, Tuesday, March 15, 2016 at the Target Center in Minneapolis, MN. ] (ELIZABETH FLORES/STAR TRIBUNE) EL
Cheryl Reeve went to a gym in St. Louis Park for a workout two years ago this month. The Lynx coach started with cardio before moving to free weights.
In between sets, Reeve peeked into the basketball area. The court was empty except for a young girl working hard on her game all by herself.
“That’s just not something you see very often,” Reeve said.
She watched the girl for several minutes, amazed by her skill level despite being so young and not very big. The thing that resonated with Reeve was the girl’s body language.
“She had a way about her that just oozed confidence,” Reeve said. “I said I have got to go meet this young lady.”
Reeve walked over and introduced herself. They talked for a few minutes and then Reeve asked the girl if she’d like to go through a workout.
Sure, the girl responded.
So the WNBA champion coach put the sixth-grader through high-tempo shooting drills for 30 minutes.
“She was unfazed,” Reeve said.
She’s still a cool customer with mature basketball talent.
Except now, Paige Bueckers is an eighth-grader on Hopkins’ top-ranked varsity team and already drawing scholarship offers from major conference Division I programs.
Bueckers is a hoops wunderkind, a point guard who has grown 4 inches in the past year and now stands at 5-9 with long arms.
Bueckers is the third-leading scorer (9.3 points per game) on a team with two Division I signees. She leads Hopkins in three-point shooting, is second in assists, second in blocks, fifth in rebounds and steals.
She already has scholarship offers from the Gophers, Iowa State and Illinois. Other Division I schools send her recruiting material.
One high school coach nominated Bueckers for the Star Tribune’s all-metro team, even though she plays only half of the game as a backup.
Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff doesn’t start Bueckers because she’s an eighth-grader on a veteran team. He’s mindful of chemistry, and optics, and doing right by his young player.
“Her time will come,” Cosgriff said.
Bueckers is playing in the state tournament this week. Despite dealing with an illness, she scored seven points with one block, one steal, one rebound and took a charge in a quarterfinal victory against Park Center on Tuesday.
Watching her in person for the first time, I found it easy to forget that she’s only 14. Her ball handling is exceptional, and she’s able to create her own shot off the dribble. More than anything, she just looks poised on the court.
“Nobody I’ve had or nobody that we’ve played against was this kind of special at this age,” Cosgriff said. “But we’re going to bring her along gently. We’re going to be always cognizant of her age.”
Cosgriff’s teams have won six state championships. His program regularly produces Division I players. Bueckers, he says, is unique in her instincts.
Cosgriff first saw her play during a halftime scrimmage at a Gophers women’s game when Bueckers was in fourth grade.
“I just went, ‘Wow, this kid is something,’ ” Cosgriff said.
Discussing potential greatness of an eighth-grader is uncomfortable for obvious reasons. Things can change as kids develop. Injuries happen, interests sometimes shift.
In a perfect world, colleges wouldn’t offer scholarships to eighth-graders. That’s the way the system works, though.
“There’s a lot of growing up left to do,” Cosgriff said.
Bueckers has a strong support group in her family and Cosgriff, as fine a coach as you’ll find in high school sports. They’re taking the right approach with her development by not becoming consumed by her future.
Bueckers comes across as humble and mature. She’s respectful to coaches and listens to older teammates. She’s also an A-student.
“My coaches and teammates have helped me through it,” she said. “They don’t really care that I’m an eighth-grader. They know when I step on the court I could be any age.”
Bueckers helped lead her AAU team — North Tartan — to third-place finishes in the national tournament the past two summers. Her AAU teammates Vanessa Alexander (St. Michael-Albertville) and Mackenzie Kramer (Becker) also are playing in this state tournament.
That says a lot of about their talent and maturity level, as well.
Bueckers played for Hopkins’ junior varsity last season. Her parents appreciate how teammates accepted her into that powerhouse varsity program.
“They’ve been really inclusive with her,” said her father, Bob, who coached his daughter in travel basketball in St. Louis Park. “Girls have looked out for her. She seems to make friends easily.”
Talent allows her to fit in on the court. Bueckers plays beyond her years, always has, even as a young girl when she caught the eye of a WNBA coach.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Reeve said.
Chip Scoggins • firstname.lastname@example.org