If you only know Geno Auriemma from catching the occasional UConn or Team USA game, you might not know the legendary coach is also an expert needler when he’s not giving it to you straight. And no one—including Paige Bueckers, arguably the best women’s college basketball player—is immune from hearing it from the Hall of Famer. 

“He calls me ‘Paige Kardashian’ all the time,” says the Huskies’ sophomore sensation. “Because he thinks I’m just famous for being famous.”

Approaching 1 million followers on Instagram and 350,000 followers on TikTok, Bueckers has the kind of social media profile that steams talentless influencers. But if you somehow haven’t been paying attention, Bueckers is famous because she looks like a generational talent. A superb passer who just happens to be a lethal scorer that can practically get off any shot she wants, the UConn point guard exceeded the crazy hype surrounding her by carrying the Huskies to the program’s 21st Final Four appearance last season and breaking all kinds of records in the process. She was the first freshman to win the Wooden Award, given annually to the nation’s top player, in its 45-year history. 

Now Bueckers is making history off the court, and Monday marked yet another milestone for the mild-mannered 20-year-old. Gatorade announced it had inked its first NIL deal with the UConn star. A beaming Bueckers tried not to blush too hard thinking about the company she now keeps.  

“It’s still sort of surreal,” she tells Complex Sports via Zoom an hour before the official announcement is made. “For me to become part of that, it’s so crazy to me that it hasn’t sunk in yet.”

The multi-year Gatorade deal (terms weren’t disclosed) represents the second ground-breaking deal Bueckers has landed this year. After signing with agent Lindsay Kagawa Colas of Wasserman over the summer—and smartly filing to trademark her nickname “Paige Buckets”—it didn’t take long for Bueckers to make her mark in the NIL space. Earlier in November, StockX announced a partnership with her. 

 

“With my light and the platform that I have, I want to share with others. I don’t want to be selfish with that.” 

 

After the NCAA officially approved unprecedented legislation that allowed athletes across all sports to begin making money off of their Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) this summer, plenty of college athletes have cashed in. However, Mike McCann, Sportico’s legal expert who teaches an NIL course at the University of New Hampshire’s Franklin Pierce School of Law, describes Bueckers as an NIL unicorn. While women athletes throughout college—from volleyball players to gymnasts—have inked deals with both major and minor companies, McCann notes that nobody will approach the level of Bueckers.  

“It is a trailblazing set of moves to land NIL deals,” says McCann. “She’s not a common or ordinary player. She’s exceptional. It makes sense that someone of her stature would do well in NIL.” 

The StockX deal made a ton of sense, since Bueckers can rock whatever gear she wants off the court and she’s a certified sneakerhead who occasionally stunts on IG. The Gatorade deal means she’s now part of an ultra-exclusive community that’s aligned with some of the biggest names in sports, like Michael Jordan and Serena Williams.    

“Those two partnerships are a lot to flex about,” Bueckers says with a bashful smirk.

As much praise as she deserves for being a trailblazer in the NIL space, she deserves so much more for her ESPYs speech this past summer. You probably saw it: it was incredibly inspirational, impressively delivered, and rather surprising that she used her moment to speak on the behalf of others. 

Paige Bueckers ESPY Awards 2021
Image via Getty/Lorenzo Bevilaqua

There to collect the award for Women’s Collegiate Athlete of the Year—rocking sneakers, because doctors wouldn’t allow her to wear heels after offseason ankle surgery—for the majority of her roughly two-minute speech, Bueckers, who is white, spoke eloquently about how Black women athletes don’t get the media coverage they deserve. She shouted out her teammates and some of the names that have inspired her, like journalists Maria Taylor, Robin Roberts, and fellow UConn alum and former WNBA star Maya Moore. Bueckers, who participated in protest marches during the tumultuous summer of 2020, also noted Black lives lost, specifically mentioning Breonna Taylor. She ended her speech by pledging to use her platform to promote others.

“I don’t want to be the main focal point of anything,” says Bueckers. “With my light and the platform that I have, I want to share with others. I don’t want to be selfish with that.” 

 While Gatorade and Bueckers are still working out specifics of how they’ll practice what she preaches—helping the next generation of underprivileged youth basketball players, especially girls, have access to facilities and opportunities Bueckers was lucky enough to have growing up outside Minneapolis, roughly 15 minutes from the George Floyd memorial—the brand’s commitment to supporting women’s sports is one of the biggest reasons why they teamed up.   

“There’s really big inequity in sports, and that’s what I’m huge on,” says Bueckers. “Just positivity in that light and growing the women’s game–getting more respect for women—and that’s a huge value that we both align [with], and I think that’s a huge part of why we’re working together.”

The relationship between Bueckers and the brand dates back to when she was named the 2019-20 Gatorade National Girls Basketball Player of the Year. By that point, she was already a big deal and a role model in her native Minnesota, staying after games for a half-hour to sign autographs, take photos, and greet supporters. 

One day some of them can say they were lucky enough to snap a pic with the No. 1 pick in the WNBA Draft (she’s eligible for it in 2023). When she’s done at UConn, chances are she’ll end up being one of the most decorated players in women’s college basketball history. On top of winning the Wooden Award, Bueckers was also named the Naismith Player of the Year, AP Player of the Year, USBWA Player of the Year, Big East Player of the Year, and Big East Freshman of the Year last season. 

The only thing she didn’t deliver was another national title for UConn. Bueckers admits she feels the “weight of the world” on her shoulders when the team doesn’t win or she struggles on the court. But if she wasn’t a generational talent, with an insanely bright future and unquestioned marketability playing for the premier program in her sport, major brands wouldn’t want to work with her. Leave it to Auriemma, though, to keep Bueckers honest. 

“I asked Paige the other day—I said, ‘You know how long this is going to last, right?’ She goes, ‘Yeah,’” Auriemma said, recalling a conversation they had this past summer. “‘You know what makes this go away?’ She goes, ‘Yeah, if I suck.’ I said, ‘Correct.’ So the No. 1 thing is still you better be good at basketball or none of these opportunities come along.”

He’s not wrong. And it’s another example of Geno being Geno. Ask Bueckers for a favorite Auriemma story and she can’t narrow it down to one. She loves the jokes he tells at practice that often leave her wondering if they’re really jokes. Paige Kardashian is obviously a joke. Reminding the trailblazer how quickly her opportunities can disappear is keeping it real.

“He says so many things that get to your soul,” says Bueckers.