UConn Huskies superstar Paige Bueckers will play her first game in 500+ days Wednesday night.
The 2021 player of the year returns after back-to-back knee injuries disrupted her last two seasons.
Bueckers made many changes to prevent injuries and grow stronger on the court, she told ESPN.
Paige Bueckers is back.
The 2021 national player of the year is set to return to the hardwood Wednesday night, more than 500 days since she last played an official game with the UConn Huskies. Bueckers suffered a tibial fracture and torn meniscus early in her sophomore season and, less than a year later, tore her ACL in the same knee.
She's spent the year-plus since redoubling her efforts to become a stronger and more resilient basketball player, according to a profile of the superstar point guard from ESPN's Alexa Philippou. And it's worked, according to legendary head coach Geno Auriemma, who briefly shelved his famously sardonic wit for a rare moment of sincerity in describing his star's progress:
"Paige is a better basketball player now than she was when she was national player of the year," the Hall of Fame coach said.
Here are some of the changes Bueckers has made in her 13 months on the sidelines:
She leaned heavily into pilates after tearing her ACL
Bueckers knew that she'd have to approach her recovery from her August 2022 ACL tear differently than she'd tackled rehabbing the initial knee injury six months prior. Instead of merely trying to get back onto the court as fast as possible, she'd need to focus on returning sustainably.
So she hit the mat. Bueckers started taking four or five pilates classes each week to strengthen her core and, ultimately, help support the joints in her arms and legs.
"Pilates is the hardest form of workout that I do," Bueckers told ESPN. "Harder than lifting, harder than rehab, harder than on-court, harder than cardio."
Research suggests that the popular form of exercise may be "superior" to other approaches to ACL recovery. Other studies show that pilates can improve muscle endurance, flexibility, balance, and posture — all of which is beneficial for preventing future injuries.
Bueckers learned to embrace warming up ahead of practices and games
Bueckers historically preferred to head straight out onto the court rather than stretching and warming up her muscles before playing. But after her unfortunate series of injuries, she recognized how important those small efforts can be to preventing setbacks and future injuries.
These days, Bueckers takes painstaking care to prepare her body before any physical activity. Philippou wrote that the 22-year-old has begun "incorporating bike warmups, band work, various methods of self-myofascial release (which relieve muscle tightness and can boost circulation), and yoga, while constantly addressing previous injury issues or physical deficits, like ankle dorsiflexion and quad strength."
She's been lifting, and now she's 15 pounds heavier than when she first arrived on campus
Bueckers has always been one of the most electric players in the country and long touted an expansive skillset on the court. But one tool she's never had in her arsenal is brute strength.
A lanky 6-footer, Bueckers' game relies much more on finesse than it does power. And while her playing style is unlikely to change on that front, the Minnesota native has — much like her good friend and fellow women's college basketball superstar Caitlin Clark — built up considerable muscle so that her body can better handle the bumps and bruises that accompany a Division I basketball season.
While she once ignored the technical side of her team's weight-lifting obligations, Bueckers has since become engrossed in the science behind strength training. She regularly asks UConn Women's Basketball Director of Sports Performance Andrea Hudy about her force plate metrics and player-load data, she told Philippou.
There are far fewer hot Cheetos in Bueckers' life these days
She's made significant changes to her diet in the wake of her knee injuries. Bueckers has swapped out the "drawer full of candy, chips, and hot Cheetos in her apartment" for healthy snacks and extra supplements.
In the past, she wouldn't give a second thought to skipping breakfast. Now, she consistently eats three full meals each day to fuel her efforts on the court, in the weight room, on the Pilates mat, and in the classroom.
She's prioritizing sleep
Once a night owl to the extent that star teammate Azzi Fudd questioned "how she functioned," Bueckers has shifted her schedule back so she can get to bed early and wake up early, too. She feels "more awake and alive" now that she has eight to 10 hours of sleep under her belt by the time she wakes up each morning.
"I've worked so hard," Bueckers told ESPN. "I've changed who I am as a person, as a player, and I have extreme confidence."
"Overall, the confidence in my body and the way I feel right now is at an all-time high," she added.
Read the original article on Insider