With National Recognition, Two Hopkins Stars Look to Foster Change for Women’s Basketball
May 7, 2021
Hopkins has been home to some major names in the sports world in recent years.
Possibly the most noteworthy, Paige Bueckers, alumni, is arguably the best female basketball player in the country.
HHS has been a dominant basketball program for years, and in Bueckers’ time playing in the Lindbergh Center, the sheer power of the team was on national display.
“Hopkins demanded excellence and was really win or go home. That’s how it also is at The University of Connecticut (UConn). If you don’t win a championship it is considered a down year, same as Hopkins,” Bueckers said.
Playing for this caliber program in high school helped prepare Bueckers for the pressure and spotlight that she would face at the next level.
“Having that really huge target on your back and everybody counting you guys as the Super Bowl Game was something that happened at Uconn as well,” said Bueckers.
One of Bueckers’ former teammates, Maya Nnaji, junior, was a part of the historic Hopkins team led by Bueckers. The 2021 Star Tribune Metro Player of the Year was on the receiving end of countless jaw-dropping passes from the current Associated Press (AP) Player of the Year (Bueckers) but recognizes the impact that Bueckers left off the court as well.
“Paige left a great and historic legacy at Hopkins,” said Nnaji. “She broke so many records, won countless awards, and was the best high school basketball player in the country.”
While Bueckers gained attention for her skills, flair, and overall dominance, it is her character that touched her peers and the Hopkins community the most.
“Paige touched so many lives within the Hopkins community and around the world. She was inspirational and still continues to spark big dreams in young girls everywhere. Her skill and flair on the court have made more people believe in women’s basketball and support it,” Nnaji said.
Nnaji is the seventh-ranked player in the country for her class, according to ESPN. She has received many offers but has publicly narrowed it down to her top 13, including Arizona, South Carolina, Oregon, and the 2021 women’s national champions, Stanford.
Hard work is the key to Nnaji’s success. Growing up in a family of high caliber basketball players, she began competing against top competition at a young age.
“As a little girl, my dad had me practice against my older brother and cousins to get stronger. I always played on teams with girls that were older than me so that I could be pushed to get better,” said Nnaji.
While Nnaji has grown up around the game, being a part of the HHS basketball program has pushed her to the next level.
“The coaches put a huge emphasis on responsibility, hard work, dedication, teamwork, and respect; all skills that are translatable to life,” Nnaji said. “Our team is run like a college program, so for those of us who want to play at the next level, we know what to expect when we get there.”
While Hopkins continues to prepare their athletes for collegiate careers, Bueckers has seen growth in every facet after her freshman season at UConn.
“I think I have really grown on and off the court at Uconn. I’ve built lifelong relationships and memories that I will never forget,” said Bueckers.
Uconn is known for harvesting top basketball talents, but they also put a big emphasis on shaping individuals away from the game. A big part of that is due to the program being led by historic head coach, Geno Auriemma.
“Coach helped me before I even stepped on campus,” said Bueckers. “He wants me to be the best version of Paige Bueckers that I can be, and he pushed that out of you day in and day out.”
During her high school career, Bueckers racked up countless awards and honors, many of which Nnaji hopes that she can one day replicate.
“I want to win another state championship, become a McDonald’s All American, Jordan Brand Classic All American, play for the U.S. national team and win a gold medal, win a college national championship, be drafted number one overall into the WNBA, and win a championship there, too,” said Nnaji.
Above all, though, Nnaji wants to have an impact on people around the world. She wants to inspire, help, and lead people whenever possible, and basketball is the vehicle that can help her accomplish that.
While the women’s NCAA Tournament drew a lot of attention this year due to the disparities between the weight rooms and food accommodations, players like Bueckers and Nnaji hope that they can use their platform to continue advocating for equality across the genders.
“I hope I can help build equality and respect for the women’s game. There is a lot of disrespect and lack of attention given to women’s basketball, so I hope I can use my platform to help grow that attention,” Bueckers said.
Nnaji wants to inspire, help, and lead people whenever possible, and basketball is the vehicle that can help her accomplish that.
“I want to use my platform to advocate for better pay for female athletes. Right now, the average salary for a WNBA player is around $70,000, while it is seven million for the NBA. If that does not change, I will not play for the WNBA and instead, go overseas to play in Europe,” Nnaji said.
As more players make the move to overseas basketball in protest of the unequal pay that is seen between the women’s and men’s leagues in the United States, Nnaji hopes that possibly making that decision one day will lead to change.
While the Hopkins basketball program has become a household name for producing talent year in and year out, it is the character development and emphasis on family that creates even better people.