Some college basketball fans have been wondering whether Paige Bueckers, the star UConn guard who will miss the season with a knee injury, would enter the W.N.B.A. draft after this season instead of returning for her senior year with the Huskies.
Bueckers answered unequivocally on Thursday.
“I’m not leaving. That is not in the question,” Bueckers told reporters. “People asked me, ‘What are you thinking about your fifth year, Covid year, redshirting this year?’ I’m not thinking too far ahead about that at all, but I will be playing college basketball again.”
Bueckers, a 20-year-old junior from Minnesota who was the national player of the year as a freshman, can stay through the 2024-25 season after the N.C.A.A. gave athletes a bonus year of eligibility because of the pandemic.
Considering her talents, Bueckers’ plan to return for at least one more year is good news for UConn fans, women’s college basketball and Bueckers’ checking account.
She stands to make more money from name, image and likeness opportunities in college than she would earn in the W.N.B.A.
“I mean, she’s going to make well over a million dollars. It’s not even a question,” Jason Belzer, the chief executive of Student Athlete NIL, an agency that works with brands doing campaigns for student athletes, said Friday in a phone interview. “She probably has more value as a student athlete from a marketing and endorsement perspective than she will as a pro, unless she becomes an absolute All-Star, Sue Bird-like person.”
Bird, who also starred at UConn, is considered one of the greatest players in the history of the women’s game and will retire at the end of this W.N.B.A. season.
Bueckers is projected to be a top-2 pick in the 2024 W.N.B.A. draft — along with Iowa star Caitlin Clark — but her pay is likely to be relatively modest. The top two women picked this year, Kentucky guard Rhyne Howard and Baylor forward NaLyssa Smith, will earn only about $72,000 in base salary. The maximum W.N.B.A. base salary for the 2022 season was about $228,000.
The No. 1 pick in this year’s N.B.A. draft, Duke’s Paolo Banchero, will earn more than $9 million, while the No. 2 pick, Gonzaga’s Chet Holmgren, will earn more than $8 million.
The vast disparity in salaries between the N.B.A. and W.N.B.A. is a major reason many women’s players, like Brittney Griner and roughly 70 other W.N.B.A. athletes, have played in Russia and other countries during the off-season. Griner, who last month was sentenced to nine years in prison for possessing less than a gram of hashish oil, reportedly earned more than $1 million annually, more than four times her W.N.B.A. salary, while playing for UMMC Yekaterinburg in Russia.
Bueckers has an array of N.I.L. deals that will generate much more than the base salary even for the No. 1 pick in the W.N.B.A. Last November she became the first-ever college athlete to be signed by Gatorade during the N.I.L. era. She also has deals with StockX, a global e-commerce platform for sneakers, toys, electronics and apparel, and Chegg, an education platform.
“Paige Bueckers is always going to have the opportunity to profit off of her fame and her marketability,” said Peter Schoenthal, the chief executive of Athliance, an N.I.L. software management company that helps schools, athletes, collectives, agents and parents manage N.I.L. deals.
Schoenthal said Bueckers would have marketing opportunities if she jumped to the W.N.B.A. But he added: “I think there is an argument to be made that she’s more marketable while at UConn because UConn women’s basketball is probably more popular than most W.N.B.A. teams. So I think it’s fair to say that one of reasons she’s coming back is name, image and likeness.”
Belzer also said he believes Bueckers stands to earn more money at UConn than she would in the W.N.B.A.
“She owns, or can own, women’s basketball from a collegiate standpoint and she’s hitting a different demographic, an audience, right now than she is when she goes into the W.N.B.A,” he said.
The W.N.B.A. also offers marketing deals to some of its players. The league can pay individual players up to $250,000 per year, and teams can pay up to a total of $100,000 to their players for marketing deals. The league also has an in-season tournament with a cash bonus, and it offers bonuses for honors like being named the rookie of the year.
Of course, money isn’t the only thing that motivates Bueckers, who on Thursday focused her comments on how much she longs to play basketball. She missed significant time as a sophomore with a tibial plateau fracture and meniscus tear, which required surgery. Then came the a torn anterior cruciate ligament in her left knee last month.
She said she’s taking her recovery day by day and will continue to be evaluated by the UConn medical staff.
And she can’t wait to get back on the court at UConn.
“I really just want to be 110 percent healthy before I ever play basketball again,” she said, “just because I never want to take a break like this again, ever, in my career.”