Hopkins star Paige Bueckers wins Gatorade National Player of the Year Award

Monday morning started a little earlier than normal for Paige Bueckers. The Hopkins star guard usually gets to school around 8:30 a.m., but was told to be at Lindbergh Center by 7:30 a.m. for a photo shoot.

It didn’t seem that strange. Bueckers put the Royals on her back in leading Hopkins past Wayzata last Thursday for a trip to the state tournament. Hopkins is seeking its third Class 4A state championship in the last four years, led by the top high school player in the country.

Bueckers was in for a surprise Monday when Minnesota Timberwolves star Karl-Anthony Towns dropped in for a visit. He was there to hand her the National Gatorade Player of the Year Award in front of her family, best friends and teammates.

‘The whole team was like ‘Oh my gosh.’ I turned around and there he was. I still don’t know what to say, it’s so crazy to me. Honestly it feels like a dream,” Bueckers said.

The surprise comes just a few days after Towns, D’Angelo Russell, Josh Okogie and James Johnson were among thousands at the Lindbergh Center to watch Bueckers and her team beat the Trojans 86-76. Bueckers refused to let her team lose, finishing with 33 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Towns had high praise for Bueckers’ game and had been wanting to see her live all season.

“There’s certain players that just have that aura that when they step on the court, just things seem to gravitate toward them. Their presence is felt regardless. She has that kind of ability and that special talent,” Towns said. “She has this gym filled, not one single seat, the top standing level is full, you can’t get any more ways of seeing the basketball game and it’s for a women’s basketball game. Take time to think about that, you never hear about that and that’s the kind of impact Paige has. She draws people in.”

It was an extra special morning for Towns, getting to surprise Bueckers with the award after getting it himself in 2014. He walked into his high school art class to find NBA star Alonzo Mourning.

Bueckers has led the Royals to now a 60-game win streak overall, and they’re 28-0 this year as they look to cap a perfect season with a state championship. Before scoring 33 points against Wayzata, Bueckers had averaged 21.4 points, 9.4 assists, 5.4 rebounds and five assists in 27 games.

She’s filling the stat sheet every night, and fans are taking notice. A sellout crowd was at the section final game, and most of her games this season have featured a packed house. She’s been a significant contributor for Hopkins since the seventh grade, and the Gatorade National Player of the Year Award is another piece of hardware for the trophy case.

In addition to her skill on the court, Bueckers has a 3.8 grade-point average and hosts her own free basketball clinics for kids, called "Buckets for Bueckers."

“This one means a lot because it’s not just basketball, it’s about being a great person. The way they pick their award is not only the accomplishments you do on the court, but off the court. Being able to be named this, it’s amazing,” Bueckers said.

Bueckers joins Towns, Peyton Manning, Abby Wambach and Derek Jeter as previous winners. Locally, she joins former Twins star Joe Mauer and Apple Valley basketball star Tyus Jones.

“This award is the most prestigious award you can win in high school sports. No one can say they have any better award, this Gatorade award means the world. It meant the world to me, it still means the world to me. One of my best memories in basketball is winning this award,” Towns said.

It’s a week of mixed emotions for Hopkins coach Brian Cosgriff. He’s led Bueckers on her path since the seventh grade. They’re hoping that journey ends later this week with the program’s third state championship in four years.

It also means they’ll eventually have to part ways. Bueckers will play for Geno Auriemma at UConn next season, and at some point, likely in the WNBA.

“I feel like how fortunate am I to be able to coach a kid of this stature, but then I’m also sad because I know in a matter of five days it’s probably going to be over with. It’s the end of an era,” Cosgriff said. “I’ve had her since seventh grade, she’s been that good. So it’s really cool but yet kind of sad because you’re letting your little baby go on.”