Under the Radar: James Bouknight
This year's NBA draft will be held at the end of July. Similar to years past, highly-coveted 18- and 19-year-olds - either college freshman or G-League and international sensations - receive all the attention during the pre-draft process. In most cases, these prospects possess a combination of incredible athleticism and impressive physical tools such as length and size. "Potential" is another keyword here. Young phenoms like Cade Cunningham, Jalen Green, Evan Mobley or Jonathan Kuminga could "potentially" develop into superstar-players, quite possibly positively altering the course of a franchise in the future.
Among the top-five draft picks from recent years, you will hardly find any players older than 20 years. Need proof? In 2020, five players at the age of 19 have been selected at the top of the draft - in particular: Anthony Edwards, James Wiseman, LaMelo Ball, Patrick Williams and Isaac Okoro. Before that? In 2019, only the 4th pick and current Atlanta Hawk De'Andre Hunter was above the age of 19, next to 19-year-olds Ja Morant, RJ Barrett and Darius Garland. The number one pick Zion Williamson was not even 19 at that time.
My point is: older - in many cases, more complete or established - players, that have spent more than one season playing college basketball, are frequently overlooked. Teams or managers often prefer "potential" over the ability to contribute immediately.
One of these, in my opinion, "underrated" prospects is UCONN sophomore guard James Bouknight. The slim, 20-year-old Brooklyn native stands at 6'5'' and weighs 190 pounds. This season, the sophomore averaged 18.7 points per game while shooting 44.7% from the field, 5.7 rebounds per game and 1.8 assists per game. Although his shooting percentages have declined in comparison to his freshman season, he has increased his points-per-game average from 13.0 to 18.7 while spending about 32 minutes on the floor in 2020-2021. The Ringer's Kevin O'Connor currently has him ranked as high as number 13 on his pre-draft Big Board.
Before committing to the University of Connecticut in 2019, Bouknight was a four-star high-school recruit at La Salle Academy in Manhattan and The MacDuffie School in Massachusetts. Looking at the athletic feats he presented throughout his college career, it comes at a surprise that he could not even dunk as a high-school freshman, according to Bouknight himself. Former coaches have called the guard a tremendous competitor that has won at any level. He has shown an incredible drive and work ethic in high school - even tried rushing back immediately after injuries. During his junior season he suffered a torn meniscus which required surgery in early 2018. However, he returned during that summers' AAU season and exploded for 33 points in his comeback. Additionally, Bouknight is considered by many to be a great teammate and a laidback person off the court.
His skinny frame hides his outstanding - especially for a guard - athleticism. He is not only extremely quick and shifty, but also surprisingly explosive and lightning fast. This combination of speed and bounce makes him a special threat in fastbreak situations, especially with the ball in his hands. "When I'm pushing the ball in transition, [...] I feel like no one can beat me down the court", said Bouknight during a film session with ESPN's Mike Schmitz.
Handling the ball, he works with various deceptive hesitation moves and his body control enables him to beat defenders by changing his pace at the blink of an eye. Furthermore, he possesses a very quick first steps and is capable of making long strides attacking the basket, due to his length. Therefore, he is highly effective driving to the basket, while using an array of creative finishes - or simply slamming it home - jumping off either leg. Even though he can finish with either hand, he tends to use his right hand instead of simply laying it up with his left.
Anyways, it is fun watching him play. His silky and smooth style of playing combined with his athleticism makes for great basketball on the offensive end. He is crafty handling the ball, can create shots for himself off the dribble and has proven that he can make tough, contested shots. In addition to that, though he lacks the physique that might be advantageous at the next level, he is still able to finish through contact, draw fouls and get to the line. Off the ball, he tries being impactful by cutting, curling around screens, and spacing the floor with his catch-and-shoot abilities.
He has been compared to players like Zach LaVine or Jordan Clarkson. His impressive athleticism is comparable to Lonnie Walker. However, of the top of my head, his way with the ball - taking the explosiveness and bounce out of the equation - appears to be eerily similar to Shai Gilgeous Alexander's style of play.
On the defensive end he uses his quickness to stop opposing guards and wings, as he claimed to be capable of guarding the positions one through three. Another advantage on defense is his length. I could not find his wingspan anywhere, but from the sheer look at him I expect it to be a respectable number.
Unfortunately, there are concerns with James Bouknight. He is prone to kill his dribble and sometimes misses open opportunities. Also, it has been evident that he likes to force passes or actions on the offensive end that are simply not there. Apart from that, he is considered to be an inconsistent on-ball defender, however, he addressed his lack of concentration on the defensive end during the aforementioned film session with Mike Schitz and is willing to improve this aspect of his game. Past injuries like his torn meniscus in high school is another point of concern.
Nevertheless, I think the pros outweigh the cons, which makes James Bouknight an intriguing prospect at the guard-position: a hard-nosed 6'5" playmaker out of Brooklyn that brings athleticism, ballhandling and the ability to create and score inside the paint. He is projected to be a mid to late first-round-pick but lots can change until the end of July. His stock might have fallen further after missing out on this year's Big-East-Tournament Final after losing to Creighton in the semifinal and a first-round loss in the NCAA Tournament against Maryland.
Still, if I had to pick in the late lottery of the 2021 NBA Draft with James Bouknight still on the board, I would not want to regret taking someone else.