UConn star guard James Bouknight will enter 2021 NBA Draft

James Bouknight’s short but often spectacular career at UConn is over. The 6-foot-5 sophomore guard will forgo his final two years of college eligibility and enter the 2021 NBA Draft, he announced via social media on Wednesday.

“I’ve been thinking about it and talking about it with the coaches and the people in my circle,” he said on a Zoom call. “We felt this was the best decision for me and my future aspirations.”

Bouknight appeared emotional during the call, and admitted that while typing out his message for Twitter and Instagram Wednesday morning, his hands started trembling.

“I’ve never felt that way before,” Bouknight admitted.

Here’s part of what he came up with:

“Playing in the NBA has been a dream of mine since I was a kid, and to be in this position is a dream come true. UConn has become my home away from home and I will always BLEED BLUE!!!”

“Today’s an incredible day, such a joyous day,” coach Dan Hurley said. “Just waking up this morning, knowing how important a moment it is for James and his family and our program, and the job the staff has done and the work he’s put in. Today’s a joyous day. Tomorrow, we’ll talk about, as a staff, how we’re going to fill the void of such a talent leaving. But today is just pure joy, when you feel like you’ve contributed, in some way, to a young person like James, and how his time with you has improved the prospects of his life and the trajectory of his family.”

Indeed, Hurley didn’t once consider trying to talk Bouknight out of it.

“For me, in good conscience, knowing James’ talent level and what he potentially could accomplish at the NBA level, there wasn’t an ounce of me that wanted to selfishly try to talk a kid out of changing his life and the life of his family for the better.”

Bouknight spent two seasons at UConn in which he displayed the type of talent and potential not seen in Storrs since the Jim Calhoun Era. Unfortunately for the Brooklyn, N.Y. product, Bouknight also battled injuries and other issues, and never quite established the type of legacy former Huskies like Ray Allen, Rip Hamilton and Kemba Walker accomplished in Storrs.

Bouknight averaged 20.7 points per game this past season in Big East play, which would have led the conference if he had played more than just nine league games. His dynamic athleticism, smooth style and shooting stroke were never more evident than on Dec. 20, when he poured in 40 points in an overtime loss to Creighton. It was the second-highest scoring outing ever for a player making his Big East debut.

However, an elbow injury, suffered in a game at Marquette on Jan. 5, ultimately sidelined him for eight games over the ensuing six weeks. He had surgery on Jan. 12 for bone spurs in his left elbow.

After his return on Feb. 16 against Providence, Bouknight helped the Huskies to seven wins in their next eight games, all by double digit margins. However, UConn lost to Creighton in a Big East tournament semifinal game, then to Maryland in an NCAA tournament first-round contest to end its season.

“After we lost, I wanted to come back,” Bouknight confessed. “That’s just how I felt. Anger, sadness, whatever it was, that’s what I felt in my heart. But I talked to my parents and the people in my circle about it, and saw that this was the best decision.”

“You knew part of James probably wishes he could run it back,” Hurley added. “He knew he had to go, it was the only decision he could make here. But, I know he’s gonna miss this place. I know he wanted the chance to play in front of the fans again, try to make a deep run in March. I know that’s something he wanted to do.”

For the season, Bouknight averaged 18.7 points per game, shot 45-percent from the floor and grabbed 5.7 boards per contest overall. He was an All-Big East First Team selection and the USBWA District 1 Player of the Year.

However, he shot just 14-for 41 (34 percent) and averaged 13 points over his last three games, and was just 1-for-13 from 3. Those struggles down the stretch led to a loud chorus insisting he’s not ready for the NBA. But the league drafts players based largely on talent and potential, and Bouknight boasts both.

“Someone gave me good feedback,” Bouknight explained. “Me and my people felt this was the best decision for me, and this was the time to make it.”

Added Hurley: “We obviously checked in with people whose opinion matters at the NBA level about where he could land. It’s a no-brainer for James. It’s an easy decision.”

Most 2021 NBA mock drafts (which always vary in accuracy) and other draft experts have Bouknight as a lottery pick (top-14 selection). The NBA Draft is slated for July 29.

“He has a chance to be a great NBA player,” Hurley said, “especially the way the game is played nowadays.”

Bouknight was a relatively unheralded recruit out of The MacDuffie School in Granby, Massachusetts, where he played two seasons under coach Jacque Rivera. He chose UConn on his 18th birthday (Sept. 18, 2018) over offers from Virginia Tech, Miami, Temple, Indiana, VCU and others.

Still, he was overlooked by some of the biggest programs in college basketball. Hurley and his staff did their due diligence, however. In fact, in the weeks before Bouknight committed, they privately worried a Kentucky or Duke might swoop in.

Bouknight was also somewhat of a late-bloomer, a baseball star in his younger years who took up basketball a bit later.

“A lot of guys today in college, or even grassroots, they’re seeking out the NBA,” Hurley noted. “The NBA came for James. The talent, and the way the guy has produced through 40-something games. The NBA came for James. I think it’s a great lesson for kids: stay focused on playing, getting better, and the NBA will come for you when it’s time. James did that.”

Bouknight’s freshman season at UConn got off to a rocky start. Less than a month into his tenure, he was arrested for a series of bad mistakes: crashing a female UConn student’s car into a street sign on campus, running away from a police officer after being stopped. According to an arrest warrant, an officer detected the smell of alcohol on Bouknight before he ran off.

Bouknight wound up being placed on placed in an accelerated pretrial rehabilitation program. He was also suspended from UConn’s first three games of the 2019-20 season.

“Hurley has been like a father to me, away from home,” Bouknight said. “He gave me a second chance. He’s coached me to an extent like no other coach has coached me. I’ve learned so much from him, he’s taught me so much in my time here. ‘Thank you’ isn’t even enough to say.”

When he made his debut at the Charleston Classic in November, Bouknight quickly displayed the intriguing skills that would ultimately make him a possible NBA lottery pick. He averaged 13 points per game overall as a freshman and 15.8 ppg once he became a starter.

While Bouknight might not leave a championship legacy at UConn like others before him, Hurley noted recently that he’ll leave a legacy, nonetheless. If he’s a lottery pick, he’ll join Allen, Hamilton, Walker, Andre Drummond, Caron Butler, Rudy Gay and others with a large banner on the wall of the Werth Family Champions Center practice facility.

“That means a lot, to be one of those names up there with some of the greater players that played here,” Bouknight said. “This whole thing is so surreal right now. Just two years ago, I was a high school kid. That just adds to it, being able to be talked about with those big names.”

“It already has (helped recruiting), and it will continue,” said Hurley. “What James did as a freshman made us more appealing to Jordan Hawkins. When Andre Jackson came on the visit, watching James and envisioning himself being able to do some of those type of things ... Rahsool Diggins ... it’s already had an impact.”

He also helped transition UConn from a middling American Athletic Conference team to an NCAA tournament squad.

“He should be remembered as a great Husky,” said Hurley. “If he was able to play a year longer, who knows where he could have taken this program.”

Bouknight said in the coming weeks he will choose an agent and participate in predraft workouts. He said he will “definitely” finish up the semester in good academic standing.

david.borges

@hearstmediact.com