By all accounts, UConn men’s basketball was led by senior Christian Vital last season. And while heading into this year there will be accountability across the board to help lead the Huskies, all eyes will be on James Bouknight. The sophomore heads into 2020 with some seriously lofty expectations for himself and the team, but for Bouk, it is simply the next step on his path to greatness.
“[It’s] just being an example for people,” Bouknight said in a Zoom call last month. “Work hard, push people to work hard. On the court, going hard all the time. Hurley keeps stressing that I’m going to be a target, so just pushing myself to play 110%.”
Bouknight’s time at UConn got off to a bit of a rocky start dealing with off-court legal issues, but once he stepped on the court he never looked back. By season’s end, the 6-foot-5 guard appeared in 28 games, starting in 16 of them, and finished the year averaging 13 points and four rebounds en route to earning a spot on the American Athletic Conference Third Team and All-Freshman Team. Now he is ready to take on a bigger leadership role for the Huskies.
“Last year, it was more of a learning experience for me,” Bouknight said. “I was mostly trying to lead with my game, with my play. This year, I try to be more of a vocal leader, talking to guys whenever they make mistakes, helping the new guys get into the rhythm.”
Heading into year two of his UConn career and the team’s first back in the Big East Conference, Bouknight isn’t flying under anyone’s radar. He is expected to not only improve upon his own game but become the team’s leader with Vital gone. Accordingly, Bouknight chose to spend the summer at UConn, working hard to make the improvements he wanted to see based on his game last year.
“My three-point shooting and my ball handling [are] two parts of my game I’ve been working on a lot,” Bouknight said. “All summer, even during the quarantine, I was able to get in the gym and work on some of the things I did on my follow through, getting more shots up, simple ball-handling drills. Even getting stronger has helped me with both of those things.”
Of course, Bouknight won’t be alone in this new environment, as he has fellow guards Jalen Gaffney and RJ Cole alongside him.
Gaffney got off to a slow start last season, taking some time to adjust to college-level basketball, but like Bouknight, found a second gear in the back half of the season. After putting on some weight and finding an improved sense of confidence this offseason, he will look to build on the dynamic sophomore duo that can be Bouk and Gaff.
This leaves Cole as the primary ball-handler of the bunch, a role he thrived in previously. The redshirt junior averaged 6.2 assists per game in his first two seasons at Howard University, and said he expects a similar result while working alongside Bouknight.
“He’s a very special talent,” Cole said. “Just watching him and knowing the things he likes to do, where he likes to shoot from, where he likes the ball at. That’s the easy part. I think me and him will be perfectly fine together.”
Although there are plenty of uncertainties heading into the 2020 season and when it may start, one thing for sure is that when it does, Bouknight and the Huskies will be ready.
“Personally, I’m just locked in every day as if the season is going to start at the regular time,” Bouknight said. “Even though it is frustrating not knowing when the regular season will start, as a team we’ve just been attacking each day like the season is gonna start at the usual start time.”