James Bouknight declares for the NBA Draft, will not return to UConn

Connecticut’s James Bouknight, right, is defended by Maryland’s Galin Smith (30) during the first half of a first round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Saturday, March 20, 2021, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. Photo by Robert Franklin/AP Photo.

James Bouknight’s time in Storrs is coming to an end. 

The star sophomore guard for the UConn men’s basketball team announced Wednesday that he will forgo his final two years of eligibility and declare for this year’s NBA Draft. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski was the first to report the news, and a few minutes later, Bouknight posted a heartfelt message to the UConn community on his Twitter. 

“Since we’ve been back, I’ve just been thinking about it and talking about it with the coaches and the people in my circle,” Bouknight said to reporters on Wednesday. “We just felt like this was the best decision for me and my future aspirations.” 

The decision hardly comes as a surprise considering Bouknight has been a projected lottery pick in multiple mock drafts. The Brooklyn native is projected to go ninth overall to the Oklahoma City Thunder in The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie’s latest mock draft. It’s a tough blow to a UConn team that really depended on him for the bulk of its offense, but head coach Dan Hurley knew this was the right decision. 

“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,” Hurley said. 

He added that it meant so much to be a part of Bouknight’s development as a player. 

“It’s pure joy when you feel like you contributed in some way to the development of a young person like James,” Hurley said. “That’s an amazing thing to be a part of … It’s what coaching is all about.” 

Bouknight averaged 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds per game in his breakout sophomore season that saw him earn a place on the All-Big East First Team. Many thought he could have been Big East Player of the Year had he been healthy the whole season. 

Bouknight missed eight games in the middle of the year with an elbow injury, and the team looked completely different without him on the floor. In the regular season, the team was 10-2 when Bouknight played and 4-4 when he didn’t. He scored the most points on the team, edging out R.J. Cole 281-280, despite playing eight fewer games. He was an impact player in every sense of the word.  

As a freshman, Bouknight jumped onto the scene and continued to get better as the season went on. He ended up averaging 13.0 points and 4.1 rebounds and earned a spot on the American Athletic Conference All-Freshman Team and a spot on the All-AAC Third Team. He came into his sophomore season with high expectations on him. He met them by helping lead the Huskies to a third-place finish in their first year back in the Big East and an appearance in the NCAA Tournament for the first time since 2016. Hurley said Bouknight had a huge effect on the program and should be remembered as a “great Husky.” 

“His impact is immeasurable,” Hurley said. “It impacts recruiting. It impacted our brand being restored. It gave us a college basketball player again at UConn that everyone that follows the sport knew. James got here and things weren’t looking great, and he changed everything.” 

For that, Bouknight will always have a special place in the hearts of UConn fans, and that means a lot to him. 

“It means everything, man,” Bouknight said. “Just to have people think of you that way, it means so much. I feel for that. People who support me and actually care about me and my journey, that means a lot to me for sure.” 

While Bouknight is clearly an NBA talent, he’s still raw. His performances in the Big East and NCAA Tournaments show that he still has a lot of room to grow as a player. His 3-point shooting is a particular area of concern. He shot just 29 percent from three this season and even worse than that after returning from injury. He also turned the ball over quite a bit, averaging nearly three a game.  

However, Bouknight’s abilities in driving to the basket, finishing through contact, finding nonexistent lanes and creating his own shot are off the charts. He is also a really special athlete in terms of his speed and jumping ability, and at 6-foot-5, he is a prototypical size for a shooting guard in the NBA. So there’s no doubt that a team will take a chance on him — probably in the early part of the first round — and look to help him develop those secondary skills that will make him an impact player at the next level. 

“I’ll put his physical gifts and his ability to score at all three levels and the fact that he is only scratching the surface,” Hurley said. “I don’t think there’s many more talented, scoring, athletic combo-type of guards that are entering this draft.” 

Bouknight will end his two-year UConn career with 645 points, 200 rebounds, 63 assists, 38 steals and 10 blocks in 43 games. Now, he will look to become UConn’s 14th lottery pick and first since Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb in 2012.  

“I just want to be myself and just do the things I’m good at,” Bouknight said. “Score the ball, rebound the ball and just go to a program where I can play right away and help an organization win some games.” 

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