This season, the University of Connecticut’s first NBA lottery pick in nine years (the last being Andre Drummond in 2012) is set to take the hardwood for the team that drafted him: the Charlotte Hornets. When players come into the league, many like to speculate on the type of impact they will have in their first year. I plan to do just that: James Bouknight will have a huge impact this year, but he has a hard act to follow in LaMelo Ball, who captured the Rookie of the Year trophy for the Hornets and led them to the play-in tournament.
Looking at the Hornets roster, it’s clear that Bouknight will not be a starter from the jump. He will be competing with the positions 1-3, spots that are currently held by Ball, Terry Rozier, and Gordon Hayward, respectively. All three of them had impressive seasons last year, which should give Bouknight a nice opportunity to grow moving forward and perhaps pick up a few pointers along the way.
Once we get to the backcourt and wing situation on the second team, Bouknight is poised to thrive. Looking at the backup unit, Ish Smith and Kelly Oubre Jr. suit up alongside Bouknight, in a situation where he is the best player, for better or for worse.
Ish Smith is a perennial backup option who averaged just 6.7 points and 3.9 assists for the Wizards behind star point guard Russell Westbrook last season. Oubre had a decent scoring output for the Warriors last year with 15.4 points per game, but struggled from beyond the arc, only hitting 31.6% of his shots.
Bouknight finds himself clearly stuck in the middle between the first and second teams, where he should slide in nicely at sixth man. One benefit that he will have is that once he starts getting reps with the first team, he will be dangerous as a third or fourth option. When he is out with Ball and Hayward for instance, the defense will place virtually no focus on him. The two best backcourt defenders will be guarding the starters, while Bouknight will get the easier assignment. That, compounded with Ball’s tremendous passing abilities, will give Bouknight a great opportunity to just focus on getting buckets, which is the best thing he does.
FLOOR — The floor for Bouknight without injuries would involve Oubre having a breakout season. Oubre is a very capable player, and if he is able to get a consistent three-point shot, that could spell trouble for Bouknight’s minutes and usage. There is also the possibility that Bouknight’s defensive troubles could force the Hornets to keep him off the floor early in the season, or that he needs time to adjust to facing an NBA-quality defense. Although this is just a floor and seems unlikely to happen, the worst case for Bouknight would be to only serve as a middle-quality player on the second team, averaging 7.5 points, 1.5 assists and 3 rebounds per game.
CEILING — The ceiling for Bouknight is immense. If everything goes right, he will be in the conversation for Rookie of the Year, although it is unlikely that he will take home the hardware. There’s potential that he will be viewed as less dangerous than many weapons on the roster, which would allow him to thrive. Another thing that will determine his ceiling is his ability to hit the three ball. Bouknight shot the deep ball inefficiently (29.3%) in his last year at UConn, but that is likely attributed to the difficult shots he was taking and an injury he suffered to his elbow in the middle of the season. If he can get his long ball percentage up to around 37%, he would be primed for a great season offensively. The realistic ceiling here is at 16 points, 3.5 assists and 5.5 rebounds per game.
PROJECTED IMPACT — In all likelihood, Bouknight is not going to be the Rookie of the Year, but he will show serious flashes of star potential. I am projecting that he will have at least seven games where he catches fire and scores thirty or more points. However, there will likely be seven or more games where he is held to five or less points. He will be streaky and there will be growing pains. He was inconsistent at UConn, and he will continue to be. There is a ton of potential here though, and I project him to have an impressive campaign, averaging 11.5 points, 2 assists and 4 rebounds per game. For now though, we can sit back and enjoy as our home-grown talent develops before our eyes.