After a four-plus hour trek by bus from Storrs to Hartford, then Port Authority, then to the subway, followed by the Barclays Center, I felt more than ready to watch former University of Connecticut basketball star James Bouknight tear up an extremely top-heavy Brooklyn Nets squad on Sunday.
If you follow ex-Husky stars through their professional endeavors like many UConn fans do, it’s more than likely that you have an eye on the Brooklyn native. After all, he’s the first NBA lottery pick to come out of Storrs in nine years! The expectations for Bouknight were high coming into the season, and I projected him to have a large impact on the team just a week ago.
So naturally, he would get minutes from the jump, especially with starting shooting guard Terry Rozier out, right? Wrong. Although the protests outside of the Barclays Center advocating for Kyrie Irving to play delayed my entrance until the second quarter, I didn’t miss any Bouknight playing time. And we wouldn’t have missed any of his minutes even if we had gotten to the arena with one minute to play in the fourth.
An old adage states, “It’s not about who starts the game, it’s about who finishes,” but this surely cannot be the intended meaning in this case. Bouknight played the final 47.9 seconds of the contest, with the Hornets up big after a key fourth quarter run. So why isn’t the lottery pick playing?
One reason may be the fact that the Hornets are letting him catch up to the speed of the NBA game in practice first. In an interview a few weeks ago with USA Today, Rozier noted, “[Bouknight] is a guy that probably won’t win Rookie of the Year but in a couple of years down the line, he’ll be a hard matchup. He’ll be a starter in the league and be a hard matchup for anybody going up against him. He is one of those types of guys. He has got a lot to learn, but he is special, and I don’t say that about too many rookies.”
Keep in mind that Rozier said Bouknight still has “a lot to learn” and will be a star “down the line.” This indicates a projection of future success, but does not necessarily lend itself to immediate playing time. Or maybe that’s just team-friendly, empty player-speak to the media. Either way, the expectation is that Bouknight will gain minutes as the season progresses, but one may think that if a team qualifies for a lottery pick, then they should use them to their fullest advantage.
It’s not like the Hornets are the Warriors, who had one fluky season due to injuries that led to a lottery pick. They consistently miss the playoffs year after year. Since 2005, they have made the playoffs just three times and have not won a series in that span. They need any talent they can get. Bouknight should fit that bill. The reason why the Hornets get a lottery pick every year is not because the talent isn’t there. It’s because they have no clue how to use it. Example A is wasting former UConn star Kemba Walker’s prime. The point guard made several All-Star teams, but never won a playoff series in Charlotte.
The Hornets are consistently bad enough to miss the playoffs, but always seem to have enough talent to not miss by much. Although they have a 3-0 start to the season, things will not stay that way and they will once again be a fringe-playoff team. Maybe the cycle will finally end if they actually utilize and develop Bouknight. Nothing against guards Ish Smith and Cody Martin, but there is no way that they should be getting minutes over the Brooklyn native.
As a team who is definitively not contending for a championship this year, it really feels like a no-brainer to get Bouknight (and Kai Jones for that matter) onto the court. The formula of underusing rookies clearly has not been working, so why not give it a shot? The only person who has gotten real usage as a first year player in recent memory for the Hornets was LaMelo Ball, and we saw how that turned out with him taking home Rookie of the Year. Bouknight is not Ball, but both are lottery picks.
Hopefully Bouknight gets on the floor soon in a real-game situation, or else his seat on the bench will get very warm and the Hornets will replay the same movie of disappointment that they and their fans have gotten all too used to.