Peachtree Hoops continues its 2021 NBA Draft scouting report series with a look at James Bouknight, a guard out of UConn.
If you watched one of UConn’s games this year, you probably heard the announcers mention that James Bouknight, a 6’4” sophomore shooting guard with a 6’8” wingspan, is from New York City — Crown Heights, Brooklyn, to be precise. As the Huskies’ leading scorer and someone excellent at drawing fouls, Bouknight gave the announcers plenty of opportunity to posit that his style of play — featuring an advanced handle that often left defenders looking silly and a flashy layup package — is a product of where he’s from:
The comparison between Bouknight and the archetypal New York City guard — a relentless, creative slasher known more for breaking ankles than playmaking — hasn’t been lost on draft scouts, either: “He just brings that New York mindset, that playground mindset, to the game in terms of the way he’s able to break down defenders,” Sam Vecenie, the draft guru for The Athletic, said about Bouknight. “It is absolutely ridiculous what he can do with the basketball….He’ll set you up with one thing, counter left, spin back right, counter back left. He just strings together so many different moves that it’s really hard to stay in front of him.” Adam Spinella also says that Bouknight “has that joyful playground-like aspect to his game,” and Mike Gribanov, a draft writer for The Stepien, noticed that Bouknight pulled out the Slip ’N’ Slide move from NBA Street:
Bouknight is somewhat of a late bloomer. His favorite sport was baseball until a growth spurt before sophomore year of high school pushed him toward basketball. Over the next two years, he found his calling as an athletic scorer — the type of player who could pluck the ball from his opponent like Kawhi Leonard terrorizing young Ben McLemore, and be confident enough in his abilities that he’d try a windmill dunk after bouncing the ball to himself off the hardwood. Playing next to older talent, Bouknight helped lead his school to the Class B state championship, earning MVP of the tournament (Bouknight also played with Cole Anthony in the AAU circuit). Then he transferred to the MacDuffie School in Massachusetts to gain more exposure, playing next to (and, at first, behind) future D-1 players like Dana White, Ismael Massoud, and Richard Springs, a fellow UConn Husky. Recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, Bouknight was just the 72nd overall recruit of 2019 and didn’t start for UConn until midway through his freshman year but still finished the season as his team’s second-leading scorer.
In an aggregate of six preseason mock drafts, Bouknight was ranked just 35th, appearing on just three of those six. But thanks to a strong season that earned him a spot on the All-Big East First Team, his draft stock has steadily risen, and he’s now ranked 7th on Rookie Scale’s Consensus Big Board and frequently mocked to the Golden State Warriors with that pick.
He’s risen because of two main traits: the ability to create his own shot at all three levels, thanks to a shifty handle and an array of stepbacks...
…and his explosiveness:
(via Zach Milner)
But what sets Bouknight apart from most bucket-getters is his ability to score both with and without the ball. In addition to being a classic NYC guard with the ball in his hands — Synergy labels his isolation efficiency as “Excellent” — he’s the 5th-best cutter in college basketball, averaging 1.68 ppp on 22 cutting possessions. He was also a terrific cutter as a freshman, and in his combined 43 games at UConn, he scored 91 points on 62 cutting possessions (1.47ppp, 1.44 poss/game). In the past two years, only one NBA guard was as proficient and as efficient as a cutter: Bradley Beal, who scored 1.37 ppp on 1.9 possessions per game this season. Like Beal, Bouknight is adept at both timing his cuts and using his explosiveness and length to finish at the rim:
Bouknight is often compared to Jordan Clarkson, and it’s easy to see Bouknight being used as the same sort of 6th-man microwave scorer, at least early in his career. But Clarkson has never had Bouknight’s ability as a cutter, averaging just 0.51 cutting possessions per game for his NBA career (coincidentally, Clarkson also averaged 0.51 cutting possessions at the University of Missouri in 2013-14). As a volume scorer on an otherwise bad offensive team, Bouknight has inspired some critics to express concern about his scalability, but those concerns will be moot if Bouknight can maintain his prowess as a cutter and regain the off-ball shooting of his freshman year, when he averaged 1.25 ppp on catch-and-shoot possessions (89th percentile).
In addition to his cutting, Bouknight was one of the best finishers in college basketball, making 66% of his 79 at-rim shots (5.27 per game). Like Josh Christopher, Bouknight is excellent at finishing at the rim, albeit on even higher volume — almost twice as many rim FGAs as what Christopher accomplished in his lone season at Arizona State. But a more important difference between Bouknight and Christopher is how they performed at the rim in the halfcourt. Like Andrew Wiggins, Christopher is extraordinary in transition but pretty mediocre against a set defense: In the half court, he scored just 1.048 ppp in 21 “Around Basket” possessions (37th percentile), according to Synergy. Bouknight, on the other hand, scored 1.373 on 59 of those possessions (86th percentile). Comparing apples to apples, Bouknight was also more proficient and efficient as a freshman, scoring 1.153 ppp on 85 around-basket possessions, ranking in the 56th percentile.
Even more impressive is how often Bouknight got to the rim on his own, despite being the first name listed on the opponent’s scouting report every night. Just 29% of his rim FGs were assisted, and almost all of those came off cuts (Bouknight finished the season with 15 assisted FGs at the rim, and 14 FGs off cuts). More often than not, Bouknight got to the rim on the strength of his handle (despite it being surprisingly loose from time to time) and the threat of his pull-up game. Here are two finishes against Jeremiah Robinson-Earl, a 6-9 sophomore forward from Villanova (and potential first-round pick) whom The Athletic’s Sam Vecenie called “a legitimately impactful switch defender” and “one of the most technically sound defenders in the 2021 NBA Draft class”:
Bouknight’s ability to get to the rim is set up by his pull-up game, and although the shooting numbers weren’t there for him this season, he leverages his handle to set up his dribble jumper game, and vice versa. Notice in the last two clips how he fakes the pull-up jumper by almost bringing his off hand to the ball, as if picking up his dribble, and then uses his defender’s momentum against him:
For all his electric alley-oops and space creation, there are two main flaws leveled against Bouknight: his streaky shooting and his playmaking. Those concerns are valid and are, at least in part, a product of Bouknight’s environment. For all intents and purposes, Bouknight was UConn’s offense this year; he scored 50% more PPG than the Huskies’ second-leading scorer, who shot just 38.7% from the field. His playmaking will need to improve no matter what role he plays in the NBA, but his college passing is something of a Rorschach test — hard to discern “can’t” from “won’t,” as in whether he didn’t see a passing opportunity or saw it but didn’t make the pass because of a (some would say justified) lack of confidence in his teammates. UConn’s offensive rating was just 101 in the eight games he missed with an elbow injury, and 110 in the 15 games he played. In terms of on/off stats, a +9 oRTG — a conservative estimate for Bouknight since he spent roughly 20% of those games on the bench — is rare; Bradley Beal is the only wing who a larger impact on his team’s offense this year, according to Cleaning the Glass.
Given his usage rate, Bouknight would have ideally spent more time resting, but UConn’s offense sputtered without him. When Bouknight went to the bench, opponents frequently switched to a zone defense, and since nobody else for UConn could reliably make plays, Bouknight was forced to be subbed back in quickly and worked from the Elbows:
Because of how much UConn asked him to do offensively, his personal efficiency took a hit, but what makes a prospect look best for draft scouts and what gives his team the best chance of winning are often not the same thing. One example of his overextension was the overtime loss to Creighton: Bouknight scored 29 points on just 14 shots during the first 26 minutes of the game. Since UConn’s offense couldn’t create good looks when he sat, he played almost the entire game despite looking visibly fatigued down the stretch, finishing with 40 out of 45 possible minutes that night. A similar thing happened against Villanova: Bouknight started the game 6 for 7, reinjured his left elbow (which had recently required surgery that caused him to miss those eight games), and was subbed out. But then Villanova switched to a zone defense and UConn’s offense stalled, so Bouknight returned to the game, despite still being visibly affected by the reinjury, and he finished the game just one for 10.
As his freshman stats suggest (he made 35% of his 3-pointers and 82% of his FTs during his first year of college), Bouknight is more than likely a better shooter than what he appeared to be this season, when he was often asked to bail out his teammates by making something happen with the ball. He has the touch, and whether he’s a 34% or a 40% shooter from 3 as a pro, there’s little doubt that his catch-and-shoot ability will at least not hinder his team’s offense (to be fair, he does need to clean up his form, especially his footwork, which is seemingly hampered by his body still compensating from the meniscus injury that also makes him seemingly struggle to push off with his left foot and compromise his balance at times). Wherever he ends up as a shooter, his ability as a driver and as a cutter could help him be a rare scoring threat without the basketball who can also put pressure on the rim and create his own shot as the shot clock winds down. It’s easy to imagine him channeling his athletic gifts to be excellent at so-called stampede cuts, in which a wing player catches a pass while already stampeding toward the basket, somewhat like this transition possession against Marquette:
Bouknight’s defense, which was impressive at times but suffered from occasional lapses, will also be a likely candidate to improve when he takes a smaller role in the pros (only eight NBA players, including Trae Young and Luka Doncic, had a higher usage rate than Bouknight). When he’s engaged, his excellent at using his long arms and quick hands to harass ball handlers and jump passing lanes:
Or using his reach and bounce to block shots, even after one of his mistakes caused the turnover:
And just as he’s excellent at using off-ball screens, as Mark Schindler expertly pointed out in his article for Indy Cornrows, he’s also great at getting skinny on defense and navigating screens set for his man:
Bouknight does seem to be a little too hunched over in his defensive stance (a common sign of tight hip flexors that cause him to bend at the waist), but when his usage rate is not approaching Trae Young’s and he’s had time in an NBA strength-and-conditioning program, it’s easy to imagine him as least passable as a perimeter defender.
Bouknight is not expected to be available when the Hawks use their No. 20 pick, which is unfortunate because he’s the type of off-ball scorer who can play next to Young and the on-ball advantage creator who can boost the second unit’s offensive efficiency. He’s a more polished version of Josh Christopher — especially when comparing their off-ball tendencies — and, as a result, more likely to contribute as a rookie. But he’s most often mocked to Golden State Warriors with their No. 7 pick, and Jonathan Givony of ESPN recently predicted he’d go to the Oklahoma City Thunder with the 6th pick. As of now, Bouknight will probably not spend his next season in Atlanta unless the Hawks decide to trade up, which would require a large amount of assets and a severe case of infatuation from Travis Schlenk.