James Bouknight, the 6-foot-5 guard who helped get UConn back into the NCAA Tournament after a rather painful absence, had to endure a bit of pain Thursday night as his professional career began.
Bouknight was taken by the Charlotte Hornets with the No. 11 pick in Thursday’s NBA Draft, slipping slightly from pre-draft projections that had him going as high as No. 6.
Bouknight was on hand for the draft with his parents at the Barclay’s Center, not far from his childhood home in Brooklyn, and was forced to wait some 30 minutes longer than he had been hoping in the Green Room.
“I felt like I started to slip a little bit, but I feel like I kept my composure,” Bouknight said on a Zoom call with reporters after being selected. “I know that on draft night anything can happen, and I was just waiting for my name to be called. And when it was, all the sadness I guess you could say went away and it was just a big joy.”
Bouknight is the 14th NBA lottery pick from UConn in the program’s history, the first since Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb in 2012. He is the 44th UConn player to be drafted overall.
The top five picks in the draft were somewhat established prior to Thursday, but it was thought Bouknight could go soon after. He worked out for Oklahoma City, Golden State, and Orlando, the teams picking sixth, seventh, and eighth.
But the Thunder went with Australian star Josh Giddey, the Warriors picked Jonathan Kuminga from the NBA’s G League, and the Magic chose Michigan’s Franz Wagner.
The perceived slights are nothing new, Bouknight says.
“My whole life I’ve been slept on,” Bouknight said. “Charlotte took this chance. I’m not going to let them down.”
Bouknight is the second player with Connecticut ties to go in the top 10 of a major American sport’s pro draft this month. Ellington native Frank Mozzicato, a star at East Catholic High in Manchester, was the No. 7 pick in Major League Baseball’s draft.
It’s where Bouknight was sitting when he was drafted that meant quite a bit to him.
“Not many people can say they’re from Brooklyn and get drafted in Brooklyn, in the lottery at that,” Bouknight said. “This moment for me is a legendary one.”
Bouknight averaged 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds for the Huskies in 2020-21, his second season with the program.
“He’s got such a unique talent. He’s explosive. He can score at all three levels. He’s a dynamic 1-on-1 player. He makes incredibly difficult shots, which is what the NBA becomes about,” UConn coach Dan Hurley said earlier this week.
A top-75 recruit, Bouknight burst onto the college basketball scene as a freshman during the Huskies’ games at the Charleston Classic, but wasn’t a surefire top pick until his sophomore campaign.
“James became a lottery pick when he dropped 40 in his (first) Big East game,” Hurley said.
The most recent UConn player to be selected in the first round was Shabazz Napier in 2014.
His play on the court was usually top-notch, though Bouknight’s career at UConn got off to a bit of a bumpy start with an off-court incident.
Bouknight was suspended for the first three games of his freshman season at UConn following his arrest near campus. The charges of evading responsibility, interfering with a police officer, and driving without a license were eventually dropped after Bouknight completed a special program for first-time offenders known as accelerated rehabilitation.
Hurley and assistant coach Kimani Young had planned to be with Bouknight in the Green Room at the Barclay’s Center Thursday but COVID issues with the Husky coaching staff kept them away.
UConn announced earlier in the day that “multiple members” of the Huskies’ coaching staff had either tested positive or were exhibiting COVID symptoms. All of the coaches on the UConn staff have been fully vaccinated, the school said.
“It is extremely disappointing that Kimani and I can’t be with James on such a momentous occasion in his life,” Hurley said in a statement. “He has done so much to help the UConn program and we couldn’t have been more proud and excited to celebrate with James and his family. We have been in touch with them and they know that we are wishing James nothing but the greatest success as he takes the next step in his basketball career.”