When he takes the court—whether in the rugged and legendary parks of New York City or beating his defender with a quick-as-lightning first step to the basket on the hardwood—James Bouknight never backs down from competition.
The grit and the determination, those traits define the player Bouknight has become.
“That New York style of play, that confidence, that swagger, it taught me to keep fighting and if I wanted to make something happen, I had to make it work,” says Bouknight. “Nobody respects you. You have to earn respect. When you first start hooping, you’re about 15 to 16 years old trying to play against grown men, out there trying to be tough and you are the last one to get picked.”
Bouknight, 20, could be found at the basketball courts in the parks near the Fulton Houses of the Chelsea neighborhood in the lower west side of Manhattan, anxiously waiting to get picked for a game. It was tough.
Those moments, however, were the foundation for Bouknight’s entire game and why he plays with a chip on his shoulder. But Bouknight, who could be the first player from Brooklyn since Stephon Marbury to be drafted in the top-10 in Thursday's 2021 NBA draft, never thought basketball would take him this far.
Bouknight, who did not know much about Marbury, has spent time looking at videos of the former two-time NBA All-Star and the culture of NYC basketball.
"Back in the day, NYC had all the talent and Stephon was different," Bouknight says. "I'm trying to be that next guy."
The former UConn guard and Crown Heights, Brooklyn native was not big on studying film and watching basketball games growing up.
“I never had anyone teach me the fundamentals of the game,” Bouknight tells Sports Illustrated. “I picked up basketball as a way to keep me out of the house and out of trouble. I would go to the parks and practice movements and find a rhythm in doing moves. When I get on the court, I don’t even know what I am going to do; things just happen.”
Before Bouknight became a top-tier guard at UConn and a household name rising up NBA mock draft boards this summer, he was a highly touted baseball player. He had dreams of playing shortstop in Major League Baseball, and looked up to players like Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano.
“Baseball came naturally for me and I was having fun with it,” Bouknight says. “But, basketball was the stomping grounds for the projects I grew up in. I’ve always been adventurous and I wanted to start something new.”
James suffered from severe tendinitis in his elbow and stopped playing baseball for a while. In between his last year of middle school and starting high school, he decided to take his talents for the diamond to the hardwood.
Patty Leo, Bouknight’s mother, didn’t fully like her son’s change of heart in sports initially.
“I was into the baseball thing for him because he was on travel teams, and not only did I like it for him, I liked it for me as a parent as well,” Leo says. “So, I was pushing for him to stay in baseball because I liked it a lot, but it was clear he wasn’t into it anymore.”
As for Bouknight’s father, John, it was only a matter of reminding his son of the standard that he set for him when it came to going after big dreams.
“I told him that if you get into this, you got to go through it like you want it,” James says. “Nothing comes free. And, if you aren't handling business in school, there would be no basketball. One leads to the other."
Bouknight spent summers on NYC courts all day hooping with a small circle of friends with the only break of going to a convenience store to pick up an Arizona to stay hydrated. Unlike baseball, a sport he had made a name for himself, Bouknight needed the chance and the right opportunity to showcase his talent.
Playing in NYC—the concrete jungle—sometimes those chances come a dime a dozen. But, as Bouknight quickly learned, keeping the fight and staying ready would prepare him for any opportunity.
His first chance came in an intramural basketball game as a freshman at LaSalle Academy—a private, all-boys Catholic school in Manhattan—playing against his high school best friend, Korey Williams.
“Korey was cold; he was tough, but I was killing him and just having fun,” Bouknight says. “It just so happens that the freshmen coach was in the gym, and he asked me to come try out for the team.”
Bouknight made the team. Instead of playing on the junior varsity team, he went straight to varsity. But, new levels and higher expectations come with greater responsibility and growth.
“This was like my first real time being coached hard and getting screamed at in regard to being held accountable,” Bouknight says. “Then, when a game came around and I didn’t get in the game, during a phase where I had a really bad attitude, this was weird.”
Sitting in foreign territory, Bouknight leaned on his mentor, Shaun Hicks, to help understand the growing pains of adjusting to basketball and his next steps. Bouknight met Hicks as a teenager playing at Celtic Park on 17th Street in the Chelsea area.
Hicks has spent the last 15 years coaching in Brooklyn, and has seen a lot of kids playing basketball come through the Chelsea area.
“He (Bouknight) came across a little shy at first, but the athleticism was there,” Hicks says. “He was extremely confident, but he just needed to be pointed in the right direction.”
While serving as his mentor, Bouknight says Hicks became like another father to him.
Hicks guided Bouknight through the early phases of his basketball career. As Bouknight settled into basketball, he led La Salle to a Catholic Class B city championship as a junior but had only one scholarship offer on the table from Siena.
“He never steered me wrong,” Bouknight says. “He knows how much adversity I have faced in my career, and he was the first person to tell me that I would play in the NBA one day. I thought he was crazy.”
While the 6' 5" guard could have signed with the Saints, Hicks suggested that Bouknight pass on the offer and visit The MacDuffie School in Granby, Mass., where he would later transfer to get more exposure.
“I had success at La Salle, but I did not want to get satisfied with where I was at,” Bouknight says. “I learned quickly in the game of basketball that if you want to hoop and be at the top, you have to make sacrifices. This was one of them.”
Moving from the familiar sight and sounds of NYC to attending a college prep school for day and boarding students in a small town in Massachusetts was different. But, Bouknight did not disappoint.
It was also during this time, when Bouknight made the transfer to MacDuffie, that he started playing AAU ball for the prominent Pro Scholars Athletics (PSA) Cardinals basketball team under coach Terrance “Munch” Williams on the Nike EYBL Circuit.
In his reclassified junior season at MacDuffie, Bouknight averaged 19.3 points and five rebounds before tearing his meniscus in his left knee in February 2018, requiring him to miss the rest of his junior season.
“I was hurt, but I always knew I was going to come back and I was going to be better,” Bouknight says. “That’s the type of person I am. With my work ethic, I was doing whatever I could on those crutches in rehab to keep my confidence high.”
Bouknight bounced back from the injury in July, and teamed up with Orlando Magic guard Cole Anthony on a stacked PSA roster.
Before the start of his senior season at MacDuffie in September 2018, Bouknight had offers from Virginia Tech, Miami (Fla.), Temple, Indiana, VCU and a few others. UConn coach Dan Hurley, who was then coaching at Rhode Island, had been watching Bouknight play in AAU basketball. Huskies assistant coach Kimani Young, who was previously at Minnesota, had also been recruiting Bouknight.
When Hurley was hired as coach at UConn in 2017, Bouknight said playing at UConn was a “done deal". Hurley was given the task of restoring a Huskies' program that had not won a national championship since 2014 and moving forward a program that had dealt with the firing of a coach, NCAA violations and tons of transfers.
“Just the history of being a UConn basketball player, and Hurley told me he wanted me to be the guy to help put the program back on the map,” Bouknight says. “I couldn’t pass that opportunity up.”
Hurley, who saw pro level potential in Bouknight when he first saw him play on the AAU circuit, felt that he would not be able to get the guard to come to Rhode Island. But after taking over the Huskies’ program, Bouknight was the key player that he needed for the program.
“His competitiveness and how fluid of an athlete he was, I told myself that I had to go get the guy,” Hurley says. “His imagination and passion for the game and his discipline is exactly what we needed. He changes the energy when he walks in the room."
Bouknight finished his senior season at MacDuffie, earning All-New England Preparatory School Athletic Council AA honors before taking his talents to UConn, roughly a 60-mile drive from Granby to Storrs, Conn. Bouknight was expected to contribute off the bench in his freshman season.
But, before he touched the hardwood for a game, Bouknight ran into some adversity. He was suspended for the first three games of his freshman season in 2018, which stemmed from an arrest that took place before the season began.
According to the Hartford Courant, Bouknight hit a pole while driving without a license and then fled the police around 1:30 a.m. on Sept. 27, 2018. Once he turned himself in, he applied for an accelerated rehabilitation program that resulted in all of his charges against him being dismissed.
Bouknight says that incident is not something he takes lightly, and it definitely helped him grow as a man.
“It’s not something I try to forget about,” Bouknight says. “It is something that I keep in the back of my mind as a reminder of my growth and the man I have become today. When you are in that light, everyone is watching you. That situation helped me grow tremendously.”
After the suspension, he finished his freshman season averaging 13 points and four rebounds while shooting .462 from the floor in nearly 26 minutes of action through 31 games. Even more, he became the first UConn freshman to have three 20-plus scoring games, the 20th freshman in school history to score 300-plus points while averaging 15.8 points and 5.1 rebounds as a starter in 16 games.
Bouknight, though, was just scratching the surface.
“From a kid who did not grow up playing basketball and how he began to pick up the game, it was impressive,” Hicks says. “When he became a starter in different games, the stage was set. I knew he was going to be special.”
After the coronavirus pandemic canceled the American Athletic Conference men’s basketball tournament following the regular season, things were different. Bouknight described life at this time as one equivalent to a roller coaster, from COVID-19 to Black Lives Matter protests to the racial tensions that were infiltrated throughout society.
During this time, Bouknight ended up getting a Malcolm X tattoo and the word Believe on his wrist as a reminder to himself to continue to be better in the world despite all of what was happening around him.
“It was sad to see that we were still dealing with stuff like that,” Bouknight says. “As a Black man, seeing all of this firsthand was hard. So, every time I look at this tattoo, it serves as a reminder that our country would get better and that I would continue to do my part to be better.”
As he continued to mature away from the court, Bouknight also gained a stronger level of confidence in his game and as a leader for his teammates heading into his sophomore season. After earning third-team All-AAC and All-Freshman team selections, he started his second season on the John R. Wooden Award watch list in the preseason.
“I taught myself how to be that guy on and off the court,” Bouknight says. “I wanted to be that guy my teammates could lean on when they needed it as well as how to have a killer mentality. I told myself that I was going to be one of the best guards in the country.”
Bouknight was on pace to do so. In an overtime loss against then No. 9 Creighton in December 2020, he torched the Blue Jays for 40 points, a game where he says he truly showcased his talent. An elbow injury in January against Marquette caused him to miss eight games after surgery.
But, Bouknight was determined to bounce back and be the player he was brought into the program to be. Having secured the program's first winning season in in four years in 2020, Bouknight and the Huskies wanted to build on that. The Huskies finished the 2020-21 regular season as winners of five of their last six games to earn the program’s first NCAA tournament since ’16.
The experience of the Big Dance was short-lived, though, as Maryland defeated UConn despite Bouknight’s 15-point, five-rebound and one-assist performance. On the biggest stage with all eyes on him and the program, Bouknight felt like he did not live up to his own standards.
Bouknight averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists while shooting 44.7% from the floor and 29.3% from three-point range in his final season.
“I felt like I let a lot of people down, and I feel the last two games I played at UConn were not my best games,” Bouknight says. I felt like I had unfinished business.”
Shortly after the season ended, Bouknight wasted no time declaring for the 2021 NBA draft, signing an agent. He knew the level of work of making the jump from college to the pros would come with a price.
But the parks, the injuries and the setbacks leading up to this moment had prepared for the biggest moment. Bouknight decided to move to Miami to train with Ronnie Taylor of Taylor Sports Group and his childhood trainer, putting an emphasis on his catch and shoot percentage and working on the pick-and-roll offense.
Taylor, who has worked with other NBA players like Desmond Bane, Cam Johnson, Donovan Mitchell, P.J. Tucker and Bam Adebayo, to name a few, first met Bouknight in New York and the two had a conversation about Bouknight’s short-term and long-term goals.
“James was eager and I love helping kids reach their full potential,” Taylor says. “He told me he wanted to be one of the hardest workers in the draft, and one of his goals was to be Rookie of the Year.”
And, with lofty goals and high expectations, Taylor quickly reminded Bouknight that goals come with sacrifice.
“I told him those goals start now,” Taylor says. “The predraft process was important, but it was not the only important thing. You can’t tell me you want to be Rookie of the Year and not put in ROY work, so I am going to hold you accountable.”
Bouknight went to work every day in training like a full-time job.
His first mission? Silencing the critics who said he struggled to shoot the three-ball consistently. In his sophomore season, Bouknight shot 29.3%—stemming from his elbow injury—from beyond the arc in comparison to 34.7% in his freshman season.
At the NBA draft combine in June, Bouknight hit 19 three-pointers in a row before he missed one, sending a message that he had been working to significantly improve this part of his game.
“We wanted to change the narrative about that in the predraft process,” Taylor says. “Not only that, but he made it a goal to hit 70% of his shots on catch-and-shoot opportunities and be able to score on all three levels.”
In SI’s latest NBA mock draft, Bouknight is projected to be selected by the Thunder at No. 6. Bouknight landing with Oklahoma City is not far-fetched as it has a coach in Mark Daigneault from UConn and a new veteran point guard in Kemba Walker, who was acquired this summer.
When Bouknight finds his new home Thursday, his rise up the draft boards comes as a testament to his hard work and dedication.
“Every guy who has trained with me has gotten drafted earlier than expected,” Taylor says. I believe he will go anywhere from five to 10. But, he put in the work and he trusted me to prepare him.
“Sometimes, being a kid from New York, you can be a little closed off. He trusted me, and I’m big on the philosophy of players being themselves when I am training them. I always tell [players] that I am going to give them the road, but they have to drive the car. Bouknight is a dog. I call him ‘Box Office Bouk.’ ”
Bouknight says the team that drafts him will be getting a player who is ready to work and serve as a high-level, two-way player, something he was not able to fully do at UConn because of his role on the team.
With this in mind, Bouknight has been reflecting on his journey, a new phase that will begin when he hears his name called on draft night. John made a bet with his son that if he cries on draft night, he owes him $5,000.
“I told him he was crazy,” Bouknight says with a laugh. “I’m not going to cry, but I don’t know what’s going to happen on Thursday. It’s going to be a legendary moment. Everybody doesn’t get this opportunity.”
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