STORRS - James Bouknight is very likely to be the second player this month with Connecticut ties to be taken in the top 10 of a major pro sports league’s draft when the NBA goes through its annual selection process Thursday.
The UConn guard has a chance to match, or even exceed, the No. 7 slot that is the current month’s record in the Nutmeg State. Ellington native Frank Mozzicato went to the Kansas City Royals with the No. 7 pick in the Major League Baseball Draft July 11.
But if it weren’t for a change of heart when Bouknight was getting ready for high school, both men could have gone in the baseball draft.
Bouknight admitted Monday that unlike many NBA draftees, he hadn’t exactly been preparing his whole life for this moment and hearing Adam Silver’s announcing his selection. For a long time, he thought it would be a different commissioner calling his name.
“I started out playing baseball,” Bouknight said on a Zoom call with reporters. “This wasn’t always a dream of mine.”
So just how good was Bouknight as a teen-aged shortstop? As good, if not better, than he is now as a 20-year-old shooting guard.
“I was elite. Elite. Elite-level. I was so good I feel like if I picked up a baseball right now and practice for like a month, I could play in the league (MLB),” Bouknight said. “And I’m not just saying that.”
It’s unlikely his potential in baseball has anything to do with it, but Bouknight has been zooming up the mock draft boards lately as NBA personnel get a better view of the lanky, 6-foot-5 Brooklyn native. Once thought to be a likely late-teens pick, Bouknight go as high as No. 5 in this week’s draft.
He admits he’s noticed his name creeping up the list, though he’s trying not to focus on that fact.
“Of course I see it. It’s hard to not see it. But it’s not like I’m going on the internet and searching up my name and trying to see where I’m going in mock drafts. I feel like that’s something that could add stress to somebody,” Bouknight said. “I’m just trying to have fun with the whole process. Of course I see my name rising and my stock going up but I’m not worrying about it.”
Bouknight, who will be in the Green Room at the Barclay’s Center for Thursday’s affair, said he has held individual workouts for the New Orleans Hornets, Charlotte Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder, Orlando Magic, and Golden State Warriors.
The Thunder, who are coached by former UConn graduate assistant Mark Daigneault and who recently traded for former UConn guard Kemba Walker, own the No. 6 pick as well as the 16th and 18th selections.
“I’ve actually been talking to OKC a lot,” Bouknight said. “I can see myself fitting in with them, definitely.”
Playing for the Warriors, who are slated to pick at No. 7 and No. 14, would also be run for Bouknight, he says.
“I worked out with the Warriors. It was actually a great workout,” Bouknight said. “There’s a lot of great people in that organization. I think I’d fit right in.”
The Magic, who pick at No. 8, have one of Bouknight’s former AAU teammates, point guard Cole Anthony, on their roster. It’s a pairing that Bouknight admits intrigues him.
Wherever he lands, Bouknight is confident in his ability to contribute immediately. Even more so than his ability to resume his shortstop duties.
“I feel like I’m a player that can go into the league and right away make an impact,” Bouknight said. “I’m not saying it’s just going to be sweet and I’m going to be a killer from day 1. There’s going to be the rookie curve and the adjustments.”
He admits he’ll have to adjust to the strength and speed of most NBA players, not to mention the rigors of an 82-game regular season, of course, but Bouknight continues to show few nerves.
He averaged 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds in his final season with the Huskies, but a few teams were nervous about Bouknight’s shooting touch. He connected only 29.3 percent of his 3-point shots last season for UConn, perhaps in part due to the elbow injury that forced him to miss eight games.
But in an individual workout just after the NBA Draft Combine, Bouknight put on a little show. With nearly all of the league’s eyes on him, he made 19 straight 3-pointers.
“I felt like this pre-draft I had to prove that number (29.3) is not a real number,” Bouknight said. “I feel like I’m a way better shooter than the number indicates. It’s something I’m not worried about, but it’s something I’ve been working on.”
Bouknight has also been working on his defense, not that he admits it needs a great amount of labor.
“A lot of people like to say defense is one of my weaknesses but I really don’t feel like that. I compete possession-in, possession-out on the defensive end,” Bouknight said. “I definitely want to be a high-level, two-way player. I feel with my length and athleticism I could become an elite defender.”
Bouknight will undoubtedly become the 43rd UConn alum to be selected in the NBA Draft, and is very likely to be the program’s 14th lottery pick.
The most recent Husky drafted was Daniel Hamilton (2016). Shabazz Napier (2014) was the last UConn player taken in the first round, and Andre Drummond (2012) is the program’s most recent lottery pick.
That’s not bad for a baseball player from Brooklyn.