James Bouknight's a bucket, but is he anything else, too?
Can the UConn guard be more than just a scorer in the NBA? A full scouting report.
If I were so inclined, I could craft an argument that Jordan Clarkson’s shortcomings are as much to blame for Utah’s early exit from the 2021 NBA Playoffs as anything else that happened in their second round series against the Clippers.
Donovan Mitchell went bonkers in Games 1 and 2. The adjustment that the Clippers made was to run two people at Mitchell when the Jazz had the ball, knowing that without Mike Conley on the floor, Utah did not have another guy that could create for others or initiate offense. Limit Spida, and the series comes down to Jordan Clarkson and Joe Ingles creating enough good shots to beat a team that found a way to neutralize Rudy Gobert’s defensive impact.
So the question that teams considering drafting UConn guard James Bouknight need to ask themselves is simple: At what point in this draft can you accept taking a prospect whose ceiling may be capped at being the next Jordan Clarkson?
Now let me be clear. Jordan Clarkson is in no way a bad NBA player. He’s unquestionably a success story. The 46th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, Clarkson has averaged 15.3 points over his seven-year career that includes this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award, which he won after averaging 18.4 points, 4.0 boards and 2.5 assists for the best team in the NBA during the regular season.
There’s also a reason that, despite never averaging fewer than 13.9 points since his rookie year, Clarkson’s only carved out a role as a sixth man, and it’s the same reason I have some concerns about Bouknight.
I’m going to start with the good with Bouknight, because there really is a lot to like. An explosive, 6-foot-5 combo-guard, Bouknight is one of the most gifted scorers in this year’s draft class. He’s coming off of a sophomore season where he averaged 18.7 points for a top 20 UConn team despite the fact that he played just 15 games thanks to an elbow injury that required surgery and the stop-and-start nature of UConn’s season, which featured a few COVID-related shutdowns.
Bouknight’s strength is his ability to create for himself in isolation. He has the kind of handle and creativity with the ball that can only be cultivated on New York City blacktops, and he really understands how to change speeds and change directions. You’ll see the word “shifty” thrown around a lot when discussing Bouknight, and it fits perfectly. Watching him light up defenders with hesis …
… in-and-out dribbles …
… and looping crossovers …
… will never get old. The reason he’s so dangerous is his explosiveness, his first step. All he needs is an inch of space and he’s by his defender, and while he definitely needs to get into an NBA strength and conditioning program, his vertical explosiveness and ability to absorb contact makes him a really good finisher around the basket. And he’s crafty, that helps. According to Synergy, Bouknight shot nearly 63 percent around the rim, good for 1.373 points per possession, which ranked him in the 86th percentile nationally. That athleticism also allows him to really be a terror in transition as well. Bottom line, you’re not stopping him if he can get downhill.
He’s also shown the ability to use his handle in his step-back package. Bouknight has a really nice feel for creating space for himself to be able to get shots off, and he has shown himself capable of punishing defenders that go underneath screens against him. That said, he shot just 29.3 percent from three this season. Some of that can be explained away by the degree of difficulty on the shots that he was taking -- you really don’t have to look that hard to find examples of Bouknight settling for really difficult shots. Some of it is likely due to the fact that he injured his left elbow six games into the season and missed five weeks; I’m not convinced he got back to 100 percent at any point down the stretch of the season. And it is worth noting that he is a career 80 percent free throw shooter. That’s a good sign.
But Bouknight really struggled in catch-and-shoot situations as a sophomore. He shot just 21 percent and posted 0.622 PPP on catch-and-shoot jumpers, which slotted him in the 11th percentile nationally. This may simply be a small sample size impacted by an injury and a UConn roster that lacked another creator, but it’s still a red flag. He needs to be a guy that can space the floor playing off the ball, because the other hole in his game right now is as a creative force. He finished his UConn career with just 63 assists in 49 games to go with 92 turnovers. He doesn’t exactly project as a full time lead guard as a result, which is a problem when he functions as a guy that primarily needs the ball in his hands.
That right there is the biggest concern NBA teams have. If you can’t really play him on the ball because he struggles to make some of the reads you need to make as a lead guard, but you can’t really play him off the ball because of some of the concerns about him ability as a shooter, then where are you playing him?
Now, I’m less concerned about the defensive side of the ball than some others are with Bouknight. I actually think Bouknight will end up being a plus-defender in the league. He’s tough and aggressive on the ball, he can guard both ones and twos and I do believe that some of the question marks regarding his intensity playing off the ball had to do with the context of this past season. He carried the entire load for UConn offensively, and he did so in a season where he was laid up for five weeks with an injury while UConn was in and out of COVID shutdowns. There’s a reason why he ended up with cramping issues in so many late-season games. I don’t know that he ever truly had his legs.
I say all that to say this: Bouknight has an NBA skill. He’ll be able to score in the league. That will get him on the court early on in his career. He should be able to play a role similar to that of a Jordan Clarkson, or a Jamal Crawford. But if you’re buying the jumpshot long term, and if you think that you can develop his playmaking ability, it’s not a stretch to think that he could end up reaching the heights of someone like a Zach Lavine.
There’s a ceiling there, and it’s worth noting that the things Bouknight really needs to develop — shooting and playmaking — are things that can be developed with reps in the gym and work in the film room.
But drafting James Bouknight in the top ten comes with knowing that the most likely outcome is that he will make a career about being instant offense off the bench, a scorer built to torch second unit defenders.