Big East Tournament: James Bouknight’s UConn rise

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James Bouknight flashed a smile and laughed. You’re not going to believe it, he said.

Basketball wasn’t his sport of choice as a young athlete.

“I was playing baseball every day,” Connecticut’s superstar guard and projected lottery pick told The Post over Zoom. “That was my life.”

It wasn’t until high school that Bouknight began to play organized basketball. It was just something he did to mess around with friends. His idols were Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. He dreamed of a future on the diamond as a shortstop.

But then his right elbow began to ache. He had severe tendinitis he couldn’t play through. Tommy John surgery was recommended. It made him think about his future. As a freshman at La Salle Academy in Manhattan, Bouknight played in intramural games and lit it up. The freshman coach suggested he join the team.

“It took off from there,” the 6-foot-5 Brooklyn native said as third-seeded UConn prepared for this week’s Big East Tournament at the Garden.

Despite leading La Salle to a Catholic Class B city championship as a junior, Bouknight’s recruitment was mostly quiet. He had only one scholarship offer, from Siena, the result of not having played AAU basketball up to that point. He considered taking it, but his mentor, Shaun Hicks, suggested he hold off. There was much more Hicks felt Bouknight could do.

UConn's James Bouknight
UConn’s James Bouknight
AP Photo

He took him on a visit to The MacDuffie School in Granby, Mass., where he could face top competition on a daily basis and play in front of college coaches.

“You come here,” Hicks told him, “your whole life can change.”

Bouknight opted to reclassify and take his junior year all over again at The MacDuffie School. He joined the AAU powerhouse PSA Cardinals. He averaged more than 19 points that season, and big scholarship offers began to roll in, including one from UConn. Late in that season, however, he tore his meniscus. Connecticut remained steadfast in its interest.

An injury wasn’t going to deter Huskies coach Dan Hurley. When he was coaching at Rhode Island, he watched Bouknight play on the AAU circuit, not because he thought he could land him, but because he just enjoyed watching him play. UConn assistant Kiamni Young, when he was at Minnesota, recruited Bouknight, so there was a relationship already in place.

“First recruiting meeting we had, I said, ‘That kid is a pro. Nobody knows how good he is,’ ” Hurley said. “He became priority No. 1 and we lived with that kid.”

Bouknight, 20, had a strong freshman year, averaging 13 points per game and was named to the AAC’s third team. He was off to an even better start this year in UConn’s first season back in the Big East, scoring at least 18 points in his first five games and dropping 40 on Creighton, before suffering a left elbow injury on Jan. 5. Initially, it was thought to be minor. But the pain didn’t go away and he had surgery. Immediately following the operation, Bouknight called Young, and said he was ready to play.

That, of course, didn’t happen. Bouknight didn’t make his return until Feb. 16. He hasn’t shown much rust, averaging 20 points and 5.8 rebounds in six games, five of them Huskies victories.

His name has been shooting up NBA mock drafts. Sports Illustrated rated him No. 6 on its board of top prospects. 247Sports projected him going 10th and ESPN had him 11th. He’s a unique talent. Bouknight will frequently watch games on television and use a move he has seen immediately after in a game. His background also differentiates him, in that he didn’t grow up utilizing a trainer like so many top prospects or spend his youth playing AAU. His experience came in pickup games in the park. He learned by doing.

“He’s ascending, but what makes him special is he’s the opposite of what we see today,” said Terrance “Munch” Williams, the PSA Cardinals’ director. “There’s no cookie-cutter in his offensive repertoire. There’s no pattern to what he does offensively. It’s never the same.”

An NBA scout familiar with Bouknight raved about his raw ability as a three-level scorer, his basketball IQ and variety of moves and countermoves. The scout praised his defensive competitiveness, quick hands and knack for staying out of foul trouble. Most important, the scout added, is he breaks down defenders with ease, a key skill in the NBA.

Hurley, who coached NBA players J.R. Smith, Tristan Thompson and Lance Thomas at the high school level at St. Benedict’s Prep in Newark, believes he can be a borderline All-Star in the C.J. McCollum mold.

“When he was out, our conversations were, ‘Let’s get healthy, let’s get back in there, you’re selling yourself short if you’re happy being picked 12th or 11th,’ ’’ Hurley recalled. “ ‘You’re a top-eight pick, a top-six pick. Let’s go, get back and let’s make a run.’ ”

Bouknight tries to avoid the draft talk, challenging as that may be. It still finds its way to him from friends or over social media. It’s hard not to think about.

“It’s goosebumps every time,” he said.

It’s still difficult for him to wrap his head around how far he has come, that people consider him a celebrity and that fellow students want to take photos with him. His future is as bright as the lights he will be playing under at the Garden this week. Soon, he will be a millionaire, part of the greatest league in the world. It wasn’t so long ago he was playing baseball and starring in anonymity on the hardwood for La Salle.

“I say it all the time, where I’m at is crazy,” Bouknight said. “The journey I had to take to get here is something different, like out of a movie.”

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