"It was just a big joy": UConn's James Bouknight selected No. 11 overall in NBA Draft by Charlotte

BROOKLYN, N.Y. — James Bouknight sat at his table in the “Green Room” on Thursday night, flanked by his parents, head occasionally in hands as one name after another was announced before his in the 2021 NBA Draft.

Bouknight, projected to go as high as No. 5 but almost certainly in the top-10, could only sit and watch, a somewhat pained expression on his face, as teams that he worked out for and appeared poised to select him instead went with other players.

“Every pick, pick after pick, I was sitting there like, ‘Man, I’ve got a chip on my shoulder. They’re sleepin’ (on me),’” Bouknight said. “It’s nothing different. My whole life I’ve been slept on.”

Finally, more than an hour after the draft began, NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced Bouknight’s name. Bouknight, the precocious talent from UConn via Brooklyn, was selected by the Charlotte Hornets with the No. 11 overall pick.

A pained hour-plus of waiting quickly turned into what Bouknight called a “legendary moment.”

“Charlotte took a chance,” Bouknight noted, “and I’m not gonna let them down.”

Bouknight, who spent the past two seasons at UConn, is the Huskies’ first lottery pick since Andre Drummond and Jeremy Lamb were selected ninth and 12th overall, respectively, in 2012.

He’ll join a Charlotte backcourt that already includes exciting stars LaMelo Ball and Miles Bridges.

“I have high expectations on myself. I never try to sell myself short,” he said. “I think we’re gonna be one of the better young teams. We’re gonna be a team that’s fun to watch, super athletic on the wings, just playing with a lot of excitement. We’re gonna be box office.”

Bouknight’s first workout was with the Hornets, and he said it was “easily my best workout.” Golden State, Oklahoma City, New Orleans and Orlando were the other teams he worked out for, and all four bypassed him with picks in the top 10.

“I felt like I started to slip a little bit, but I feel I kept my composure,” Bouknight said. “I know on draft night anything can happen, and I was waiting for my name to be called. When it was called, all the sadness, I guess you could say, went away. It was just a big joy.”

Bouknight is the 43rd UConn player selected in the NBA Draft since 1965, the 20th first-round pick and 14th lottery selection. He was an American Athletic Conference All-Rookie selection as a freshman and a first-team All-Big East pick this past season (despite missing eight games) after averaging 18.7 points per game.

Bouknight, dressed in a black suit not nearly as flamboyant as some of his fellow lottery selections, sat with his parents, Patty Leo and John Bouknight, and agent Nick Blatchford at a table in the Green Room as he waited for his named to be called.

UConn coach Dan Hurley and associate head coach Kimani Young, who began recruiting Bouknight while still an assistant at Minnesota, were slated to join Bouknight in the Green Room. However, with multiple members of the UConn coaching staff — all of whom are fully vaccinated — either testing positive or exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19, Hurley and Young were unable to attend.

“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 release. “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.”

“That was tough,” Bouknight noted. “I found out what happened at the same time everybody else found out what happened. I was talking to Kimani on the phone in the Green Room. They were just saying how proud they are and (to) keep making UConn proud.”

Bouknight lives less than four miles from Barclays Center and is the first Brooklyn native drafted since Isaiah Whitehead was picked in the second round five years ago.

“This is definitely a legendary moment,” the 6-foot-5 guard said. “I said it before: Not many people can say that they’re from Brooklyn and they got drafted in Brooklyn, in the lottery at that. So, this moment, for me, is definitely a legendary one.”

Bouknight attended La Salle Academy in Manhattan for three years, dropping baseball in favor of basketball as a freshman. He transfered to MacDuffie School in Granby, Massachusetts after his junior season and played two years there, and was about a national top-75 recruit when he committed to UConn on Sept. 18, 2018 — his 18th birthday.

Bouknight’s arrival at UConn came with some controversy, after he was arrested following a series of bad decisions on campus in September, 2019 and suspended from the Huskies’ first three games of the season.

He quickly displayed his smooth scoring skills and dynamic athleticism in his collegiate debut at the Charleston Classic in November, 2019, and went on to have an impressive freshman season, averaging 13 points per game.

Bouknight’s coming-out party was a 40-point masterpiece in an overtime loss to Creighton in his first Big East game last December. That’s when “James became a lottery pick,” according to Hurley.

A couple of weeks later, however, Bouknight suffered an elbow injury playing against Marquette, underwent surgery and missed the next six weeks. He finally returned in February and showed flashes of greatness. But cramping issues and overall inconsistent play the rest of the season, capped by disappointing performances against Creighton in the Big East championship game and Maryland in the NCAA tournament, led some to question his March 31 decision to declare for the draft.

Many NBA executives and scouts soon realized that Bouknight’s poor 3-point shooting (29-percent) and inconsistent play as a sophomore were largely due to his elbow surgery and numerous COVID-19-related pauses in the season. Particularly after Bouknight put on a dazzling shooting display at an NBA pro day in Chicago in June.

“I don’t think you’re gonna find too many people that think James Bouknight is going to be a 29 percent shooter,” an NBA Eastern Conference scout told Hearst Connecticut Media recently. “I think evaluators seeing him in person, hitting shots, seeing the stroke up close and the mechanics being sound, I think it helps.”

Oklahoma State’s Cade Cunningham was selected No. 1 overall by Detroit. Jalen Green, from the NBA G League Ignite, went second overall to Houston, and Evan Mobley (a teammate of West Haven’s Tahj Eaddy this past season at USC) went third to Cleveland.

Florida State’s Scottie Barnes (Toronto), Gonzaga’s Jalen Suggs (Orlando), Australia’s Josh Giddey (Oklahoma City), Jonathan Kuminga (Golden State), Michigan’s Franz Wagner, Auburn’s Davion Mitchell (Sacramento) and Stanford’s Ziaire Williams (Memphis) rounded out the top 10 before Bouknight’s name was finally called.

Ironically, three of UConn’s last five first-round picks have gone to Charlotte: Shabazz Napier at No. 24 overall to the Hornets in 2014, and Kemba Walker at No. 9 overall to the Bobcats in 2011. The Bobcats also selected Emeka Okafor No. 2 overall in 2004.

david.borges@hearstmediact.com