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James Bouknight Will Need The Right Circumstances To Succeed In The NBA

Sometime around 8:30 p.m. ET on Thursday night, James Bouknight will hear his name called by Adam Silver and his NBA career will begin in earnest. When that happens, Bouknight will enter the league in a unique position, both because of the skill set he brings to the NBA and the valuation teams are putting on that particular ability today. Bucket-getters have always mattered, but Bouknight’s talent combined with the league’s increasing penchant for perimeter scoring has him in the fascinating position of being projected just outside the top-5 by many draft experts, which is unfamiliar territory for players like him.

Bouknight’s skill set — a combination of creativity, toughness, and raw skill — has to be alluring for any of the teams at the top of the Draft. He has the ability to score from all three levels, and having that type of scorer has become invaluable for teams in the postseason.

Dropping 40 points in a college game is enormously difficult, especially against a solid program like Creighton. That’s exactly what Bouknight did last December in a game that really put him on the map as a high-level prospect after he stayed in college rather than declaring for the 2020 Draft. The highlights from that game alone show what makes him such a dazzling talent.

There’s a little bit of everything going on there. Bouknight has a crossover pull-up move that is hard to guard, and he can pull it off going either direction. Few college defenders have feet quick enough to stay in front of him, and once he enters the paint, he has solid touch and is able to absorb contact nicely (he had a solid 37 percent free throw rate at UConn).

But like many college players on teams without a ton of pro-level talent, Bouknight was often allowed to freelance without structure around him. As a result, the framing of him as a modern NBA scorer gets more complicated. Bouknight typically got the ball at the top of the arc and then either isolated or used a high screen to go to work, at which point he could comfortably get to his pull-up three, leading to easy comparisons to Donovan Mitchell and Jordan Clarkson.

Hidden beneath Bouknight’s shiny scoring average is the fact that he posted just a 54.6 true shooting percentage, which took a dip in 2021 due to his 29.3 percent shooting from deep as a sophomore. Bouknight also had just 27 assists in 15 games compared to 42 turnovers, a poor ratio for someone who, ideally, has the ball in his hands as a creator at the next level. And despite standing 6’5, Bouknight ought not to be thought of as a wing physically, not when he weighs just 190 pounds with a solid-yet-unspectacular 6’8 wingspan.

That doesn’t necessarily bode well for a lead perimeter scoring option, but Mitchell is the perfect example of someone who became more polished when he landed in a smart NBA offense and was able to hone his craft. Many have criticized Bouknight’s passing, and while you might catch him picking up his dribble or missing open shooters from time to time, the 11-6 Huskies included just two other double-digit scorers and only one dynamic shooting threat (senior R.J. Cole, who led the team by hitting 38.6 percent of his threes). And considering Bouknight’s ability as a scorer, the baseline he needs to meet as a passer is relatively low.

As for the poor three-point shooting last year, because of his touch around the basket, 80 percent free-throw efficiency, and prolific pull-up shooting, teams seem willing to believe that was an aberration and he’ll be more effective from deep at the next level, which you have to if you’re considering him for a top-10 selection. A somewhat frequent refrain about his pre-Draft workouts hints at this, as Jonathan Givony of ESPN wrote that he was “shooting the lights out” as he went during his pro day.

While his on-ball prowess is his headlining skill, Bouknight showed plenty of flashes as a scorer in simple off-ball sets that NBA teams can rightly be excited about what he could become in a better scheme. His quickness and touch helped him as a cutter, and the same gravity he created as a driver exists when he comes off screens and is able to attack from the second side.

It would seem Bouknight might do well under the kind of coach who is big on initial action that creates advantages for players prior to receiving the ball. Young combo guards like Mitchell, Devin Booker, Zach LaVine, and Tyler Herro have thrived in this sort of situation in recent years, all players to whom Bouknight could be compared. But if we’re using those players as tentpoles in the NBA, we return to Bouknight’s physical profile. He is not as big and strong as Booker, nor is he as much of an athletic marvel as LaVine, one of the most explosive in the NBA. Those two already were billed as poor defenders early on, and though they have each improved (Booker more so), their tools were more refined. They also came into the league extremely young, whereas Bouknight will be 21 by opening night of the 2021-22 season. This also is true of Herro, a baby-faced killer as a rookie who played more physically and was a much better shooter and team offensive player than Bouknight.

Perhaps the most hopeful comparison for Bouknight’s upper range as he develops is someone like C.J. McCollum. Neither guy is particularly big (McCollum has added strength as all players do in an NBA conditioning program), and though Bouknight has a few inches on Portland’s high-scoring No. 2 option, they have similar games in that their games are predicated on toughness and shot-making on the offensive end. It should be mentioned that Bouknight competes on defense, can make the occasional turnover-creating play while rotating or helping his teammates, and locks in when he’s feeling good as a scorer. Still, like McCollum, Bouknight would be best in a situation with other wing defenders around him in addition to a perimeter ball-handler who can initiate the offense.

Historically, players that have profiles like Bouknight rarely get drafted in the top-7 or so, where he is being projected. All of the players we’ve mentioned were drafted 10th or lower — Booker, Herro, Mitchell and LaVine were all the 13th overall selections in their Drafts. While Bouknight is indeed interesting as a backcourt mate for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in Oklahoma City, he is consistently projected over wings with fewer question marks.

Bouknight is set to benefit from the success of those young score-first guards who have blossomed in recent years, as the league’s perception of that archetype has shifted to giving a player like Bouknight the benefit of the doubt for his strengths rather than looking at his weaknesses as a reason to push him further down in the Draft. NBA teams rightly feel confident they can get the most out of a player like Bouknight, especially one who is known for hard work as he is, because many of the offensive systems in place now have such a tremendous need for someone with his scoring abilities.

Going to the right situation is critical for all players in the Draft, but Bouknight in particular seems like he’ll need to land in a comfortable fit in order to have a chance at reaching his full potential. The right system and roster fit can sometimes be the difference in a player shining or underwhelming, and it’s not just with young players entering the league. The differences in how a player is used and who they play with can create a situation where Lou Williams is cast aside from the Clippers after seeming unplayable and then morph back into a key bench scorer for the Hawks when he gets to play with better space and structure around him.

The intricacies of how you use the gravity your scoring creates to make teammates better, what context is most comfortable for you as a shooter, and whether you have the skill to consistently take advantage of what the defense gives you are where scouting and team-building philosophy become vital. Bouknight will score wherever he goes, but being more than that and becoming a great player is likely to depend on the situation. Oklahoma City is intriguing, as is Golden State, but a team like Orlando or Sacramento that might look to him as a go-to scoring option immediately would be putting Bouknight in a bad position.

As he enters the NBA, Bouknight faces the same development challenges as the other combo guards who came before him in that he must improve as a playmaker and off-ball scorer while also adjusting to the size and strength of NBA perimeter talent. More than many of the other players at the top of this draft, Bouknight’s ultimate success in the pros will hinge largely on the situation he lands in early in his career. Should his shooting prove to be real in spot-up situations and his hard work and energy can be channeled into improved defense and team ball, NBA teams’ excitement about him will be well-founded — and could continue to lead to more faith in young scoring guards going forward.

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