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UConn's Bouknight leaving early to enter NBA Draft

Sophomore James Bouknight's decision to leave UConn early and enter the 2021 NBA Draft was a relatively easy one for the star guard given his potential to be a lottery pick.

Typing out his plan to his social media accounts on Wednesday was not so easy.

It hit him that his dream of walking the stage on draft night (July 29) is four months away from becoming a reality.

"I've been thinking about it for the longest (time), ever since I started playing basketball," Bouknight said during a Zoom session with the media on Wednesday, "so for it to almost be a reality is crazy. This morning when I was sitting with the coaches and posting the post on my Instagram and my Twitter, my hand started shaking and I couldn't control it. I never felt that way before."

Bouknight is committed to pursuing a pro career, saying he plans to hire an agent.

About the only time that Bouknight ever thought about returning for his junior season came after UConn lost to Maryland in the NCAA tournament. But he knew that it was time to go after consulting with his family and receiving feedback about his draft potential.

"After we lost, I wanted to come back," Bouknight said. "That's just how I felt out of anger or sadness or whatever it is. That's just how I felt in my heart. But I talked to my parents about it and talked to the people in my circle and felt this was the best decision."

Bouknight is the first UConn player to enter the draft after his sophomore year since Daniel Hamilton in 2016.

Coach Dan Hurley called the sophomore's decision "a no-brainer."

"Today is an incredible day," Hurley said. "Tomorrow, we'll talk about as a staff and as coaches how we're going to fill the void of such a talented player leaving. But today is just pure joy when you feel like you've contributed in some way to the development of a young person like James and how their time with you has improved the prospects of their life and the trajectory of his family. It's an amazing thing to be a part of."

Bouknight, a 6-foot-5 guard from Brooklyn, N.Y., leaves the program in far better shape than when he arrived on campus in 2019.

He helped lift the Huskies out of the shadows and back into the college basketball spotlight, leading them to a third-place finish in the Big East Conference and the program's first NCAA tournament berth in five years. He earned all-conference first team honors, averaging a team-best 18.7 points and 5.7 rebounds.

"This year we set the standard moving forward that making the tournament is just what you have to do now," Bouknight said. "This is it. Playing one game in the tournament, that's not the standard. We want to set the bar higher than that. Recruits that come here, the staff, players coming back next year, everyone knows we've got to make the tournament and we've got to keep moving forward and make runs."

Bouknight impacted the program on numerous levels, from recruiting to the program's success. The Huskies went 11-4 this season with Bouknight in the lineup and 4-4 when he missed eight games with an elbow injury.

"He should be remembered as a great Husky," Hurley said. "If he comes in at a different time period where this program is maybe further along, or he was in an era where he played a year longer, who knows where he could have taken this program. To go from where it was when he stepped on campus, where we were not even at the point of getting a sniff of the NIT and struggling to have a winning record in our conference, to competing at the top of the league and getting back to the tournament, his impact is immeasurable."

Bouknight takes great pride in his contribution to the program's rebuilding project.

After spending countless hours during his career working out in the team's practice facility with banners featuring UConn lottery picks hanging on the wall, he feels honored that one day he'll have his own spot there.

"That means everything to me," Bouknight said. "This whole thing is so surreal right now. Just two years ago, I was a high school kid. Everything has been so surreal so that just adds to it being able to be talked about with those big names."

Bouknight didn't arrive at UConn as a big name after attending the MacDuffie School in Granby, Mass. But by the time his freshman year ended, Bouknight was on the radar of pro scouts. He considered leaving Storrs before returning to complete the unfinished business of restoring respectability to the program.

Now it's time to move on.

"He handled everything the right way," Hurley said "You knew part of James probably wishes he could run it back. He knew he had to go. It was the only decision he could make here. But I know he's going to miss this place. I know he wanted a chance to play in front of the fans again and to try to make a deep run in March. I know that that was something that he wanted to do.

"He's been just lingering around the office for the last week or 10 days. I don't know if he was looking for somebody to try to talk him out of it. None of us would have tried to do that. But you could tell he's going to miss this place.

"... Him coming here with the idea of we're going to put him in the first round and he was going to help us rebuild this brand. We both did what we said we would do for each other."

Bouknight realizes he has to improve across the board — be mentally tougher, get stronger, become a better ball-handler, defender and shooter — to be a factor in the NBA. He expects to finish his sophomore academic year and find a place to work out in preparation for the draft.

Hurley has faith that Bouknight will continue to work hard and push himself to be ready for the next level.

"James has got tremendous talent," Hurley said. "I just want him to get drafted into a great organization with a strong culture. I hold James' talent in high regard. He's got a chance to be a great NBA player, especially the way the game is played nowadays. He's going to do great things, amazing things.

"He is only scratching the surface. I don't think there's many more, if any more, talented, scoring, athletic combo type of guards that are entering this draft. ... He's got a great chance to be a lottery pick here."

g.keefe@theday.com

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