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Bouknight anxious, excited as NBA Draft approaches

James Bouknight returned home to New York on Sunday and headed to the park where he grew up playing basketball.

He discovered that his NBA Draft stock isn't the only thing that has soared. He's becoming a hometown hero.

Much to his surprise, Bouknight received the star treatment from kids who swarmed the likely soon-to-be draft lottery pick.

"I went back to the neighborhood where I grew up, in the lower West Side, in the Chelsea area, and I went back to the park where I used to play at and there were a whole bunch of kids there," Bouknight said during a pre-NBA Draft Zoom session on Monday. "And the kids wouldn't leave me alone. ... I was just like, 'Man, I'm an inspiration now.' It felt good. It hit me a little different, that kids look up to me.

"... That's what I want to be, I want to be an inspiration, someone kids look up to, like, 'Hey, he did it, I could do it, too.' "

The 2021 NBA Draft being held Thursday in his hometown of Brooklyn at the Barclays Center will make the night even more memorable.

Bouknight, a former UConn standout guard who left Storrs following his sophomore season to pursue a professional career, is projected to be selected as high as the top 10. Andre Drummond, who was taken ninth overall by Detroit in the 2012 NBA Draft, is the last lottery pick out of UConn.

He takes great pride in representing his hometown and his family.

"It's surreal," Bouknight said. "That's the best word for it. For many, this was like a lifelong dream. For me, I started out playing baseball, so this wasn't always a dream of mine. When I did start hoopin', I told myself that I wanted to play in the league, but you never really think it is going to happen. Now that I'm here in the position that I'm in, it's like, 'Wow. I'm here and I'm doing it big.' It's exciting."

During the pre-draft process, Bouknight spent time in Miami polishing his all-around game. He worked out for five teams with lottery pick status (top 14) in Orlando (No. 5, No. 8), Oklahoma City (No. 6), Golden State (No. 7, No. 14), New Orleans (No. 10) and Charlotte (No. 11). He interviewed with Memphis (No. 17) at the NBA Draft combine.

Bouknight's hard work paid off. He showed off an improved jump shot in workouts before NBA teams, including one during which he buried 19 straight 3-pointers. He converted just 29 percent from beyond the arc last season.

He credits his work ethic to his father, John, who regularly rose at 5 a.m. to go to work and still found time to regularly drive his son to and from the gym.

"Seeing him do that, it inspires me," Bouknight said. "It helps me wake up in the morning and make sure I'm in the gym and I'm working, making sure I'm eating right and getting my rehab done when I don't want to. Seeing him do that, really helps me do the stuff that I don't want to do."

It's been a busy, productive, and eventful journey for Bouknight since declaring for the draft on March 31 after playing in 43 games over two seasons at UConn. An elbow injury limited him to 15 games as a sophomore, but he averaged 18.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 1.8 assists while leading the Huskies to an NCAA tournament berth.

In the last few months, Bouknight has had several pinch-yourself moments, like hanging out with Steve Kerr, head coach of the Golden State Warriors, but also some challenges.

"It's definitely crazy," Bouknight said. "But I would say it's been rough. We're on planes all the time. One night you're in San Francisco, the next night you're in Orlando, so it's definitely been crazy and rigorous. But I've been having fun and just enjoying the process."

Bouknight has tried to keep it as fun as possible and keep his stress level low.

While aware of his rise in the mock drafts, Bouknight's focus remains on preparation for the next step.

"It's hard to not see it," Bouknight said. "It's not like I'm going on the Internet and searching my name and trying to see where I am in mock drafts. I feel like that's something that can add stress to somebody. I'm just trying to literally have fun with the whole process. I'm not trying to bring stress to myself.

"Of course, I see my name rising and my stock going up, but I'm not worried about it."

Bouknight credits UConn coach Dan Hurley for helping him reach this point in his life.

"Playing for coach Hurley, that's going to prepare you for life, the real world," he said. "I feel like the biggest thing I learned from UConn is how to be a real person. Off the court, just being accountable, someone people can rely on, making a schedule and being able to stick to that schedule and setting goals, and not just thinking they're going to happen, being able to work toward those goals and make them happen. Literally speak them into existence.

"The biggest things that I learned at UConn were just how to be a real person, a real man."

g.keefe@theday.com

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