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Viewpoint Bouknight checks all the right boxes

November 19, 2018

NEW HAVEN — Kimani Young, who stuck with James Bouknight through the knee injury and surgery, through his own change of jobs, through Bouknight’s commitment to UConn on his 18th birthday, saw it all Sunday.

Dan Hurley missed the opening minutes from the guy he hopes will be the next great UConn New York guard.

“Cleaning up some of the mess from the Iowa game, our practice went a little bit longer,” Hurley said during the National Prep Showcase at Albertus Magnus.

This is what the UConn coach would have seen. Bouknight dove on the floor, quick hands, to force a turnover. He drilled a long three. He created his jumper off the dribble. He skied to block a shot. He drove with resolve down the lane.

In a national preseason Top 10 poll among coaches, Scotland (Pa.) Campus was ranked 10th. MacDuffie of Granby, Mass., was 11th in votes. That gives you a sense of the talent level. And for the opening minutes, Bouknight was the best player on the floor.

He demonstrated an ability to score at all three levels. He also got into foul trouble. Bouknight would sit out 11 minutes and fouled out late. He still managed 15 points and five rebounds in MacDuffie’s 76-66 loss.

Guard size? Check. Versatility? Check. Shooting touch? Check.

“Last year when I first got to MacDuffie people were telling me I could score,” Bouknight said. “I wasn’t the best defender. I want to be a two-way player.”

This was the first game of the season for MacDuffie. The Showcase was a big stage debut.

“I was really impressed with his performance even though he got into foul trouble, because he plays really hard and that’s all we want,” said MacDuffie coach Jacque Rivera. “It’s not always about putting the ball in the basket. He picked up 94 feet, didn’t get beat off the dribble. He made his defender work. He rebounded well from the wing.

“This was a sneak peak of what he is capable of doing. To perform like he did in this window of time, what more can you ask for?”

A few months ago, Rivera called Bouknight and Hurley a “match made in heaven.” He was sticking to that story Sunday. Coachable in every way, he said.

At 6-5, the stature to grow more muscular, he is seen as a Dan Hurley guard.

“You have to be athletic to play our defensive style,” said Hurley, who spent the second half chatting with Iowa coach Fran McCaffery. “Because we’re so guard-centered, you’ve got to be adept at ball screens. You can’t be a pig on offense. You do have to have the ability to pass the ball, have some playmaker in you. And a guy who loves to be in the gym.”

It was that moment Hurley reminds you what a basketball maniac he is.

“I obsess over these guys’ careers and game more than they do sometimes,” Hurley said. “You have to coach guys that want it as bad as James wants it.

“I’ve seen him play so much. We love his explosiveness. He’s a specimen. He’s a better passer-playmaker than people think. But the strength of what he’s going to bring to us is his three-point shooting and ability to score across the board. He’s one of those guys who has just scratched the surface.”

Bouknight is from the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn. He’d take the subway to East 6th Street to La Salle Academy in Manhattan. Taliek Brown, Ben Gordon, Kemba Walker, yes, New York metro has been a guard garden for UConn, but Bouknight admits he didn’t grow up a Huskies fan.

“I didn’t really follow college basketball,” Bouknight said. “I went to a small Catholic school in a B division league. I wasn’t getting recruited by anyone. My freshman and sophomore year, I was just playing basketball, not even that seriously. My mentor Shaun Hicks was telling me how good I could be and could really go somewhere.”

He went to MacDuffie. Granby, northeast of Springfield, is no Brooklyn. It is where the college interest would arrive.

“There’s not really much to do,” Bouknight said. “No stores, have to drive everywhere. I’m in the gym all day working hard. My teammates, we’re always together.”

Yet what’s most to like about his story is the loyalty from both sides. It is the seed of a special relationship. Bouknight hurt his left knee at the Hoop Hall Classic last January. The pain wouldn’t go away. It was a torn meniscus. That meant February surgery.

Hurley and Young, the UConn assistant with strong New York ties, had seen Bouknight play his junior year. No injury is a blessing, but it was for UConn in that a number of schools didn’t get involved with him.

“I think (Young), while at Minnesota, was my first offer,” Bouknight said. “He stuck with me and recruited me hard. As soon as he got to UConn, he called and re-offered me. He told me I was a No. 1 priority.”

While at Rhode Island, Hurley loved him, too. Getting in early, sticking with him meant everything to Bouknight and his family.

“We both saw him as one of the best shooting guards in the country,” Hurley said. “Kimani was so close to everyone involved that he knew the knee health would be fine and eventually he’d be back in July and have the chance to shine the way we did (in AAU) the last two weeks of that period.

“You learn about loyalty and sticking with guys that you know have the work ethic to rehab and get his knee right. He also told me Kimani is smart.”

Bouknight returned to play in time for the Peach Jam, but his minutes were restricted and play was pedestrian. A few weeks later at the Hoop Group Summer Fest, he played brilliantly with the PSA Cardinals.

“He got his game back together and just exploded,” Hurley said. “His recruiting could have become a real circus, because of the amount of new interest. It showed a lot in terms of his character, about the type of person he is that he stuck with the schools that believed in him.

“He gave us a bunch of wink-winks during the process that he was high on the Huskies. He played a poker face but gave us enough to feel good. He also showed he wanted to play on one of the top AAU programs with the best point guard in the country. Playing with Cole (Anthony), he never deferred. I would see him go over and say, hey, get me the ball. You love seeing that with a player playing with another elite-level player.”

It didn’t hurt that Hurley told Bouknight wanted him to be the next great UConn guard from New York.

“He told me that when I met him,” said Bouknight, who said he looks forward to playing at Madison Square Garden. “As a head coach, you didn’t expect him to talk to you as much as he did. He stayed in touch with me all the time.

“UConn’s playing really well under Coach Hurley. He’ll help me be the player I can be.”

And, yes, he saw Hurley rush over and pull Josh Carlton out of the stands in UConn’s opener.

“His energy is amazing,” Bouknight said. “He’s one of the best coaches in the country. Hands down.”

jeff.jacobs@hearstmediact.com; Twitter: @JeffJacobs123

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