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James Bouknight and the Art of Off-Ball Movement

A comprehensive breakdown of 2021 Draft Prospect, James Bouknight

When you think of the great scorers in the NBA, the first players who come to mind are usually the heliocentric space destroyers (Trae Young and Luka Doncic), isolation maestros (Kawhi Leonard and DeMar DeRozan), downhill gliders (Giannis Antetokounmpo), pick and roll surgeons (LeBron James, James Harden, and Chris Paul), and post savants (Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid).

There is no idyllic way to play the game of basketball or put the ball in the net: Talent is talent and at the end of the day, you only have so much say in what kind of talent you have on your team. Maximizing each player to the best of their ability while putting all five on the floor in synergistic circumstances that allow them to be their best selves while also boosting the other four players is the name of the game, and it’s easier said than done.

Archetypes are finicky and non-concrete, but the players that I routinely fall back on and enjoy watching the most are well known and understood by Pacer fans - The off-ball scorer.

Reggie Miller eviscerated defenses, running off countless screens to get to his spots and rise up. Ray Allen, and Rip Hamilton are other great off-ball scorers from recent eras. Many might look at the games of those three and pin them strictly as shooters, and yes! Those players are some of the better wing shooters to ever lace up a pair of Nike’s, but how they got to those shots is what made them great and what I find most enthralling.

Late career Ray Allen puts George Hill in a blender.

Mid-30s Rip Hamilton casually runs a 5k in one possession for an elbow jumper. Young Thabo Sefolosha: Welcome to the Terrordome.

So while the shots are the endgame for both Ray and Rip, it’s the setup that set them apart from their contemporaries.

Steph Curry is who I would consider the best off-ball mover in the league right now, and that seems to finally be consensus after years of him being branded as “just a shooter”. You’ve seen clips and montages of Steph running through the Warriors’ house of 1,000 screens offense by this point. We know about the elevator screens, and it’s beautiful. But, you’ve seen the Warriors play constantly, and heard about them on radio, or podcasts, The Jump, etc. ever since 2015.

The player in the NBA who I would consider the only real rival to Steph’s ability as an off-ball mover is Bradley Beal. Unless you’ve been particularly locked into DC sports, you likely haven’t spent nearly as much time absorbing the Randy Wittman/Scott Brooks era Wizards. I so routinely see and hear Beal labeled strictly a shooter or he’s mentioned as a ball hog who dominates the ball in the halfcourt. While he certainly commands the ball (4th in the league in Usage) and takes an abundance of 3’s, that greatly undersells Beal’s offensive range.

You’ve seen this from Beal a couple hundred times if you’ve ever fully committed yourself to a Wizards game. The stroke is effortless, the sway is picturesque, and the confidence is immaculate.

But, the shot is 10% of the story! How does Beal get here?

Beal is just an exceptional mover and you can see it in the minutiae. His ability to accelerate or decelerate on a whim allow him to throw off his trailer, combined with excellent fluidity and flexibility to get around screens. I’d also be remiss if I didn’t highlight how well Beal maps the floor and more importantly, how he navigates it. There is no wasted energy in his movement, key for a guy who plays just shy of three full quarters per game. Every step has a purpose, every stride is calculated, and he simply doesn’t stop until he gets separation.

The best movers in the NBA remind me at times of edge rushers in football, utilizing hand fighting, head fakes, shoulder dips, and acceleration to to put pressure on an offense whereas it puts pressure on a defense in basketball.

I say again, it’s more than just the shot. There is an art form to moving without the ball, and those who do it at a high level paint the court with stride-length brushstrokes.

I’m not really a big time comps person, and I make no assumption or assertion that a prospect will have a Ray Allen or Rip Hamilton level career: that would be unfair to put those expectations on someone. However, in watching another UCONN Husky, James Bouknight, it’s difficult to not draw some comparisons and strike similarities. Bouknight is a fantastic off-ball mover, among the best in college basketball, and to me, it’s his major swing skill in translating to the NBA. He is a highly skilled player, but the movement skills are his elite tool that he’ll leverage at the next level to unlock other aspects of his game.

This is a quintessential James Bouknight offensive possession, showcasing some of the ideal NBA translation.

The initial pistol action, the quick pass away and hard cut to the rim, the backscreen opening up the baseline cut which freezes the man trailing him momentarily, and then flying up the arc into a Chicago action (pindown into a DHO) for a pullup three. There are many moving parts in the UCONN offense, but everything is predicated upon the movement of Bouknight. He puts an immense amount of pressure on the defense without having the ball in his hands.

When I watch James Bouknight or other dynamic movers, I think a lot less about shooting, and more about options. When I look at the play above, I see the initial pressure that gets put on the rim: maybe in a future wrinkle, he skies for a lob. On the backscreen, what if another iteration involves Tyrese Martin screening off the baseline cut and Bouknight ghosts his screen to the corner?

You don’t need the ball to put pressure on a defense and the potential for Bouknight to bend NBA defenses with flowing off-ball movement is tantalizing.

It’s one thing to be quick and agile, but defenses know that. One of my favorite aspects of Bouknight’s game is that he knows that the defense knows, and he sells his cuts and movements incredibly well to give himself as much of an advantage as possible.

He misses the shot, but the game is the game, and he gets a pretty open three due to the hard sell from the corner.

Check out this shoulder dip and head fake en route to the screen for a 45 cut on the game opening play.

In an NBA defense, the communication is probably going to be better than what went on in that action for DePaul, but even then, the speed with which Bouknight comes off is going to cause shifts in that defense and weaken the initial shell. Movement or cutting in and of itself is not inherently valuable, there has to be a purpose. Bouknight cuts and moves with a real oomph that can bend a defense: meaningful movement matters!

At the NBA level, a cut like this is getting taken advantage of, and if it’s not, I’ll be disappointed. I normally am pretty cool and collected when watching film, but I saw this cut and then the pass came late and I woke my dog up because I was audibly distressed.

Bouknight also possesses some fantastic vertical athleticism and pop that opens other arrays of an offense.

Whether it be via ghost Spain into a lob.

Or via a putback off of a well timed dive from the perimeter.

UCONN’s offense was powered by the engine that was James Bouknight’s movement off the ball. The juice that Bouknight could provide to the right offense at the next level is alluring. While this is less about analysis, I just want to point out how much of a joy it was to immerse myself in Bouknight’s game for a little over a week. He’s an incredibly fun player to watch and I’m excited to see what he does in the league and how he develops.

Before we dive into the facets of his game that will be key for his longterm development, let’s take a look at some background.

Context

James Bouknight is listed at 6’5, 190, and while no official measurements are available, I’d guess that he’s probably a +3 wingspan guy.

He was ranked 72nd by RSCI in the 2019 high school class, but that’s mostly due to an injury late in his high school career. Bouknight tore his meniscus in January of 2018 during his Junior season and missed all of the EYBL circuit that year before returning to the court in July of the same year.

His two year career at UCONN was prolific and saw him become one of the better scorers in the country, culminating in two All-Conference selections.

If you haven’t ever heard of barttorvik.com, you’re welcome, because now you’ve heard of it! It takes some time to get used to, but it’s one of the best free databases out there if you want a real look at advanced shooting splits from college players/prospects.

Here’s a snippet to show some of the break down of how Bouknight scored and took shots this past season.

Where is he routinely mocked and where does he fall on leading big boards?

At the moment, Bouknight is projected to be late lottery or just outside of it in the first round. However, it’s worth noting that he’s been one of the player’s who have risen most up big boards since the college season ended. That could change in either direction depending on how he performs at the combine from June 21st to the 27th.

Offensive Repertoire

Have you ever played Fallout New Vegas? If the answer is no, it’s available on Steam for $9.99 and I fully recomend buying it after you finish reading this of course!

Point being, the whole TLDR premise of Fallout New Vegas for those unaware: You roam the wasteland of post-apocalyptic Las Vegas, Nevada. You level up through experience, duke it out with bad guys, or good guys if you so choose, talk to new people and abuse the action button to zoom past dialogue you’ve heard a hundred times from the same vendor, etc. etc. roleplaying game stuff.

One of the key elements of New Vegas is finding new weapons, tools, armor, anything of value while you explore long forgotten structures and vault colonies you come upon in the wasteland.

One of the absolute worst caveats I learned in the game is that it’s very difficult to actually attain the cool stuff that you know is in the next room, or in that safe, or beyond this gate, if you have minimal lockpicking skills. There is nothing quite like spending an hour and a half fighting through a glitchy underground maze only to come to the realization that you cannot actually get what you want in the end. Sometimes you’re able to get lucky and get through or simply force your way through due to the immense ability of your tremendous skill in other areas, but oftentimes, you’re kind of stuck until you can find another avenue or move onto the next room.

That’s how it feels watching James Bouknight on-ball. He possesses fantastic straight line driving ability, but his handle more often than not prevents him from fully taking advantage of the defense and his capabilities. Bouknight pulls off some quality combos and setups, but this is a routine action you see from him when watching between the lines of highlight plays.

Without fantastic screening or a full runway, he can really struggle to shake perimeter defenders consistently. Credit Providence for a very good defensive possession, but Bouknight probes multiple times and can’t find the footing or an advantage against the defense.

I was surprised initially when I found out that Bouknight didn’t normally bring up the ball after inbounds. However, when I got to games and possessions when he did, it was a light bulb moment.

Without an open lane or screen to get that first bit of separation, he routinely struggled to keep his dribble alive to get across halfcourt, and it felt like opposing teams were aware of this and would actively seek to press him if he received the inbounds.

There are also plays where he’s able to get separation, but it feels more in spite of his handle than because of it.

This isn’t meant to be a total indictment of his game and ability, but it just hasn’t been brought up much in general draft discourse, which is odd considering how prescient it is on tape. In scouting reports or draft blurbs about Bouknight, there are buzz words thrown out about his potential as a “three-level scorer” or “microwave bucket-getter” and similar ideas. I do think that there’s a real possibility for him to become a really high level scorer, but right now, it feels like the struggles he has with his handle are undersold. I worry that he’ll come into the league and struggle to find separation or create on-ball and the expectations will be too high off the bat. He should be expected to struggle in that area coming in, because that’s the biggest area of his game that I’d like to see him grow, although it’s not simple to just craft a fully developed handle with counters and the ability to break a defender down overnight.

A full season and off-season with an NBA strength training plan and player development staff will be absolutely huge for him. Most of his struggles with his handle come off to me more as an issue in balance. His handle is really high, fairly loose, and it feels like it really puts him off kilter when trying to get to the rim; He already has a pretty high base posture and center of gravity. Focusing on maintaining his dribble lower with a lower center of gravity and improving his core so he can routinely play in a lower stance stands out as an aspect to me that would help him quite a bit.

It’s slightly exaggerated, but notice how high he’s dribbling before the pick: The ball is nearly coming up to his eyes.

He turns the corner on a screen, but his handle and stance are still so high, ultimately contributing to the turnover.

Also worth noting that Bouknight doesn’t set up the screen super well. He and Sanogo aren’t really on the same page here: Sanogo plants his feet before Bouknight crosses, and he kind of waltzes downhill instead of exploding into it to really take advantage of the screen.

Sidenote - pretty awesome seeing him chase down his own turnover and contesting it at the rim. He does this pretty often. Of course you don’t love that he turns it over, but I appreciate that he takes it personally and doesn’t just hang his head and not go back on defense.

In this play, Bouknight heads into a screen and roll. Adama Sanogo unfortunately for us, covers up the camera angle, but when slowing the film down, as soon as Bouknight turns the corner and gets low to drive to the rim, he loses the ball just slightly, forcing him to opt for the mid-range jumper rather than a full steam ahead rim run.

Due to his handle being where it is, you routinely see Bouknight stumbling off any move that isn’t straight ahead. His feet and body are moving so much faster than his handle can keep up with and this contributes to some of the weirdly off-balance shots he ends up taking in traffic.

A quick rant; there’s a general tendency to get frustrated with players who take a high volume of lower efficiency shots from the mid-range, and I get it. That can really stagnate and dampen an offense, it’s not the prettiest, and you really just want the shot at the rim or the drive there collapsing the defense and a pass to an open man. However, I think the way of looking at this is skewed. Let’s take Andrew Wiggins for example. Wiggins is one of the most athletic players in basketball, but he’s taken a higher percentage of his shots from mid-range than at the rim in all 7 of his seasons in the league.

Why? There is normally an assumption or attribution that Wiggins chooses to take these shots, and while you could posit that he does look to take some of them, it’s largely because of his handle. He does not have the craft or shake to consistently break down his defender and that results in a ton of pull-up 2’s that he’s fine at rather than a layup or at-rim finish.

In regards to the Pacers, this phenomena was on display with Victor Oladipo post-injury. His handle never got back in sync with his body and he was consistently handling the ball and moving in different planes of motion than before, resulting in less drives and more turnovers.

These are the sorts of things that could pockmark Bouknight’s offensive game without improvement in his ballhandling ability. Bouknight shot a sizable number of pull-up twos this past season and hit on 33% of them, which tends to draw the “he takes bad shots” branding. And yes, it’s not a great shot and not very efficient! But, it’s pretty clear in watching that this aspect of his shot distribution is more about current hindrances in his game rather than choice.

Inefficiency is the result of limitation rather than decision-making more often than we admit and it’s only fair to the players that we stop holding them to some of the crazy standards and ideals we set.

While the movement skills are the traits that have helped Bouknight in reaching the professional level, how his handle develops will largely be the determining factor in what sort of role he has in the NBA.

Jumper

Bouknight’s jump shot is another high impact development aspect of his game. Off-ball players NEED to be good shooters or drivers in order to impact the game at a high level.

In his freshman season at UCONN, he shot 36.3% from three after factoring out the two pull-ups he took all year and missed per InStat. He shot just 29.3% from three on much higher volume this season. However, there are a couple factors that need to be thrown in before taking those numbers at face value.

As just mentioned, almost all of Bouknight’s looks were off the catch his freshman season. This past year, 45% of his threes were off the dribble. Those shots are significantly harder and Bouknight shouldered a much heavier creation load than his first year. On top of that, he suffered an elbow injury that required surgery in the middle of the season, limiting him to 15 total games. Prior to the game in which he was injured (Marquette) he was shooting 33.3% from three and over 80% from the line: after returning from injury, 26.8% from three and 75.6% from the line. So there was a ton of variability in a short amount of time.

In juxtaposing his freshman and sophomore shooting form, I thought he made some mechanical improvements this past year that even though his percentages were down. He had a tendency to chop his feet right before receiving the ball which could throw off his footwork and prevent himself from having a consistent base. I thought he cleaned that up pretty well this year and was more in rhythm.

It stood out to me in his freshman year that he launched the ball a lot rather than guiding it on his follow through, which makes sense considering that he hadn’t and still hasn’t fully finished growing and physically developing. That improved this year at points as his transition from the shooting pocket to his motion after bringing the ball up seemed much smoother. He would sometimes bring the ball backwards after bringing it up, in doing so that added time to his release and created a slight hitch that wasn’t too present this season, but he still normally has a 2-motion jumper.

There are two things that I found most pressing when going back through and watching his jumpers: Overall stiffness/lack of bend, and inconsistent jump heights.

Much like was discussed with his handle in the previous section, his jumper really seems to be impacted by his lack of core strength. It seems like there is very little energy created from his core in his shooting form. A lot of work is done by his arms and upper body to get the ball to the rim and that’s something I’d really like to see change. But, as mentioned with the handle, I think that’s something that will change regardless of team fit as he gets to work with a professional training staff.

However, the jump heights are something to behold. There just is not a lot of consistency in the height the Bouknight gets on his jumper which is what I’d attribute some of his poor numbers to.

For example, look at this shot coming off of a screen early in the game against Georgetown.

I actually think this is one of the best shots he took in his college career from deep. Decelerates into the shot, catches the ball in pocket, immediately rises towards the rim, lets it rip, and follows through in his signature sway from left to right with a slight fade. Picturesque as it drops.

He takes this shot 9 minutes later in the same half.

It’s bordering on being a set shot, vastly different from the first. He clears nearly an extra foot on the jump in the first shot. While not every shot has this drastic a difference, it’s hard to not notice once it becomes apparent.

Oddly enough, he was better shooting on pull-ups than off the catch this year: 26.8% on C and S and 32% on pull-ups.

In case you were curious about some of the difficulty levels on his shots.

Just a tremendous stepback to create a ton of space. The jumper doesn’t fall, but the ability to pull that off is incredible. Again though, the inconsistency is there. His handle and feet were working as one on the stepback. In this next clip, Bouknight doesn’t have the same timing and his feet and handle aren’t working in tandem, which allows the defender to close the distance making it a much harder shot.

It’s hard to see without slowing the film down, but you can notice his footing slip a little after the pullback, knocking him off balance slightly and that negates the advantage he’d just created for himself.

By no stretch am I an expert at evaluating jump shots, but in terms of projecting out Bouknight’s, I really find it to be better than the numbers would show currently. He’s a solid free throw shooter on good volume which is a good indicator for future shot development. So much of what his shot will be at the next level just comes down to finding consistency in his base. Whatever he does, whether it’s shooting with a sway, two motion, or a hop shot, it needs to be virtually the same motion over and over again, otherwise, the inconsistency in his shot is going to be a problem moving forward.

I’m not overly worried about that though; we’ve seen plenty of players come in with herky jerky jumpers and Bouknight has less concerning flaws in his shot than others. For reference, T.J. Warren (Although he had RIDICULOUS touch indicators), Will Barton, Kawhi Leonard, and Tyreke Evans all came in with questions about their jumpshots.

Nearly all of those players come up in a query applied over an entire college career span that has similar statistical profiles to Bouknight’s. This of course doesn’t apply to EVERY player listed, and I’m not saying that Bouknight will become any of these players, but it’s worth noting that it took quite a few of the above players who made the league most of their rookie deal to become a league average or better shooter.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope wasn’t a league average shooter until year five, his first in Los Angeles. Will Barton similarly didn’t hit league average from deep until his fifth season. Myles Turner hit just shy of league average in year three, although on low volume. Eric Gordon is a good shooter, but also one of the most variable shooters in NBA history. Point being, based on natural progression, where he’s at now, and historical comparison, I’m pretty confident in saying that James Bouknight will be at least a league average shooter on solid volume. However, it’s just important to note that it may take a good bit of his rookie contract before he reaches that level.

Downhill Threat & Interior Finishing

When James Bouknight is able to round the corner or get a clear path to the rim, beautiful things happen. His straight line speed is one of his athletic skills that pops on screen. In concert with his exceptional vertical pop, Bouknight creates some ridiculously explosive plays at and above the rim.

I wouldn’t quite classify him as an elite at rim finisher right now, but someone who is probably going to be a better finisher at the rim than he was in college. It’s worth noting that he improved quite a bit from his freshman to sophomore years on close 2’s (per Barttorvik.com) just shy of 7% to be exact. He put on some mass between seasons and he still has quite a bit to fill out based on his frame. This is yet another area where an NBA strength and conditioning program will help him reach new levels.

He’s not awesome at finishing through contact yet, but he doesn’t shy away from it either. What I found most encouraging is that he was willingly to try just about anything at the rim. It didn’t always result in a basket, but I loved watching and seeing him try to figure out and develop new ways to punish a defender at the rim.

He’s excellent contorting around defenders and throwing up some absolutely wild ish that falls with regularity. While I’d almost always prefer trying to finish through than around a defender (drawing fouls, a good thing. Space creation on the interior is also a good thing), the craft and attempts are impressive.

One of the biggest match-ups of the season for Bouknight and highlighting some areas for him as a finisher was when UCONN played USC early in the season. USC was headlined this past year by Evan Mobley, a guaranteed lottery pick and general consensus #2 pick behind Cade Cunningham. He’s already a high-level NBA rim protector without even having played a game in the league.

He struggled a good deal with Mobley’s length on both weakside and dead on rim contests, which is to be expected. But, he drove on him multiple times and found some success drawing him out on the perimeter

Bouknight sets up Mobley, drives baseline and dusts him, and then draws the foul at rim. The shot attempt is pretty off, but again, I love the attempt to try this craft and workshop it. He feels Mobley behind him, and uses the basket to protect the attempt from his shotblocking.

Later on in the game, after having been blocked by Mobley 3 times, Bouknight drives into him, creates contact to generate separation, and makes a very tough at rim finish. This is it!

It’s not perfect, but you can see the bones for higher leverage stuff in the paint. The up fake is beautiful, he explodes out of it, but bobbles the ball, gets into Mobley to take away some of his length advantage, and skies for the layin.

I see this play and envision what Bouknight can be as a finisher as he continues to grow into his body.

He’s also flashed some really nice floater equity, going 11/25 (44%) on floaters of any range in his sophomore year. Using that vertical pop, he can really take advantage of space given to him in drop coverage if his floater is going.

Playmaking & Passing

Before diving into some of his reads, it’s worth noting that there is a general thought that he is a lower feel player, as in he doesn’t read or feel the game quite as well as would be expected. I think there are moments in passing where one could make the case, but in consulting with others and watching, I really think it’s just more about being a little bit behind in basketball. The injuries he’s dealt with have taken away almost two years of his basketball development. If he were in this position without having missed time, I’d feel differently, but I’m pretty confident that he’ll improve his court mapping and awareness through NBA reps. So it may not be perfect right away, but he’ll get there with time.

While it’s certainly not one of Bouknight’s higher leverage skills, I’m intrigued by how his playmaking and passing could develop in the NBA. As he improves as a driver and can capitalize more on his scoring gravity while playing in a more open offense, there will be some real opportunities for him to develop as a passer.

When he’s not running an action, he’s good at moving the ball and moving himself. This sounds rudimentary and it’s a rather novel concept, but it’s a good thing!

One of the fundamental things I’ve learned in sports at large is to never fall in love with your punches. Basketball translation: If you do something good or finish your part of an action, flow into the next aspect of the offense, don’t wait. The best part about basketball is that you don’t get hit in the face! Consistent and constant movement, especially in UCONN’s offense which was heavily motion based, is so important in keeping the ball alive and preventing stagnation.

Some of the passes that really pop for me are when the floor is already spread and he scans from the perimeter. He can pull out this really funky one handed whip pass that is remarkably accurate and hits target on a line drive.

It’s like watching someone throw out a runner at first!

When he’s able to get paint touches going full speed, he’s generally pretty good on look off passes and dump offs to bigs in the dunker spot.

UCONN occasionally used him as sort of a zone buster as well. He does a good job finding the open man, but this play is also good at highlighting his court mapping right now. He needs to explore the map first and unshroud areas where his outlets are in his sightlines more often than not. Proactive playmakers are making the play because they know it’s there, while a reactive playmaker (most players) is making the read once they progress through their options and find the open man. It’s still a good play, but it’s not done in a way that’s warping the defense in and of itself.

One of the issues that pervades in Bouknight’s playmaking is how premeditated his reads can be. There are some passes he makes that almost feel scripted. He would get trapped on double teams fairly often by teams, the roller would slip the double, and Bouknight pretty exclusively tried to move the ball to the roller.

Creighton’s defense hedges the ball screen, sending Bouknight back around the screen, but the defender recovers to cover the passing lane. Bouknight is zoned in pretty exclusively on the roll man and his eyes never leave him like a quarterback with tunnel vision. It’s not a complete disaster, the process of hitting the roller is good! But, the show really speeds him up and rattles him. Handing off or flipping the ball to Jalen Gaffney and resetting would’ve probably been a better or safer bet this early in a possession.

He also has a tendency to make some passes when he leaves his feet that are a bit of a roller coaster. I’m not anti-jump pass, but I would say that I’m not a big fan of mid-shot change ups. You’re not really comfortable, your teammate may not even be ready for the ball if they think you’re shooting, and it’s just a very awkward position to be in.

Sometimes it works, other times, not so much.

I am however a proponent of these one-handed wrap around passes he occasionally makes on the interior. It results in a turnover because the big wasn’t ready for the ball, but you see the vision. He pulled this out a few times throughout the year and I like that he tries it. When he’s able to get all the way to the rim and under control, he makes good things happen.

Overall though, he’s just not super comfortable making skip passes routinely and can struggle to see over a pick or the defense in general if he’s not stationary or two feet in the paint.

Here’s my thing with Bouknight’s playmaking and some of his issues that we’ve covered, I think it’s far less of a concern at the next level. He’s not going to be asked to run a ton of pick and roll (or he at least shouldn’t early on) and his reads will be pretty simple coming off second side actions and mainly operating as a play finisher.

UCONN’s offense was pretty largely James Bouknight and a prayer, as he had an absurd 31.6% usage rate while operating mostly as an off-ball player. That’s wild! Damian Lillard had a 31.4% usage rate for the 10th highest clip in the NBA this season; James Bouknight is not going to be tasked with near the offensive load of a primary engine and superstar like Lillard. That in turn means that he’s not going to see two or even three on the ball like he routinely did in college and he’ll most likely have easier reads and simpler passes to make against an already tilted defense.

Defensive Skills

I’m actually pretty impressed by what I saw from Bouknight defensively. No, he’s not an elite lockdown presence or an off-ball menace, but he actively tries hard in UCONN’s defensive scheme. There are lapses both on and off-ball, which is to be expected, but that a player with his usage puts as much effort as he does into defense is something that I appreciate and feel shouldn’t be overlooked.

At the NBA level, he projects mostly as a POA defender on smaller wings and guards due to his frame and high hips. I’d actually compare him at the point of attack to Torrey Craig in some regards. He’s not that level yet of course, but both players have high hips and can struggle defending up, because leverage exists! It’s just very very difficult to actually defend someone who is sizably larger than you if you have high hips and they can get into you, it’s about physics, not effort.

I’ve seen questions brought up about his lateral quickness, but I don’t really think they’re warranted. If he’s ever blown by, it’s normally due to his reaction time, reacting to what’s happening rather than dictating what the ballhandler does at the point of attack.

Take this possession, Bouknight does a good job initially cutting off David Duke’s drive, but is then a half step behind in reacting to his dribble after resetting on the perimeter and gets blown by on a drive to the rim.

I’m really not worried about this reactivity and being a step behind on defense, because as mentioned earlier, he missed a lot of development time. This is the kind of thing you see with a young player that they should improve upon with consistent NBA reps.

I actually enjoy his nail defense quite a bit and think he’ll be a positive in that area as he grows in his career. He could occasionally ball-watch from the nail and get hit with a back cut, but it was more about being so locked in on the ball and trying to stay engaged rather than not paying attention.

He executed some very well timed digs that resulted in drives being stopped, dribbles being killed

and turnovers being forced.

He’s also very solid at playing the backline, willingly rotating over as the low man and closing out on subsequent actions.

Seton Hall scores on the possession, but Bouknight does exactly what he’s supposed to do in the scheme. Tag the roll man, and closeout hard to the shooter. It’s a tough angle and distance to cover after the tag and that’s part of what that defensive identity concedes as we saw in Indiana this season.

Another solid example of playing well in the scheme. His footwork isn’t awesome, he’s a little herky jerky, but he does his job and as soon as his assignment shifts, he closes out.

One aspect of his defense that stands out to me: as good of an off-ball mover as he is on offense, getting around screens is very tough for him defensively. It is not for lack of effort, he chases his man and doesn’t just die on screens for the most part. But, he DOES take a ton of damage when he gets run through a set of screens, almost like watching bumper cars.

He really struggles to get low and dip his shoulders to avoid screens. I think that with time, he’ll be ok getting around screens, but upon early entry in the league, it could be a struggle for him and I wouldn’t be too willing to assign him to offensive players like him who thrive moving along the screen highway.

Not always feeling or seeing screens, being too locked in on the ball or on your man, poor footwork: these are all things that mark James Bouknight as a defensive player, but also are traits you’ll find in the majority of prospects who aren’t coming in as specialists.

He tries really hard, executes the scheme and cares about executing the scheme, has the physical tools to be a positive defender, and has had good flashes defending NBA prospects.

He did a great job using his length to contain David Duke (potential pick this year) all game against Providence. Bouknight competes, and he’ll be a solid all around defender in the right role as he fills out and grows into his body and gets more reps oncourt.

Bouknight in Indiana and Projection

“If the Indiana Pacers have the have X pick and James Bouknight is there, do you think they should take him?”

I’ve been asked this before, I will be asked again (I appreciate being asked!). I have to cop out and say that I’m unsure. Who’s left on the board? Has anyone been traded by the front office? Do they want to trade anyone? I have no idea right now.

I don’t believe in drafting for fit, but I also think you have to be realistic. Is this player you draft going to have a meaningful chance to grow? How committed is your organization to prioritizing their development and is the coaching staff on board with the organizational vision for this prospect? That is so so important. That also feeds into another point, while big boards are a great thought exercise and visual, we really just don’t fully know what the future holds, we can project and theorize, but until things play out, we don’t have a for sure answer. By really diving in, we can get a very good idea however! Point being, different scenarios and environments change what a draft board would or should look like.

James Bouknight is an imperfect prospect, but I believe that the Indiana Pacers as currently constructed are a fairly good landing spot for him. When looking at and evaluating prospects, it’s important to me to also evaluate the environment. No environment is created the same and they present a different set of barriers, pathways, and opportunities to a prospect.

Bouknight would step into the Ascension St. Vincent Center on day one of camp as the second most athletic player on the roster (behind Edmond Sumner, Cassisu Stanley is not a lock to be back). The Pacers roster needs meaningful athleticism badly. I think Bouknight provides that. While we covered some of the limitations of his handle, he could be a great outlet and off-ball scorer alongside Domantas Sabonis, utilizing his off-ball gravity as a sort of slingshot off of Sabonis’ playmaking and screening ability. One of the very best ways to mitigate a lack of on-ball juice is dynamic screening, DHO’s, and surrounding said player with ancillary playmaking.

The Pacers are clearly trying to win now as currently constructed: Bouknight could factor in as an immediate play finisher to benefit motion heavy offense. While he would likely not be and shouldn’t be tasked with much on-ball creation early, this could give him a real chance to hit the floor running while also developing those skills with some potential bench unit reps. He and TJ Warren as cutters in a moton “Whirling”” offense around Sabonis, as Caitlin Cooper has called it, would be a delight, and also remarkably hard to defend. Without a true top flight 1A level scoring or playmaking option, load the roster with players who can dribble, pass, and shoot.

The Pacers also ran a ton of pistol actions this year and I love the idea of getting Bouknight flying downhill with a full head of steam before he even has to dribble. He certainly won’t be treated as a top option early, but he also doesn’t need to be. Indiana provides him early opportunities to do easy things that make sense for him while still benefiting the team, and the chance to grow into a larger role as he develops.

James Bouknight is exactly the type of player I would be willing to draft with the Pacers first round pick. He has the potential and ability to hit a very high outcome that results in him becoming an elite off-ball scorer with on-ball equity that doesn’t get you killed on defense at the wing: the Pacers need to take as many shots as possible at wings with the chance to create. You’re not drafting any surefire primary creators in the late lottery, but there are some “maybe if” guys, and Bouknight is one of them. The flashes are so bright with him and if the Pacers can find a way to bring along their first lottery pick in half a decade, he could be an extraordinary player if drafted by Indiana

I also don’t want to make it sound as though he’s a bonafide star, If the handle really doesn’t improve (I’m confident it will due to what I discussed earlier in relation to core strength and stability) then he projects more as an off-ball wing who struggles to create his own shot and is mostly a play finisher in an NBA offense.

There are many other prospects I’ll be diving into and trying to do justice to here at Indy Cornrows both in writing and on the pod. I hope you got something out of and enjoyed this breakdown! I really enjoyed diving into the tape and learning Bouknight’s game, discovering more about scouting, and trying to get a better grasp and understanding of the draft. Let me know what you think down below or on Twitter @MSchindlerNBA

Lastly, I’d be remiss if I didn’t plug the work of PD Web who has put out great work that gave me a better way to approach and view the game. For a more in-depth and comprehensive look at scouting, the draft, and draft profiles:

PD’s work is free on Patreon, although I highly encourage becoming a patron of his. He does break downs at a level that I cannot explain, but rather that you need to ingest yourself.

Check out this series on Footwork and Self-Organization in shooting that has a fantastic section on TJ Warren.

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