While Different Players on the Court, First-Rounders Bouknight, Jones Both Bring Excitement and Fun to “Box Office” Hornets

by Sam Perley

When the dust finally settled following Thursday night’s 2021 NBA Draft, the Charlotte Hornets walked away with the best of both worlds in the opening round, snagging high-octane scoring guard James Bouknight and a rim-running, energetic athletic big man in Kai Jones.

Projected by some as a potential top-6 pick, Bouknight wrapped up his second season at Connecticut having averaged 18.7 points on 44.7% shooting, 5.7 rebounds, 1.8 assists and 1.1 steals in 15 appearances. The 6-5 shooting guard erupted for a career-high 40 points last December against #9 Creighton and although missed eight mid-season games because of an elbow injury, still finished with First-Team All-Big East honors.

ESPN Draft Analyst Mike Schmitz pinpointed Bouknight’s size and length, open-court play, ability to play above the rim, positional rebounding, direction changing, creative finishing and overall shot-creation as his strengths throughout the pre-draft process. He is coming off a season in which he shot just 29.3% from three, although that could be more a byproduct of receiving over-the-top defensive attention as Connecticut’s primary high-usage, go-to scorer (34.7% as a freshman; 25-of-72).

“I just feel like I’m someone you can give the ball to and ask him to go get a basket,” Bouknight stated during Friday morning’s press conference. “I’m unique and creative. Just because of the situation I was in at UConn, I wasn’t fully able to showcase my play-making ability and my versatility as a two-way guard. I feel like here with this young team and the talent that we have in this organization, I’ll be able to maximize my abilities and really show my full potential.”

The 20-year-old should get plenty of opportunities to put points up on the scoreboard, particularly being integrated into an up-tempo, LaMelo Ball-led offense that hopes to incorporate a multitude of ball-handlers and shooters. And with Devonte’ Graham and Malik Monk now restricted and unrestricted free agents, respectively, the Bouknight addition provides backcourt insurance plus a jolt of energy into a Hornets’ attack that really struggled to score down the stretch last year.

“We’re going to be one of the most exciting young teams in the league and I say that confidently,” said Bouknight. “We’re going to be a team that’s must-see TV like everybody likes to say. We’re going to be fun to watch.”

Shortly before taking the Brooklyn native, President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Mitch Kupchak alluded to heavy interest from a handful of other NBA teams looking to trade for the eleventh pick. Roughly 45 minutes later, the Hornets swooped back into the first round to grab Jones with the 19th overall selection, sending a protected future first-round pick to the New York Knicks as part of the deal.

Jones worked out twice for the Hornets in the pre-draft process after spending two years at Texas, where he was the 2021 Big 12 Sixth Man of the Year and a Big 12 Tournament Champion. The 6-11, 218-pound big man put up 8.8 points on 58.0% shooting (38.2% from three; 13-of-34), 4.8 rebounds and 0.9 blocks in 26 appearances last season, only four of which were starts.

“My biggest strength is my versatility and ability to impact the game all around,” said Jones. “Something I need to work on is just consistency with footwork and shooting. Just building good habits on my shot, so I can be a knock-down shooter in the NBA. [James] and I are two young exciting guys and this team is on the rise. We’ve got really good, young players and like to run. I love running and James loves to run, too. It’s going to be showtime. I’m excited.”

Originally from the Bahamas, the former track-and-field star only started playing organized basketball when he was 15, later moving to the United States for high school and college. According to Schmitz, Jones possesses incredible agility and athleticism for his size, great footwork, glass-crashing proficiency on both ends and strong defensive instincts.

Still very raw and relatively inexperienced compared to his peers, Jones might not be nearly as ready to contribute come Day 1 as Bouknight, but his ceiling and potential are as high as any player in the draft. He’s still developing from a physical standpoint and might need some initial G League exposure to get his feet wet at the professional level.

Overall though, it was quite a night for Kupchak and the Hornets as they likely landed an immediate contributor in Bouknight, a high-upside talent in Jones and then additional roster depth with forward JT Thor from Auburn and guard Scottie Lewis from Florida in the second round. As for the first two, ambitions are already sky-high with NBA Summer League just around the corner.

“If your mind isn’t set on being Rookie of the Year, you’re already thinking wrong coming into the NBA, so that’s where my head’s at,” said Jones, when asked about the influence Ball’s rookie season would have on him coming into Charlotte. “That’s something that I want to do and win a lot of games, too.” Added Bouknight, “I’m not going to sell myself short. I want to contend for Rookie of the Year. I think I’m that caliber of player and [Ball] is definitely an inspiration. Having a lot of young guys on this team, we’re box office and it’s going to be fun."

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