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Hurley’s backcourt holds first media session since March

James Bouknight, Jalen Gaffney, and RJ Cole dished on the upcoming season and more during Wednesday’s call.

UConn’s James Bouknight and RJ Cole talk before their game against St. Michael’s last October. (Ian Bethune - The UConn Blog)
Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

An abundance of exciting guards have graced Gampel Pavilion with their playmaking over the last couple of decades, and the upcoming season will be no exception. In fact, UConn men’s basketball fans are going to be treated to a second look at two returning stars and a first glimpse at a new seasoned stud.

James Bouknight and Jalen Gaffney are back in Storrs this season while RJ Cole, a talented transfer from Howard, is getting the opportunity to shed his UConn practice jersey for the first time after a forced year off. All three of them sat down with media members Wednesday to talk about the upcoming season and what they have done since we last heard from them in March.

James Bouknight looking to take another step while embracing spotlight

Bouknight exceeded expectations during his freshman year at UConn, averaging 13 points per game on 46.2% from the field and 34.7% from beyond the arc. His field goal percentage was the highest on the team for any non-front court player.

He led the American in offensive rating while at a usage rating of at least 24% last season, with a 109.3 according to KenPom.com. That mark would have put him in a tie for fourth in the Big East, behind Markus Howard, Tyrique Jones, and Collin Gillespie.

And yet, he returned to school instead of jumping right to the NBA, despite plenty of uncertainty surrounding the upcoming college season.

Bouknight said the plan was for him to return for a second year all along. If he leaves for the NBA after this year, he may very well land in the first round of the draft considering ESPN’s Jonathan Givoy has him sitting at No. 23 in his most recent 2021 mock draft.

Dan Hurley called him a “marked man” at his media availability earlier this month, but Bouknight said he doesn’t think having the focus zeroed-in on him will change his game.

“It’s going to be harder for me this year, knowing that I am going to have to work for everything I need to do, and want to do, on the court,” Bouknight said, after stating that Hurley is pushing him to step up this year.

He said he spent the offseason working on his three-point shooting and ball handling, adding that his increased strength has also played a role in improving these aspects of his game. In terms of the upcoming season, Bouknight noted that the team has been preparing as if the season is going to start on time.

RJ Cole and Jalen Gaffney sharing the point

After sitting out last season following his transfer from Howard, RJ Cole will be back on the court for more than just practice and asked to contribute right away. This shouldn’t be an issue as he averaged 22.5 points, 6.4 assists, four rebounds, and nearly two steals per game at Howard before joining the Huskies.

Cole will be the oldest guard on the team, after Christian Vital graduated last season, and likely one of the best shooters. UConn ranked 215th in the nation in three-point percentage last season so Cole’s shooting pedigree is an especially welcome addition. During his final year at Howard, he shot 38.7% from beyond the arc on 6.6 attempts per game.

Like Gaffney, the redshirt-junior is a playmaker. In his last year at Howard, he had a nearly 30% usage rating, the highest in the MEAC, with a 110.8 offensive rating per KenPom.

“We’re both two playmakers, we’re both unselfish,” Cole said of Gaffney. “He’s a very smart ball handler, he can score, he can pass it.”

Early on in his tenure with the Huskies, Gaffney struggled mightily. The 6-foot-3 guard seemed hesitant to attack the basket, scoring just two points on six shots in his first five games in blue – albeit with limited minutes as he sat behind Vital in the guard pecking order.

As he got more comfortable, however, he got more looks and started to score a bit more, especially after a breakout performance against St. Peter’s in mid-December.

Gaffney acknowledged his struggles from last year and said he is working on being more aggressive.

He also said he has made considerable gains in the weight room since last year.

“I’ve been working on my body a lot, especially with our new strength coach, Coach Mike [Rehfeldt],” Gaffney said. “He’s helped all of us, pretty much, he’s helped all of us. Me, specifically, I put on about 15 pounds already since I’ve been back.”

The added strength should theoretically help him improve upon his 26.4% three-point percentage from last season. He also added that he feels just as quick, despite the increased weight on his frame.

Other notes:

  • Bouknight, Gaffney, and Cole all support the Big East’s decision to place Black Lives Matter patches on players’ jerseys for the upcoming season.
  • Former UConn guard Christian Vital has signed a one-year deal with German club BG Göttingen of the German BBL, according to a team release. Former UConn standout Khalid El-Amin previously played a couple of seasons for Göttingen, finishing his time there in 2016.