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Inside the Play: Jordan Bowden

Bowden has finally found some consistency.

NCAA Basketball: Tennessee at Vanderbilt Jim Brown-USA TODAY Sports

Initially, we talked about Vols’ point guard Jordan Bone, his improvements and the impact he’s had this season. Bone could be considered Tennessee’s most improved player and its most valuable player. Then we talked about Grant Williams. He’s kinda thrown a metaphorical wrench into my planned discussion about Tennessee’s Most Valuable Player with his, well, incredibly valuable play. If we’re being honest, Williams IS Tennessee’s MVP. A truly legitimate argument can be made for Bone – he’s been fantastic, especially of late – but this team goes as Williams goes.

However, Tennessee is playing so well partly because of the multitude of players that do damage offensively. Nationally, the Vols are sixth in points per game, second in field goal percentage third in offensive rating. One or two guys playing well won’t accomplish those kind of team offensive numbers.

There are six (seven if you count Kyle Alexander, though his scoring numbers have dipped recently) guys that can drop double-figure scoring totals on you. For this installment, let’s take a closer look at Jordan Bowden and some of his contributions so far this year.

I touched earlier on Jordan Bone and how he’s upped his production and thus his value to the team. The same can be said for Bowden. He’s shown tremendous improvements from last season to this season, and he’s been integral to Tennessee’s success so far this year.

During his first two years at Tennessee, we saw flashes of the player that Jordan Bowden could be. As a spindly freshman, he started 28 times in 30 appearances, and he started all 35 games last year. But he was streaky and inconsistent. He was passive, if not timid. Let’s just say he was… enigmatic – lots of potential but lacking consistent, substantive production.

If you just look at the box scores, there’s a stretch of seven SEC games in which Bowden scored in double figures five times. But during the next seven games – a stretch that included the SEC and NCAA tournaments – he didn’t score in double figures once. Hot and cold, hot and cold, with the cold coming at the most inopportune time.

NCAA Basketball: Louisiana State at Tennessee
It took Bowden a couple seasons, but he’s finally found his confidence as a junior.
Randy Sartin-USA TODAY Sports

He started this season in similar, erratic fashion. He hit six 3-pointers and scored 21 points in the first two games then hit one 3-pointer and scored a combined 13 points in the next three games. But then our basketball lord and savior Rick Barnes benched him in favor of every Tennessee fan’s favorite Frenchman, Yves Pons. Barnes took a calculated risk, and Bowden responded.

Since the lineup change, Bowden has scored in double figures nine out of 14 games including back-to-back 20-point performances against Georgia and Missouri. (UTSports dot com says he’s the first bench player for Tennessee to score 20 points in back-to-back games in 35 years.)

Looking at just SEC play, his shooting numbers have increased from last season to this season in each of the major categories. He’s averaging more than 16 points - an increase of nearly 9 points per game from last year - while shooting close to 70 percent on two-point shots and 40 percent on 3-point shots. He would be ranked first in free-throw percentage (89) if he’d taken enough shots to qualify statistically. His percentage on 2-point shots is up nearly 30 points (yeah, bro. 30 points) from last year’s averages and his free-throw and 3-point numbers are both up around 8 points from last season.

He’s ranked fourth in offensive rating (128.9), third in field goal percentage (56.8) and 10th in true shooting percentage (61). In an interview with the News-Sentinel earlier this season, Jordan Bone said Bowden was the best shooter on the team, and it looks like Bowden believes that now, too.

The Florida game, more than likely, would be sitting on the Vol’s schedule with a big, fat “L” next to it had Bowden not dropped 12-straight points on the Gators’ ugly, ugly faces. Let’s dive into Bowden’s impact on the second half of that game.

Grant Williams converted an and-one 3-point play with 11:44 left in the game. But then Tennessee’s next seven possessions consisted of four turnovers and three missed 3-pointers as Florida went on an 8-0 run.

After this four-minute scoring drought, Florida fouls Bowden on a 3-point shot, and he converts the free throws. The next time down the floor for Tennessee, Florida sets up in its 1-3-1 zone defense. This defense gave Tennessee fits for most of the game.

Here, we see Florida extending its zone out to half court. Excuse my penmanship but look at the corner of the floor where Bowden is circled in blue. Look at all that space. That’s why you want to get the ball into the corner against a 1-3-1, especially when its extended out as far as Florida’s is on this possession.

This is the same shot, but here we can see what’s about to happen with the play. Williams sets a high ball screen for Bone, and Bone dribbles to the far side of the floor and makes the pass to Bowden in the corner. You can also see how Florida’s defense reacts. No.2 for Florida, the player to the farthest right on in this picture, rotates to the corner to pick up Bowden. No. 10 for Florida rotates down to take the place of the man that just went to the corner to guard the ball.

The ball is circled in red here; it’s in the air on its way to Bowden. No. 10 for Florida has made his way to the paint (though the paint isn’t actually painted on Florida’s court), but No. 2 is a little slow on his rotation and there’s quite a bit of space between him and Bowden. Either that, or he’s thinking Bowden is going to drive to the middle of the floor instead of the baseline. It doesn’t really matter which it was, because he’s not in good position no matter the thought process.

I’ve got the Florida player circled in red here because I want you to look at his posture. He’s not square. His feet look like he’s going left, but his upper body looks like he’s going right. He’s all mixed up, and he’s lost leverage. Last season, Bowden might have taken advantage of this, and he might not have. He might have hesitated. He might have missed the opportunity. But this time, there was no hesitation. He goes around the defender and straight to the hoop for an easy two points.

This is the next possession, and Florida has just scored on a layup. Williams is inbounding the ball to Turner, and Bowden is already streaking up court. He’s got about two steps on the closest Florida defender.

Two seconds later, Bowden is probably about 20 feet from the nearest defender and sprinting to the basket. Turner is pushing the ball up floor about to hit Bowden with a pass for an easy assist. This play nearly ends in a dunk, but Kevarrius Hayes makes a really impressive play, meets him at the rim and fouls him hard enough to cause a miss. Bowden nails both free throws.

The next possession, Florida’s half-court defense is set, and Bowden has the ball on the near-side wing. He’s going to hit Williams with a post-entry pass, and the Florida defender guarding him is going to double-team Williams.

You can see here that Williams is trapped by the double team, but that’s left Bowden wide open. As Williams is about to kick the ball back outside, the Florida defender circled is rotating over to cover Bowden.

You can see here that the Florida defender over pursued, Bowden gathered himself and used a step-back move to create a little more space. In the next shot, you can see he created enough space to get off a clean look despite the defender’s attempt to recover. Bowden nails the 3-pointer and ties the game back up.

It’s fitting that the next and final basket in Bowden’s string of 12-straight points would come off a steal. I’ve spent a thousand words talking about Bowden’s offense, but his defense has been important to the Vol’s success, too. At this point in the game, KeVaughn Allen had dropped five 3-pointers and 16 total points.

Barnes has Bowden guarding Allen. There’s not a whole lot going on in this shot to look at, but one thing to notice: in this frame, if you look closely, you can see that Bowden’s image is blurred somewhat while Allen’s is clear. This means that Bowden is already in motion anticipating the pass as it’s being thrown. Bowden makes the clean swipe and dunks the ball home on the other end.

If you go back to the Gonzaga game, Bowden held guard Zach Norvell to 13 points on just 38 percent shooting. Bowden also held John Petty (who scored 30) scoreless for the final 7 minutes and 52 seconds of the Alabama game, which included a forced turnover on the Tide’s next-to-last possession when the Vols were up by just one point.

There aren’t a whole lot of metrics readily available to measure a college player’s individual defensive aptitude other than defensive rating. And Bowden’s is actually down this year. But looking at the matchups, especially late in games, it seems that Barnes prefers Bowden on the other team’s best scorer.

There were times last season when Tennessee’s offense struggled. It bogged down primarily because this team lacked play makers and scorers, especially when Grant Williams was on the bench. But the emergence of an assertive, confident Jordan Bowden -- thriving in the sixth-man role -- gives Tennessee another player that can score the ball efficiently and has been instrumental to the Vols becoming one of the NCAA’s best offensive basketball teams.