Bowen Emerges from the Depths of the Pacers Bench

It's highly unlikely Brian Bowen will add to Nate McMillan's potential math problem regarding the division of playing time this season, but he did offer a small hint of what could be waiting further down the road. He got himself a career highlight as well.

Bowen scored the first basket of his NBA career in the Pacers' 111-85 victory over Oklahoma City on Tuesday, and if fans didn't think much of it everyone in the locker room certainly did. Bowen received the game ball, which was quickly taken back to be painted to commemorate the landmark moment, as well as a stream of congratulatory comments and friendly trash talk from his teammates.

"You were a minus-three, B!" Naz Mitrou-Long shouted from across the room, referring to Bowen's plus-minus rating in the box score. "You've got to do better!"

Scoring the first NBA field goal is a big moment in the career of any player, but Bowen took special pride in his given the wayward path he's taken to the league. A five-star recruit out of La Lulmiere Academy in LaPorte, Ind. in 2017, he was caught up in a recruiting controversy at Louisville that was partially responsible for the dismissal of coach Rick Pitino and athletic director Tom Jurich. After spending one semester on campus and practicing with the team but not playing in a game he transferred to South Carolina, where he practiced with the team during the second semester while waiting to become eligible.

He opted to leave and play last season in a professional league in Australia, then entered the NBA Draft this year. Undrafted, he signed a two-way contract with the Pacers and will spend most of this season with the Fort Wayne Mad Ants.

Bowen's temp status with the Pacers was made blatantly obvious by the fact he has had to use storage shelves to hold his clothes and personal effects. When there are 17 players on a team and only 16 lockers in the room, someone has to be the odd man out. Bowen has been the loser of the musical lockers game, but he hasn't minded.

Especially now that he's broken the seal on scoring.

The loss of five injured players left an opening for him to dress with the Pacers on Tuesday and the blowout victory over the Thunder left an opportunity for him to play the final 2 minutes, 35 seconds. The defended pull-up bank shot he hit from about eight feet was no gimme, and got a standing ovation from his teammates on the bench and plenty of reaction in the postgame locker room as well.

"It means a lot," Bowen said. "It's a real emotional moment for me. I've been though a lot just to get to this point. It's a dream come true for me."

Bowen practiced with the Mad Ants earlier in the day and left for Fort Wayne following the game. He's already played two games with the Mad Ants and now will settle in there for a while. But he left a positive impression from his practices with the Pacers over the summer, throughout training camp, and in the early weeks of the season.

"I like him," McMillan said. "I think he has a good feel on the floor, real smooth in how he plays. I think he can be a rotational player at that three position who can shoot the ball and score. I like his length at that position."

While not NBA-ready, Bowen does in some small way reflect the Pacers' generous depth chart in that a five-star recruit with glowing potential can only play when the roster is dramatically thinned by injuries and the game has become a blowout. Even without starters Victor Oladipo and Myles Turner and intended rotational players Jeremy Lamb, Goga Bitadze, and Edmond Sumner, the Pacers have more than adequate depth. Justin Holiday, T.J. McConnell, Doug McDermott, and TJ Leaf all have had their moments so far. Alize Johnson also is regarded as a promising player and JaKarr Sampson, expected to sit outside the playing rotation when the season began, has filled in adequately as a starter the past four games.

What's going to happen if and when the Pacers have a healthy roster? Which players who have performed well at times won't be playing at all?

"I have no idea," said Domantas Sabonis, who was typically impressive with 18 points and 16 rebounds against the Thunder. "I know everybody is ready to play, everybody is working hard in practice to try to prove themselves. It's going to be Coach's job to adjust the lineups and make the rotations and make everything work."

The coach isn't worried about it yet. McMillan said before the season began the issue would work itself out, and so far it has. Injuries happen, sometimes in volume, and a team needs all the capable players it can get.

Meanwhile, some players who weren't supposed to be playing are gaining valuable experience. All the way down to the G League guys on two-way contracts such as Bowen and Mitrou-Long — who by the way missed his only shot at an NBA field goal, a forced 3-pointer, on Tuesday but recently impressed with a 26-point, 10-assist game for the Mad Ants.

"There are guys getting opportunities to play," McMillan said. "I think they're doing a good job of fitting in...Once we get everybody back, the starters will go back to their position and we'll have to work on a rotation. We know we can't play 11, 12 guys. But it's good to see these guys get the opportunity."

It also was good to see Bowen have a meaningful moment in an otherwise forgettable game. He said afterward he'll keep the box score to go along with the game ball, and none of his Pacer teammates will blame him. Most NBA players remember their first field goal in the league. All of those approached in the Pacers locker room afterward did, and to the degree their claims could be researched all were accurate, too.

T.J. Warren, who continued to shine offensively with 23 points on 10-of-14 shooting, said his first field goal was delayed by a broken thumb before his rookie season in Phoenix began. It finally came in Boston on a transition layup. "On Jeff Green, I think," he said. "It was a great memory for me."

Sabonis recalled a 3-pointer from the corner on a called play in his first game with Oklahoma City three years ago. "I was a shooter back then," he said, smiling. "It was against Philly; against T.J."

He meant T.J. McConnell, whose first basket came on a layup in his first game as a rookie with Philadelphia against Boston.

"It was a forgettable performance, though," McConnell said. "I think (Celtics guard) Isaiah Thomas lit me up for like 35 that night. I'd like to forget about it. But it was still a pretty cool moment."

Aaron Holiday remembers his banked 3-pointer in last season's opener against Memphis. Johnson's came via a floater in the lane off a Euro-step at Milwaukee.

Malcolm Brogdon couldn't quite recall his first regular season field goal but remembers his first in a preseason game. It came on a transition 3-pointer off an assist from Giannis Antetokounmpo against Chicago.

"Special moment," he said.

The Pacers, now 7-4 and winners of seven of their previous eight games, are starting to show potential for collective special moments. They have yet to play a team that had a winning record heading into Tuesday's games, but that will soon change. They play at Houston (7-3) on Friday and meet Milwaukee (7-3) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on Saturday.

To win those kind of games over the course of the season they'll need all the depth they can get. And they'll need the players left out of the rotation to accept their fate and await their next turn.

"We're going to have a lot of talent," Brogdon said, anticipating the return of injured players. "More talent than the Pacers have had the past few years. It's going to be huge getting all these guys back."

Complicated, but huge.

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Mark Montieth's book on the formation and groundbreaking seasons of the Pacers, "Reborn: The Pacers and the Return of Pro Basketball to Indianapolis," is available in bookstores throughout Indiana and on Amazon.com.

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