Inside Brian Bowen's new path to the NBA and what it means

Brian Bowen Sr. has been in the headlines all week. While his testimony in the FBI's ongoing NCAA investigation makes several programs across the country nervous, the primary player in the college basketball bidding war sits 10,000 miles away.

Where has all of this left Bowen's son, the 6-foot-7 McDonald's All-American whom a host of high major programs allegedly broke out the checkbook to acquire?

The 20-year-old is far from the spotlight, less than 48 hours from making his Australian National Basketball League debut for the Sydney Kings as the first prospect in the new Next Stars initiative.

Brian "Tugs" Bowen wasn't seen at any of the popular collegiate pro days this month. He hasn't yet been visited by many scouts. But on the other side of the world, Bowen is quietly preparing for the start of a season-long journey toward regaining relevance as a 2019 NBA draft prospect.


Changing the perception

The last time NBA talent evaluators saw him play, Bowen had his struggles -- understandably, as he was facing a high-level NBA starter in Tobias Harris. He turned in a jittery performance in an exhibition against the LA Clippers on Sept. 30 in Honolulu, going 0-for-4 from the field with two turnovers in just under 19 minutes. Although his practice sessions there were encouraging, only two NBA teams attended, and Bowen is facing an uphill battle to regain momentum after a mediocre combine performance in Chicago last spring.

Just 11 days ago, Bowen sat in the Ala Moana Hotel lobby in Honolulu. He outlined how dangerous Louisville could have been with Deng Adel, Ray Spalding, Quentin Snider and his own scoring versatility, if he hadn't left the program. He raved about South Carolina head coach Frank Martin's passion for the game and his experience with the fiery leader during his time with the Gamecocks as he held out hope of regaining college eligibility that never came. He reflected on his 14 NBA workouts, his combine showing, withdrawing from the draft and his yearning to study everyone from Andre Iguodala to Dennis Rodman.

But never was Bowen more boisterous than when he discussed his reputation. When asked if he thinks there's a misconception about him, he answered in a serious tone: "Oh, absolutely."

He understands that some still see him as being soft or too cool. There's the Odell Beckham Jr.-like blonde hair, the quiet confidence. The reputation exists -- so much so that even the Kings initially saw it in his high school tape.

"We didn't know him from a bar of soap when we brought him over," Kings assistant coach Lanard Copeland said. "I watched a couple tapes and went, 'This guy's arrogant.' You see some of the tapes from his high school, and he looks like he was the man, so we didn't know what to expect. But when he got here, man, he was just the calmest, coolest guy you'd ever want to meet."

When Bowen takes to the Qudos Bank Arena floor on Saturday against the same Adelaide 36ers club that Terrance Ferguson played for in 2016-17, he'll officially begin his journey to change that perception and show his value as a viable NBA prospect.

"I feel like I'm a lot mentally stronger as far as with everything that happened," Bowen told ESPN. "Just being open to listening and everything. That's really something big for me."

Bowen has no shortage of wise veterans to listen to. Bowen called his head coach Andrew Gaze "like the Michael Jordan of Australia." Copeland, who works with Bowen individually two to three times per week, is one of the more accomplished American players the NBL has seen. His team is headlined by NBA champion Andrew Bogut, 2007 Magic draft pick and hard-nosed NBL mainstay Brad Newley, and former Pac 12 standout and 2017 NBL MVP Jerome Randle.

"I think the young fella has a lot of talent, but most importantly for me, his confidence level is on another level," Randle told ESPN. "I played with Terrance Ferguson last year, and Terrance is obviously in the league and doing really well, but this kid here, his confidence is sky-high. He's not afraid of anyone, and he just wants to compete and learn and listen as well."


What scouts want to see

Both publicly and privately, Bowen has earned high marks from his teammates and coaches for his approach to the game and skill set. But to many NBA scouts, Bowen's strong Jordan Brand Classic performance (26 points in 20 minutes) in April 2017 seems like a distant memory. Bowen -- who currently ranks 57th in the ESPN Top 100 -- wasn't widely viewed as a surefire one-and-done if things had worked out at Louisville. Some teams will make the trip out to Sydney more for the weather and lifestyle than the evaluation, while others will take the 20-plus-hour flight with the intention of truly evaluating Bowen's progress and NBA outlook.

He has clear improvement areas: toughness defensively, consistent shooting, finishing in traffic and more polished ballhandling, especially because he isn't loaded with athletic upside. At this point, he isn't a lock to be drafted in June. But at 6-foot-7, 205 pounds with a 6-foot-10½ wingspan and shot-making potential, there's clearly enough to make him worth tracking.

"When teams go small, he can definitely be good enough to play the 4, and he shoots the 3 ball at a good enough clip to play the 3," Bogut said. "So if he has those two intangibles coming out of the NBL next season, there's no reason why he won't get drafted."

Shooting is Bowen's clear swing skill. If he impresses in the NBL and eventually hears his name called on draft night, it's because of his combination of size and shooting. Although he's only a career 27 percent 3-point shooter on 100 attempts with a streaky side, he has excellent balance and rise into both his catch-and-shoot 3 and his one- or two-dribble pullup. He's comfortable knocking down post turnarounds as well, even though he has trouble establishing position and playing through contact at this stage.

Although playing in the NCAA provides more visibility for a prospect, this experience in Sydney could force Bowen to address some of his shortcomings sooner than later, making him more prepared for the pre-draft process.

"I'm playing against professionals. It's as simple as that," Bowen said. "Obviously, they're not NBA professionals, but there's guys that have played in the NBA. There's still a long line of professionals, playing on the Australian national team or guys coming from different countries. I feel like I have a little step ahead of some of my peers with that."

Defensive effort isn't always addressed among top recruits at the collegiate level, which allows bad habits to manifest. Ferguson, who wasn't seen as the most physically or mentally tough prospect coming out of high school, undoubtedly improved in that area during his time with Adelaide.

"Your game goes to another level [in the NBL], a little bit quicker," Copeland said. "In college, you're playing against guys your same age. Now you're playing against grown men, and he's adjusted. He's going to be a good player. You watch and see. He's going to be a very good player."

Bowen is expected to start playing around 15-20 minutes per game as a microwave scorer off the bench, backing up Newly during Sydney's 28-game regular season that, pending the playoffs, runs through the end of March. After finishing each of the past four seasons in second-to-last or last place, there's a degree of pressure to win in Sydney. Because of his size and scoring potential, Bowen at the very least has the chance to play a role without needing much offensive volume to have an impact.

"We didn't know anything about him, so we were like, 'Do we play him?'" Copeland said. "When he came in that first game and knocked down a couple shots, we said, 'He deserves to play.' I think his confidence is going to lead him to bigger and better things."

The nontraditional NBA path

The Australian culture makes for a fairly seamless off-court transition, relative to other prep-to-pro situations. (It has long been an attractive draft-and-stash option for NBA teams).

Situation is important because young prospects haven't always thrived overseas: Former UCLA Bruin Jonah Bolden had his ups and downs at FMP in Belgrade before eventually turning it on in the Adriatic League and getting drafted 36th overall. Former McDonald's All-American and Kansas signee Billy Preston lasted only three Adriatic League games in Bosnia. Jeremy Tyler's decision to forego his senior year of high school to turn pro in Israel kick-started an extremely disappointing career.

While Bowen -- who lives 10 minutes from the practice facility -- admitted that there have been some challenges, he's in as close to an ideal situation as possible, given his options.

"It's a pretty easy transition," Bogut said. "I think for a younger guy adjusting, rather than going to a country where they can't speak the language or get around, I think it's a pretty no-brainer thing to do, and hopefully we get more and more kids coming over."

How Bowen fares in the NBL will certainly serve as a case study for future prospects aiming to bypass the NCAA, at least until the NBA's one-and-done rule is abolished in a few years.

Every prospect is different. Bolden, Tyler, Brandon Jennings and Ferguson went the international route -- all with differing results. Mitchell Robinson and now Darius Bazley opted to dodge competition altogether, spending a year training for the draft outside of any league. But Bowen, who didn't heavily consider the G League or Europe, is the first prospect to join the NBL's new initiative. Where he's drafted, along with his future success, should play a role in the viability of this option in a time when college basketball is in flux.

"It's been good for me so far," Bowen said, noting that several young players have reached out to ask how it's going, with the idea that they might consider the NBL as an option someday. "That's really the goal, to help the league and help myself -- not just myself, but the league as well to get young guys get over there.

"There's always different pathways to the NBA."