The Anomaly of Bruce Bowen’s Shooting

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Bruce Bowen is remembered primarily for his suffocating (and sometimes dirty) defense, but he was a true 3 & D player who knocked down 39% of his threes over a 13-year career. That earns him a spot at No. 47 on the league’s all-time three-point percentage (3P%) leaderboard (min. 1,000 three-point attempts) ahead of long-range luminaries like Dirk Nowitzki, Voshon Lenard, Shane Battier and Chris Mullin. A shooter of that caliber usually possesses a pure shooting touch; they normally find the bottom of the net from anywhere.

This isn’t the case with Bowen. His shooting profile is that of a niche shooter, and if you ever watched him play you can probably guess his area of expertise: the corner three.

Thanks to the brilliance of Basketball-Reference, I was able to compile a list of players who shot at least 36% from downtown over their careers with at least 1,000 3PA1. An analysis of these first-class marksmen revealed Bowen’s uniqueness.

Graph 1 - Corner 3PAr vs Corner 3P%Bowen’s role in the San Antonio offense was to spot up in the corner and get out of the way, but there are plenty of other players in the data pool who have held similar roles (e.g. Shane Battier, Jason Kapono, Donyell Marshall). Bowen is on an island with more than 75% of his threes coming from the corners2.

Crazier still, that number is weighed down by a season in Miami. His time under Popovichian rule narrowed his shot selection to the point that 84% of his three-point attempts in a Spurs jersey were launched from the corners3. Such a strong outlier indicates incredible discipline with regards to shot selection and/or fear of Pop’s wrath whenever he deviated from his prescribed role.

Bowen wasn’t abnormally proficient from the corner. His 42% conversion rate on corner threes only places him in the 66th percentile of the sample population. When you look at his corner vs. above-the-break (ATB) shooting splits, however, you see why he was so corner-dependent.Graph 2 - ATB 3P% vs Corner 3P%Bowen was unsurprisingly one of the worst ATB shooters in the group (better than only Tayshaun Prince), but it’s shocking just how bad he was (32.1%). The worse ATB shooters tend to take a higher proportion of their treys from the corner. Of course, Bowen takes that trend to the extreme.Graph 3 - Corner 3PAr vs ATB 3P%The three graphs above show that Bowen is an uncommon shooter, but they don’t tell us how much his career 3P% is skewed by his corner addiction. I calculated what his 3P% would look like depending on how many of his attempts came from the corners.Graph 4 - Bowen Shooting SpectrumBowen is a prime example of the importance of shot selection. By avoiding ATB threes at all costs, Bowen was able to boost his 3P% and become a weapon opponents couldn’t ignore. Had he been less cautious in his shot selection (e.g. taking only 25% of his threes from the corners), Bowen’s unimpressive ATB shooting would have weighed down his overall 3P% and he would have been a greater offensive liability.

The corner three isn’t Bowen’s only distinguishing feature as a shooter. The free-throw line – normally a safe space for elite shooters – is another source of Bowen’s nonconformity.Graph 5 - 3P% vs FT%A career 57.5% free-throw shooter, Bowen is closer to the 50% mark than he is to anyone else in the sample. His foul-line futility isn’t just an outlier among my cherry-picked population of elite three-point marksmen; he boasts the second-worst FT% of the 567 players in league history to attempt at least 500 threes (regardless of 3P%)4.

Bowen boasts a truly bizarre shooting profile; his career 39% mark from beyond the arc belies his true shooting stroke. He isn’t a preternaturally gifted shooter with innate touch. Based on the numbers, he seems more like a subpar shooter who worked his ass off to become very good at a specific shot and rarely deviated from his comfort zone. That someone could do this and end up as the 47th-best three-point shooter in league history is genuinely amazing.

Most tremendous shooters can shoot from anywhere. Their stroke is pure and, while they may have certain hot spots, every shot they put up looks like it’s going in. Bowen’s career statistics warrant a spot in the Shooting Hall of Fame, but he would be inducted as the most specialized shooter ever – a player who overcame the lack of a pure shooting stroke and learned to dominate from one spot on the floor.

His suffocating defense and history of cheap shots may define his legacy, but Bruce Bowen’s quirkiest imprint on the history of the NBA may be a title as the league’s “worst” great shooter.

1. For the corner three data displayed in Graphs 1, 2 & 3, the player pool (144 players) is restricted to players who met the base criteria (≥ 36% on ≥ 1,000 3PA) after 2000-01 because Basketball-Reference only has shot location data beginning in the 2000-01 season. For Graph 5, the player pool (185 players) includes players who met the base criteria over the entire history of the NBA.^

2. Also on an island: Nick Van Exel. Van Exel was commonly called “Nick the Quick”, but he was more like “Nick the Brick” from the corners shooting under 30%.^

3. As a Spur, 38% of Bowen’s FIELD-GOAL attempts were corner threes.^

4. The only player with a worse FT% is a Mr. Ken Norman (of whom I have never heard). There are four young players on track to do worse than Bowen from the free-throw line, but they haven’t taken the requisite 500 3PA yet: Dragan Bender, Andre Roberson, James Young and Sam Dekker.^


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