COLUMBIA, Mo. – Laurence Bowers flips a ball between his palms on the walk to the court, each step more valued after a year away.
This is a routine to most players, idle time at Mizzou Arena before an afternoon practice one month into the season. But to the lanky 6-foot-8, 227-pound senior forward, this moment means more. This is a second chance.
“Coach (Frank Haith) always tells me, ‘You’ve only got 13 games. You’ve only got 12 games,'” says Bowers, who leads Missouri with an average of 16.9 points through nine games after missing last season with a torn ACL in his left knee. “You shouldn’t take any game for granted. That’s my approach to it. I’ve been here for a long time. Sitting out last year, it makes you so much hungrier, and it makes you appreciate the game that much more.”
What’s old is new again. In a year when transfers such as senior forward Alex Oriakhi (UConn) and junior guard Earnest Ross (Auburn) have earned headlines here, a familiar face stands near the top of many team categories. That’s fine for the Memphis, Tenn., native, who has said he never wanted his career in black and gold to end with a question mark.
Call it a renewed passion after a freak pickup-game accident in October 2011 kept Bowers sidelined for the winter. Call it a second wind after he was little more than moral support in the Tigers’ 30-5 campaign that produced a Big 12 tournament title and a No. 2 seed in the NCAA tournament. Call it a stronger focus after he pushed through summer drills to prepare himself to lead as one of three seniors on roster.
However you label Bowers’ comeback, remember this: It’s a renaissance, a chance to play the game he has known since age 4 with a greater love. It’s a blank template in Missouri’s inaugural Southeastern Conference campaign, one that includes visions of a deep March run.
“You can’t take anything for granted,” says Bowers, who leads the Tigers in field-goal percentage (.582). “I would tell anybody that. I love the game. I love basketball. … With the snap of a finger, I was told, ‘You’re done for the season. You can’t play.'”
Which was a shame, because Bowers was thought to be a major contributor last season. As a junior, in the 2010-11 campaign, he received honorable mention all-Big 12 honors and was named to the conference’s all-defensive team. That year, he averaged 11.6 points and 6.1 rebounds. He also finished second in the league with 62 blocked shots, the third most in program history.
It’s intriguing to wonder if Missouri’s March flop would have happened had he played in Omaha. Perhaps he would have slowed Norfolk State senior center Kyle O’Quinn, who had a game-high 26 points and 14 rebounds. Perhaps his presence would have meant less pressure on the Tigers’ backcourt, which, between guards Michael Dixon (22) and Phil Pressey (20) and Marcus Denmon (20), produced 62 of Missouri’s 84 points.
“Of course he probably got down, because he wants to play just as bad as anybody else,” says Pressey, a junior, who’s second on the team in scoring by averaging 13 points. “But myself, along with the other guys, we just kind of kept him going and encouraged him almost every single day. I think he benefitted from it by just watching and trying to get everybody else going.”
By watching Bowers this season, Haith has seen him grow. Bowers is more gifted near the basket than when the coach studied tape after arriving from Miami last year. There’s a greater patience – “I think he’s got a sense of calmness about him,” Haith says – and the Tigers are better for his versatility.
Before, Haith noticed that Bowers scored mostly in transition. Now the player will find the basket near the block, off offensive rebounds – he has 21 so far, second on the team behind Oriakhi’s 30 – and he may mix in an old-man fadeaway jumpshot on occasion.
“I think he’s cerebral,” Haith says. “Not that he wasn’t … but he’s patient offensively. … I think he’s going to get better. I think he’s still going to do some great things for this team.”
Haith sees room for Bowers to develop in a number of ways. Mainly, the coach wants him to be more vocal. Haith credited Bowers, who’s quiet by nature, for helping Missouri win games from the sideline last season. That passion, if consistent, could lead to a payoff.
“I’ve definitely got to be better at being vocal,” says Bowers, who’s second on the team in rebounding behind Oriakhi with 6.9 per game. “It’s different when you’re on the bench, and you have all the energy in the world. You’re not tired. When you’re in the game, you get tired. … I feel like as a captain of the team, I definitely have to take it up a notch as far as being vocal. That’s something I’m going to work on.”
Where is it all leading? Bowers is living the transition from student to teacher. He learned his craft under former Missouri forward DeMarre Carroll, now with the Utah Jazz in his fourth NBA season. Bowers sees himself serving a similar role for the program’s new talent.
That’s what the Tigers lacked last season. They were without a trusted presence in the paint area, someone like Bowers who had 38 starts in his first three seasons. Now, he’s 10 points from joining Missouri’s 1,000-point club. He has proven himself, but strong play in the coming months could enhance his future prospects.
“I would say it’s a really major outside shot of him going in the first round,” says Kristofer Habbas, editor-in-chief at NBADraftInsider.com. “But it wouldn’t be alarming to see him going in the second round. … He’s in a cluster of 15 to 20 seniors who are very draftable.”
For now, though, returning to Mizzou Arena’s halls with the sweet sound of dribbling nearby is good enough. Nothing is given. Nothing is guaranteed.