FAYETTEVILLE — The Arkansas basketball team has a nickname for Anthlon Bell.
The Razorbacks call the freshman “shoot soon.”
It’s an unusual moniker, but one guard B.J. Young believed was obvious for the Razorbacks’ emerging long-range shooter not long after he met him.
“He shoots as soon as he gets it,” Young said.
That was the case against Georgia last Wednesday, when Anderson surprisingly put the seldom-used Bell on the floor after an early timeout in the Razorbacks’ 62-60 win. It took two seconds for the freshman to launch his first three-pointer, which went in, to kick off what proved to be his surprising 17-point performance.
It has helped the 6-foot-3 guard has quickly become a key piece of the Razorbacks’ offense after scoring 31 points — and making nine three-pointers — the past two games. So Arkansas (17-10, 8-6 in Southeastern Conference) doesn’t mind now if “shoot soon” continues to fire away when it plays at LSU (16-9, 7-7 in SEC) tonight (7 p.m. on KATV, channel 7, and KABZ-FM 103.7).
“Coach always tells me ‘Don’t worry about missing shots. Just go out there and play basketball,’” Bell said. “So that gives me a lot of confidence knowing that if I might miss a couple of shots he’ll let me play through that.”
It has taken most of the season to get to that point, but the production is a sign the Razorbacks are finally getting the player they signed as part of the 2012 class.
Bell was regarded as an impressive shooter out of Bartlett (Tenn.) High. He has struggled on both ends of the floor this season. But coach Mike Anderson — who has always preached defense first — said Bell is proving “he’s ready to play now.”
“He has had to learn some things throughout the course of the year,” Anderson said. “But I think he is good enough defensively and he has the basketball intelligence and good instincts. But more importantly he can put the ball in the hole.
“He can shoot the basketball and he knows how to get the shot. That is going to be critical for us because he is a guy that can extend the floor.”
It wasn’t expected a week ago. Bell — whose previous season-best was 16 points against Longwood on Nov. 18 — had seemingly settled into his role as one of the last players off Arkansas’ bench before getting the early call against Georgia.
He had averaged five minutes in SEC play, scored a total of 18 points and sat out three of 12 games. Bell hadn’t scored in seven straight games, either, getting few opportunities while playing a total of 23 minutes during that stretch.
“It was real hard sitting and watching knowing that you want to be out there helping the team win,” Bell said. “Sometimes your confidence gets low, but you always stay up just never knowing when you are going to be out there.”
Bell said he leaned on teammates to get through the long wait. He said guard Kikko Haydar was the biggest influence, assuring Bell his time would come eventually.
Haydar knew from experience. The junior walked onto the team as a freshman and waited two years before cracking the rotation this season.
“I’ve always told him to be patient, that he has a lot of time,” Haydar said. “As long as he’s patient and ready for his opportunity, he’s going to be fine.”
Anderson said the key was that Bell never quit working, going through practices and getting up extra shots on his own. He worked on his all-around game as much as possible despite seeing few results on game nights.
Things changed when Bell shot well and was active defensively during a practice before the Georgia game. So Anderson said he simply went with his gut instincts in the first half against the Bulldogs, giving Bell his earliest minutes in weeks.
It paid off. Bell made his first three shots, all three-pointers, to help Arkansas grab an early lead. He went 6-for-10 from the field and 5-for-8 from three-point range, becoming what Georgia coach Mark Fox described as the “difference” in Arkansas’ win.
“It helped just going in and knocking down shots,” Bell said. “Not just me, but it’s going to help the team as well and open up the inside for Marshawn (Powell) where he can work a little bit down there and open up the lane for B.J. (Young).”
Bell followed the big night with a 14-point performance at Florida. The Gators — who have been one of the NCAA’s top defensive teams this season — paid a little more attention in noting Bell as the “the shooter” when he was on the floor.
Bell went 5-for-13 from the field and 4-for-10 from three-point range.
“That tells me that consistency is starting to take place,” Anderson said. “I think our guys do a really good job of getting him the ball in the right spot and he knows what he is capable of doing. He is playing with a lot of confidence.”
It was evident Monday, when Bell said admitted his confidence was “out the roof right now. I think I can knock down a shot anywhere inside half court right now.”
Anderson probably won’t give Bell that much freedom in Arkansas’ offense, but he wants the shooter’s mentality to continue at LSU.
The Razorbacks have been searching for consistent scorers outside of Powell and Young, who are both coming off disappointing performances at Florida. Bell’s ability to knock down three-pointers is key for a team that has struggled behind the line most of the year, hitting just 29 percent in conference games (83 of 286).
Anderson couldn’t make any predictions about if Bell’s hot-shooting would continue over the final four games in SEC play. But he said the player nicknamed “shoot soon” by teammates will be getting opportunities.
“He’s been outstanding,” Arkansas guard Mardracus Wade said. “We need somebody to come off the bench and score, and he’s been giving us that. Hopefully he can keep up his scoring streak … Hopefully he can see more minutes.”