December 4, 2021

Independent analysis and commentary on UVA athletics

The New 3-Point Line vs Spacing

The NCAA rules committee voted to implement some changes to D-1 basketball for this coming year. You can read the article here (link) before continuing below.

The biggest change is to the 3-point line, moving the arc from 20′-9″ to 22′-1 3/4″, the FIBA international distance, which is what I want to discuss in depth.

In this news, I zeroed in on one quote:

After gathering information over the last two seasons, we feel it’s time to make the change,” Colorado coach Tad Boyle, the committee chair, said when the proposal was made in early May. “Freedom of movement in the game remains important, and we feel this will open up the game. We believe this will remove some of the congestion on the way to the basket.

According to the committee, moving the 3-point line back will clear the lane for more drives to the rim, make 3-point shots more challenging and therefore less prevalent, and improve offensive spacing.

(*emphasis mine)

Two goals. (1) “clear the lane for more drives to the rim.” (2) “make 3-point shots more challenging and therefore less prevalent.”

Umm… there’s a giant caveat to this that no one’s talking about.

It benefits offensive spacing if and only if teams can actually make 3’s from the longer distance. Otherwise these two goals undermine each other.

Put yourself in the mind of a coach scheming a defense; say, Tony Bennett. The NCAA powers-that-be want me to extend my defense out an extra 16″, stretching out my Pack Line and opening up gaps for entry passes and dribble drives, while also providing extra space for traditional big men to operate on the blocks. Okay, as a defensive coach, why exactly should I comply with that request? Why should I change my spacing?

College shooters are, on the whole, pretty average. The D-1 average 3-point rate hovers generally between 34% and 35% over the last decade or so, no real trend in improvement. In moving back the line, it reasons that that percentage is only going to drop, maybe a point, so maybe next year’s D-1 average is under 34%. Basically 1 point-per-shot.

Meanwhile the D-1 average on 2’s is 50.1, so already 1 point-per-shot. But then you factor in fouls; 2’s generate free throw attempts at a drastically higher rate than 3’s do, so from an analytics perspective, shooting 2’s now clearly becomes the statistically-preferably choice.

So let’s return to the defensive coach’s thought process. I can (a) stretch my defense to chase shooters who’s average and impact are only going to decrease, or I can (b) keep my defense “home,” keep that Pack Line right where it is, and honor the greater risk posed by teams attacking the rim.

Now, the contrarian says that means shooters may be left more open, because defenders are going to have an extra foot of distance to cover on close-outs. Well, yes, because they’re shooting from a foot further away. But hey, if shooters (and by extension, their coaches) wanted to have that extra space, nothing says they couldn’t have been doing that all along! There was never anything stopping shooters against UVA from spotting up at 25′ and bombing from NBA range to provide themselves some extra cushion against a hard close out irregardless of the 3-point line.

You know why they didn’t do that (I mean, except for Carsen Edwards!), and why instead they took their chances against better defense, against tighter closeouts, by choosing to spot up with their toes on the old 20’9″ line instead? Because they’re not as good shooting from further away. And they know it.

So does the deeper 3-point line improve offensive spacing for offense in the paint? Not if you’re not a good-shooting team it doesn’t. In fact, it may make your offense worse, because now defenses are even less motivated to chase you around the perimeter as they were prior.

So who will benefit? The obvious answer is teams who can make shots from the new, deeper range at a still-dangerous rate (say, 36%+ as a team). The more consistent you are from deep, and even better the more diverse (i.e. – more than just one or two high-volume gunners to account for, and instead be able to deploy shooters at 3-4 positions at once), the more a defense is going to be forced to honor the new perimeter. Now a defensive coach has to change his team’s positioning so that closeouts are still effective, and then and only then are the gaps going to open up and the help defense ends up further out of position.

What this ought to do is change how coaches prioritize shooting. Not that they don’t already, obviously. But you look around college basketball at some of the top players and teams that simply don’t shoot the 3-ball well, and you realize that not all coaches prioritize it equally. Maybe this is a wake up call for them. Maybe they find a way to get their better shooters on the floor more often, or get the ball in their hands for more shots. Maybe high school shooters get an incremental bump in their recruiting stock, being just a little more sought after relative to the athletic high flyers.

In many ways, this will be an equalizer against teams stocked with athletic dribble-drivers. I’m talking about the Kentucky’s of the world and their many imitators, teams that have stocked themselves with 5-star ball handlers but 3-star shooting strokes. They’re not going to see defenses open up for them, because defenses won’t have to. They’ll still be dribble-driving into the same paint-denial defenses Tony and others have implemented to slow that style of offense down. Instead, teams that may lack great athletes but have a bevy of shooters who are comfortable from the new range will see defenses stretch uncomfortably to counter them; I’m thinking of some of those better Mike Brey teams, or maybe the Davidson’s (or, *cough*, UMBC’s) of the world, who will still be able to put competent gunners on the floor at the 1-4 spots. They’ll see defenses part like the Red Sea, and it’ll make even their average athletes look good attacking the rim because the help defense is now going to be another half-second behind. If you can shoot, you won’t need great athletes to get to the rim, because your 3-point threats are going to create the driving lanes for them. 

It’s also going to put a premium on first recruiting and then coaching up long/athletic defenders who can still be effective in a more spaced out floor. Guys who can still close out or recover to a help responsibility from a foot further away. It will also punish coaches who don’t effectively instill help/recovery and close-out defenses because now those weaknesses can potentially be further exploited by better shooting teams.

In the short term, it’s going to drive casual fans and media crazy, because it’s going to make offenses worse over the next few years. Kids aren’t magically going to have an extra foot on their range come November, and high school players are still going to arrive in college as wildly inconsistent from deep as they’ve always been, always thinking they’re better shooters than in reality they really are. So for this upcoming season expect nearly the same rate of hero-ball step-back 3’s only with a noticeably lower conversion rate and, by extension, lower scoring. I think Virginia fans will by and large be okay with that, but many others won’t.

It’ll also give hot-shooting mid-majors more of an advantage over the more athletic power conferences, so I’d expect some upsets both in the non-conference and in the NCAAT to be due to the HM defense struggling to chase the Cinderella all over the perimeter.

Teams that can’t shoot are going to need to figure out a workaround, most likely doubling down on playing in transition so that they’re less exposed in a half-court offense. This may mean more pressing, either full court or in the half, both of which mean *drumroll* more open offense for the disciplined teams playing them.

Long term, I envision shooters continuing to become as critical to the college game as they are to the NBA. Power programs will further prioritize recruiting it and coaches will further emphasize the development and deployment of shooters in their offenses. The reward is just too great not to, while the risk in not having guys competent from the new distance is too great to ignore. I’m just not ready to bet yet on how quickly or how thoroughly that will take effect, not when grassroots players and coaches are still so in love with highlight reel dunks. 

Virginia, having a history of developing good shooters and getting them drafted and into the NBA, and having a historically great college/pro shooter in Tony at the helm, will hopefully continue to be at the forefront of this movement. We’ll continue to appeal to great high school shooters like Carson McCorkle, we’ll run an offense that gets them good looks, and ideally that will all translate to the new distance. Tony will continue to focus on shooting in his recruiting priorities, making hard choices when a priority target is unfortunately just going to be a potential liability from deep, and focus on floor-spacing via not only sharp shooting guards but also competent big men. 

(The other big rule change, resetting the shot clock to 20 seconds on an offensive rebound as opposed to the full 30 seconds, I don’t think will make much of a change. It makes our defense just a hair nastier, and frankly doesn’t really change our offense since we walk the ball up court and effectively run ~20-second half-court sets most of the time anyways. I don’t think that has much of a big picture change on game strategy across the sport, and instead just bumps up the shot/possession count a smidge.)

In summary, the moving 3-point line benefits teams that can still hit the 3 at a plus rate. But if a team can’t hit the new 3, and I’m expecting that to be the case for more teams than the Committee foresees, then defenses simply don’t have to honor the new distance. Any hoped-for benefits to spacing are lost, no matter how athletic or skilled those guys are at getting to the rim. And for those lucky teams that can continue to space the floor despite the new distance, they won’t need 5-star talents to exploit the better spacing for better paint touches (though getting 5-star talents won’t hurt, of course, so long as they can shoot too). I don’t really expect it to improve scoring, not for many years until shooters hopefully catch up to the new range, and really could hurt it in the short term as mediocre-shooting clubs struggle to adapt.

So let’s come full circle back to those two original goals of the Rules Committee: (1) open up the floor for the dribble-drive and (2) deemphasize the prevalence of the 3-ball. 

It just baffles me that the NCAA doesn’t see how these two goals are in diametric opposition to each other. In the NBA, the floor is well spaced for dribble-driving (and post play) primarily due to the prevalence of the 3-ball, which forces defenses to abandon paint-oriented help positions. You can’t have an NBA-like open offense if you don’t also embrace the NBA-like love affair with highly effective and relatively high volume 3-point shooting. The two are inextricably linked, but the NCAA seems to think quite differently. Time will tell if they’re seeing something I’m not.

If they really want to open up the floor, they’d kill zone defenses by making defensive 3 seconds a violation, but that’s a debate for another day.

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