It is nearly certain that this ends up as the year with the most 3-pointers shot, and it is very likely that 3-point percentage will finish at the highest mark since the 3-point line was moved back to 20’9” for the 2009 season. This despite the fact that 2-point shooting and free throw rates are high enough that the breakeven point for three-point shooting is higher than it’s been in a long time.
But there are more 3’s and for good reason. People are drilling them more frequently than ever. Or at least in the modern 3-point shooting era. Some might say this is the Steph Effect trickling down to the college game. I’m not sure that’s playing a huge role, but at the edges, maybe coaches are more open to an offense built around the three-pointer and maybe occasionally a shooter feels slightly more justified to take a three early in the shot clock.
Where the revolution is happening is on the playground. Curry is doing things that kids from 10 or 20 years didn’t think was possible. Kids just figuring out who they are as basketballers are going to think they can be Curry. Probably none of them will be, but quite a few of them will come close, and in 5-10 years they’ll be getting scholarships.
However, whatever the cause, the use of the 3-point line has accelerated over the past two seasons.. Teams have taken 35.2% of shots from beyond the arc, a healthy increase from the 34.2% last season. But freshmen players are taking a whopping 38.3% of their shots from long-range, the highest number for any class ever.* It marks the third consecutive season with a large increase among freshman as the following chart illustrates.
What that means for the future is not quite as easy as the graph makes it look. The freshman class does have some predictive power for the following season’s 3-point rate but that’s based on just a few years. However, history, limited as it is, would suggest this year’s class will cause next year’s 3-point rate to reach another all-time high. And it’s hard to imagine what the impact of all of the junior Steph’s will be, but it’s not inconceivable we’ll be pushing a 3-point rate of 40% in a decade with accuracy holding steady.
Of course, that assumes the 3-point line stays where it is, which would be a bad idea. The surge of shooters will give college basketball an opportunity to build on the gains made this season and become an even better product. You often hear people covering the game talk about how much parity there is in college basketball. To borrow a Bill James line, this is childish pablum. It makes everyone feel good about the sport that they cover/follow, but it’s not entirely true.
Because there are two kinds of parity worth discussing. One is at the game level: the kind where Radford beats Georgetown or Northeastern beats Miami, or more famously where last season’s Kentucky team can be the best team we’ve seen in a many years and yet only given a 50/50 shot to win a national championship on the eve of the NCAA tournament. No doubt that’s a fun part of the game that will always exist to some extent. Though having too much of that is not necessarily a good thing. I’d like the better team to win most of the time.
The other kind of parity is long-term. What are the chances that a program with limited resources and tradition can compete for a national title, or even just its conference title? This kind of parity is lacking in the game. Look at almost any conference history page and you’ll find a select number of teams grabbing the honor of “best team” in recent seasons. For most conferences with reasonably stable membership, no more than two teams account for half of the best team honors since 2002.
It’s personal taste whether one finds that acceptable. And since we’re all fans around here, I guess we all find it “acceptable”. Obviously, if you’re loyal to Duke or Kentucky or North Carolina or Kansas, it’s a great thing. But for me, fan of general college basketball, it’s one of the worst features of the sport. You see people in the media actively cheering when a mid-major gets an at-large bid (whether they truly deserve it or not) because it’s so hard for a mid-major to be good enough to just get considered for an at-large bid.
However, the influx of shooters could change things in that regard. I’m no scout, but I have to assume it’s easier to scout what most basketball people seem to call “talent”, but what I’d call some combination of basketball athleticism and playmaking ability than it is to scout shooting ability. Steph Curry himself couldn’t sniff a high-major scholarship. Buddy Hield and Denzel Valentine are among the frontrunners for player of the year this season, and both take an awful lot of 3’s (and make a high percentage) but neither was a celebrated recruit. Valentine takes more 3’s than 2’s now, but he made just 28 percent as a freshman. Hield made 23 percent!
There will always be a few near-Steph’s that fall through the cracks of big-time basketball factories in the recruiting game. But it’s less likely that the “talent” guys do. Which means that with more shooters on the scene there’s the potential for more true parity, where a program with fewer resources and less tradition can actually field a better team than the program that’s winning the battles for the highest-ranked freshmen.
But I think this is much more likely to happen if the 3-point line is moved back, at least to the FIBA distance of 22 feet and preferably farther. This will make the skilled shooters more valuable and it will force defenses to cover more space against the teams with shooters. Sure, the bad teams will still be bad and in the margins, maybe – and I mean maybe because I’m not sure it’s true – we won’t see as many cases where Western Illinois beats Wisconsin, but I think the trade of short-term parity for long-term parity is worth it.
* I only have data by class for the last ten seasons, so it takes a bit of faith to make this statement. But given 3-point trends prior to 2007, there’s good reason to think this is true.