Boys' Basketball: OFFENSIVE EVOLUTION
By BRANDON HURLEY
When the power of the three-pointer is harnessed correctly, it instantly transforms into one of the most electrifying moments in basketball. But, if abused and misused, the long ball can rocket a run-of-the-mill Tuesday night game erratically off course.
The three-point revolution is here to stay, whether fans are for it or against it.
For a team lacking significant size, volume shooting and intense defense become the top priorities.
The three-point bonanza certainly is not something that sprouted out of nowhere, either. The long range eruption has left its mark on the game for the last handful of years.
Take the local Greene County boys' basketball team, for example. The Rams had attempted the 13th most threes in Class 2A through the first six games this winter (115).
Last year, Greene County attempted the second most threes in 2A with 577. State champion North Linn was No. 1 with 589 attempts thanks to five additional games. The Rams were ninth in three-pointers made with 180 while North Linn led the state with 227 makes.
The three-point line first saw action in the 1987-88 high school season, a full eight years after it was brought into the NBA and a year after the NCAA implemented the new shot.
Since then, a steady rise has given way for an incredible explosion. The main reason for the increased popularity is the obvious – three is worth more than two, and a 20-foot three-pointer is much more valuable than a 19-foot two point shot. But there is certainly more to the trend as well.
But first, let's go over the facts.
The uptick in three-point shooting is definitely not a phenomena that's gone unnoticed. Former vice president of research for the San Antonio Spurs, Kirk Goldsberry, actually penned an entire book about the revolution last year, in a project called "Sprawlball." In it, Goldsberry details the impact of the three-pointer, how the shot has evolved and how its overtaken the game of basketball.
One mind-boggling stat accurately depicts the difference in play during the late 80s and 90s and now. A comparison between Michael Jordan's greatest offensive season (1986-87) in which he led the league in scoring at 37.1 points per game and Houston Rocket guard James Harden's scoring title a year ago. Michael Jordan ATTEMPTED less than a single three per game, boiling down just 66 attempted threes in 82 games. MJ made just 12 of those threes. Think about that for a second. Chicago's Zach Lavine made 13 threes in ONE game a few weeks ago. It's quite insane to imagine how a guard scored 37 points per game without shooting threes. That'd be blasphemy in today's landscape.
To put that into full perspective, Harden, who led the league in scoring last year at 36.1 points per game, attempted, on average, 13.1 three-pointers per game, making an average of 4.8 of those attempts. When the dust settled and the playoffs began, Harden had attempted 1,028 three pointers in 78 regular season contests. Let that sink in – the 2018-19 NBA scoring champion hoisted nearly 1,000 more long balls than Jordan did in his career-high, legendary season. My, oh my, has the game of basketball changed drastically in 30 years.
A given NBA team, across the 82 game schedule, attempted an average of 2,625 threes last year while nailing an average of 932 of those attempts. When you turn the clock back to Jordan's incredible season, most teams averaged right around 388 three attempts in 82 games to go with an average of 117 made threes.
The trigger-happy onslaught has trickled its way down to the high school level as well. Every year since the 2014-15 season at least one team within the state of Iowa has attempted more than 600 threes. In fact, in each year from 2015-2016 through last winter, no less than four teams attempted at least 600 threes each. It's a startling trend that really caught fire in the NBA in the early 2010s, then picked up ridiculous speed throughout the country over the last handful of years.
For Greene County and fourth year head coach Chris Nelson, a quick-strike, three-point heavy offense is all about confidence. Having the freedom to hoist up jumpers allows the Ram players to worry less about making mistakes and more about letting the game flow through them.
"We try to have them think less and just react and shoot," Nelson said. "We may not be the best three point shooting team, but I think we've definitely got some shooters. The (three pointers) may make teams have to work a little harder to get rebounds as well, because three point shots (create) longer rebounds.
We want to get some of those shots, but (it's) more for our guys to do less thinking and just reacting and shooting instead of trying to think too much."
The long range jumpers fit perfectly into Greene County's offensive system, a team that's hoping to bounce-back from a seven win season a year ago (7-16). Nelson encourages his guys to push the pace, and sometimes, a quick three-pointer is actually a good shot.
"We always want to adapt but play for the three within our offense," the coach said. "I'm probably never going to be one for a 'run-and-gun' offense and shoot straight threes, but we want to try to get paint touches or cuts and then kick it out. Our guys are much more efficient shooting that way."
Greene County 2019 graduate Trey Hinote helped bolster those mind-boggling numbers throughout his four year stint in Jefferson, setting marks that will likely stand for several years. The former Ram drilled a school-record 86 three-pointers last winter and 269 career threes. Quick shots, whether it's in the paint or a long ball, could force the opposing team to exert more energy, Nelson said. In a way, the Rams rely on conditioning and a good shooting percentage. They key on transition plays in practice, honing the craft of shooting. The goal is to keep the players in motion, ready for any type of transition shot. At any given time, a Ram guard could earn an open look off a variety of screens, curls or dribble hand-offs. The idea is to get Greene County athletes ready to fire away once they catch the ball, Nelson said.
"Obviously, if we are hot, we can push the tempo maybe a little bit quicker," the coach said. "It definitely has changed the game. I've always wanted to play a little bit faster pace, so threes are going to be a little bit more abundant because of the pace. If we are making them, hopefully we get teams to run up and down the floor a little bit so we can get a little more open shots."
With a fairly inexperienced team outside of the core of seniors Carter Morton, who was eighth in the HOIC in scoring last winter (15ppg) and also eighth in the league in three-pointers made (43) and eighth in total assists with 67 (2.9 per game), three-point specialist Cael Fisher (22 3PM) and rebounding machine Nick Breon (5.6 rpg), many Rams will have a chance to step in and make some noise.
With that inexperience and the type of offense GCHS employs, there will be some off nights. Greene County opened the 2019-20 season in Ogden 0-21 from three, then clanked 10 of their 12 attempts against South Hamilton a few nights later, a 44-point loss. The challenge as coach for Nelson is to keep the guys focused and not let them get too down when shots aren't falling. Part of it is encouraging the rhythm of the offense to unfold, allowing it to build their confidence back up. With better ball movement comes a greater chance of open looks.
"We try to keep talking about getting paint touches and the kick outs for our guys. Right now, the more we get to step into our shot, the better off we're going to be," Nelson said. "We're going see that confidence come up."
Because Nelson wants his guys to come off screens and fire away or often times let rip transition threes, a lack of confidence can really hinder a shooter. That's where post passes come in handy. Those decisions cause the defense to sag off the perimeter a bit, which opens up shooting lanes for the Rams. Opportunities where they can catch a pass with shoulders square and step into the shot.
Body language is key when shooters are fighting through a slump. If Nelson catches a guy with his head down, pouting, he knows danger is near. Focus on a poor night can cause residual effects that affect more than that player's shooting.
"We try to get them to just play and not worry about the shot," Nelson said. "We also talk about how a lot of times when you can start doing something else well – such as getting some rebounds or getting some defensive stops or good passes – then all sudden, we're not thinking and you're just playing again. The shot usually will come back around a little bit better that way."
Defense will be an area of focus for Greene County this winter as well. The Rams gave up a staggering 73.2 points per game last year. To counteract their lack of size, Nelson has decided to transform his defense a bit. The Rams now deploy a full court press throughout most contests.
"Really, what got us in trouble is, a lot of times, it's not our ability to get back, but it's that we try to make a play when we are 40 feet away from the hoop," the coach said. "Sometimes, we just have to concede that they've got the ball. We we press a lot more now. We try to pick up (the ball handler) right away instead of waiting for half court.
We've just got to minimize some silly fouls, and just recognize when the other team has the rebound and get back and start finding guys earlier."
The Heart of Iowa Conference's top five scorers graduated last year in addition to seven of the top 10. It'll be drastically different looking league this winter, which also means three-time champion South Hamilton won't be the favorite for the for first time in years. A new king could be crowned this winter.
Nevada's Tyler Sansgaard is the top returning shooting, having drilled the second most threes a year ago with 62 makes. Morton was eighth with 43 made three-pointers while Gilbert's Matt Ockey (a senior this winter) was fourth having nailed 50 long balls. Nelson envisions a wide-open race for second place in HOIC play. He sees Gilbert and their deep roster of talent as the favorite. Greene County could be in the mix for runner-up as well, despite their 71-27 loss to South Hamilton Dec. 6 in the conference opener. There's more parity than ever.
"Over the last couple years, (The Heart of Iowa Conference) has lost a lot of really good ball players. Obviously, we've lost some real nice players, too," Nelson said. "To me, Gilbert's probably still the favorite, just because they've got four guys that played a lot last year. They did lose a good chunk of seniors out of their rotation, but they've got a system and they have the numbers
The unique thing is, it really could be a crapshoot between everybody else. Depending on the night and where the games are at and if our offense can stay from away from some long laws, we should be able to defensively keep ourselves in games. We should be able to compete."