When the NCAA started using a 3-point line in the 1986-87 season, it was an instant hit. While the NBA had made its line official seven years earlier, the pros hadn’t taken to it yet: They attempted only 5.3 percent of their shots from behind the arc. But at their first chance to trade in 2 points for 3, men’s Division I teams took to it in a way the pros hadn’t, attempting 15.7 percent of their field goals from long distance, according to Ken Pomeroy’s site. Over the years, even during the dawning of the “3-point revolution” in the NBA, the 3-pointer had always been a larger part of the men’s college game.
That finally changed last year. In the 2019-20 season, for the first time, NBA teams took more 3-pointers as a share of all field-goal attempts than men’s college teams did.
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While the NBA’s reliance on threes has increased each year since the 2011-12 season, it took an assist from the NCAA rules committee for the pros to finally overtake the amateurs. College teams took a record 38.7 percent of their shots from behind the arc in the 2018-19 season, and immediately afterward, the NCAA announced it was moving the 3-point line back for the second time in 11 years. The line is now at 22 feet, 1¾ inches, behind its previous distance of 20 feet, 9 inches (and its original distance of 19 feet, 9 inches). It’s still slightly shorter than the NBA arc, which is 22 feet from the basket at the corners and 23 feet, 9 inches at its longest distance.1 Since the most recent change, 3-pointers as a share of all shots taken by Division I men’s teams has dropped — to 37.5 percent last season and 37.6 so far this season, through games of Jan. 28.
Unsurprisingly, accuracy in the college game is down too, from 34.4 percent in 2018-19 to 33.3 percent last season and 33.6 percent this season. Last season’s 3-point shooting percentage was the lowest in the history of the men’s NCAA 3-pointer, and this year’s mark is sitting at the second-lowest.
While these decreases in share and accuracy are small, they are still meaningful. The shift toward 3-pointers revolves around the idea that they offer tiny improvements on a per-shot basis — a team would need to shoot 2-pointers at a clip 50 percent higher than its 3-point percentage to achieve equivalent value. (Division I teams combined have never done that over a full season, and the NBA has not since 1990-91.) Because of the change in distance, college teams are now nearing that exact equilibrium. They’re shooting 49.8 percent from inside the arc (.996 points per shot) and 33.6 percent outside (1.008 points per shot), which creates the second-smallest gap in value since the origin of the 3-pointer.2
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In the NBA, the largest efficiency gap came in the 2000-01 season, when the league made 35.4 percent of threes and 46.1 percent of twos, a difference of 0.138 points per shot. Over the past two decades, that gap has slowly closed to 0.026 points per shot in each of the past two full seasons. But that narrowing is due to the increasing efficiency of 2-point shots, not a decreasing efficiency on threes.
In the first season with the 3-point line, Division I teams made 38.4 percent of threes and 47.9 percent of twos, scoring almost 0.2 points per shot more on threes. But their 3-point success rate peaked in those early days: This century, the highest shooting percentage was 35.1 percent in 2007-08 and 2018-19, both just before the line moved back. Because the three has become just a bit more difficult, it’s not the windfall it once was.
Billy Lange has a theory about what the changing line might mean for college teams. From 2001 to 2004 and 2011 to 2013, Lange worked on Jay Wright’s staff at Villanova, where Wright credits him with jump-starting Villanova’s 3-point transformation.3 In 2013, Lange joined the analytically inclined Philadelphia 76ers as an assistant coach, and in 2019, he took the head coaching job at St. Joseph’s University. In his first two years, Lange’s teams have ranked in the top 12 in share of 3-pointers attempted. So Lange is an ardent defender of the 3-pointer, but even he wouldn’t argue it’s always the best shot.
In the 1980s, when college teams were managing meager portions of shots from deep, there were plenty more threes for the taking, as they would discover in the coming decades. Now, Lange says, defenses may be overcompensating for that trend and sealing the 3-point line at the expense of their 2-point defense. Lange recalled a game last season against Davidson, in which St. Joseph’s picked up one of its two conference wins. “They have to fear, this is the only way St. Joe’s wins, is if they take 40 threes,” Lange told me. “And in that game, we got walk-in — literally walk-in — layups.” The Hawks took only 23 threes (they made nine) but went 17-for-30 on twos and won 73-72.
As teams consider their 3-point rates, a few caveats apply: College teams could still try more threes at the expense of certain long 2-point jump shots, and plenty of Division I teams still succeed by feasting on 3-pointers. “As long as we’re making them, we’re going to keep taking them,” said Wofford coach Jay McAuley, whose team ranks second in the country in 3-point attempt rate at 53.6 percent.
The 3-point make rate could inch up again, as it did in the decade following the first rule change. But with the changes to the 3-point line changing their efficiency, college teams may begin to rethink their strategies. The NCAA may have been the first to take serious advantage of the 3-point line, but it’s no longer the master of it.