About two weeks later, Magna Vista faced off against Martinsville and hit 10 3-pointers, with the Bulldogs making seven.
Magna Vista has two players who have each attempted more than 100 3-point shots this season. Martinsville, as a team, has put up nearly 400 attempts. A trend for 3-point shooting that has been growing across the NBA seems to be trickling down to the high school level.
But is the trend solely a result of young athletes trying to emulate their professional heroes on the court, or has outside shooting become a necessity in today’s game?
“God yes, it’s Steph Curry,” Chris Draper said during a recent workout at the Martinsville YMCA. Draper coaches players as young as elementary school through high school as a personal trainer with I Won’t Stop Family, LLC. “Certain players like Michael Jordan to a certain extent, or even Allen Iverson have changed the game and the culture, but any little kid I work with immediately wants to come in and shoot the ball… from deep.”
Players young and old are turning away from trying to turn heads with a flashy dunk or slick ball-handling skills and are instead imitating the NBA’s most prolific shooter. Curry, the former NBA MVP and three-time champion with the Golden State Warriors, is largely credited with popularizing the current 3-point trend that saw pro teams averaging 22.5 makes per game last season,
Curry’s comparatively small stature (he’s listed as 6 feet 3, 190 pounds) has helped smaller players feel like they can be effective from long-range in a game previously thought only to benefit the taller players.
“I think the three has kind of become the new dunk,” Magna Vista Boys Basketball Coach Patrick Mills said. “If you look at my team, I don’t have anybody who is consistently making a dunk, not making one in a game. But the 3-point shot is a big momentum swing.”
The Roanoke Times tracks high school basketball statistics for more than 60 schools across the western side of Virginia. As of the first week of February, 15 of the top 40 3-point shooters in the area have attempted more than 100 3s this season. In the same week last year, only 15 of the top 50 had shot that many.
Two of those with more than 100 attempts are Spencer Hairston and Japhet LeGrant from Magna Vista. Hairston has made 60 (46 percent) and LeGrant has 43 (36 percent).
As a team, Martinsville is attempting 21.6 3s per game, which is nearly equal to their 24.5 2-point attempts. They average nearly seven made 3s and 12 made 2s.
Coaches around the NBA have bemoaned the elongating of the game and the loss of a true center position. Legendary San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich said last year, “There’s no beauty in it. It’s pretty boring.”
But coaches in high school have embraced 3s, even if it does mean teams aren’t playing with a true big man anymore.
“You don’t have post players anymore, you just don’t,” Patrick County Head Coach Andrew Terry said. “From our perspective, we just don’t grow them like we used to. We play five guards out.
“When you look at it that way, the development of the 3-point shot makes sense because you don’t have the good post presence. The guys are playing on the outside so you work more on dribble drive and shooting the ball, and I’ve got guys that can do that. Occasionally you’ll get one that will come along, and you can switch things up a little bit and pound the post and stuff like that.”
While players in high school are better at shooting because they practice it more, they also need to be better given the changes in defensive configurations.
University of Virginia Basketball Coach Tony Bennett has popularized the “packline” defense, which is designed to have all five defenders inside the 3-point arc to avoid giving up layups and points close to the basket. Given UVA’s recent success and the university’s proximity to this area, it’s easy to see why coaches would watch them and try to emulate that.
“Every high school coach here, that’s all we see is the packline,” said Martinsville Head Coach Jeff Adkins, whose team runs a similar zone defense. “So the way to beat the packline defense is with 3-point shooting, because they want you to drive into the paint. That’s why you’re seeing more 3s.
“In fact, we’re better off shooting more threes than to force a drive in and turning it over into the pack. They want you to drive in and they’re waiting on you.”
Defense is also likely the biggest reason scoring isn’t up around high school basketball the way it is in the NBA. While the professional league has seen scoring go up incrementally for about seven years, in the Piedmont District this regular season, teams only have scored in the 70s 16 times, the 80s five times and the 90s three times – 11 of those games have come from G.W.-Danville, the No. 1-ranked team and highest scorers in the district.
During the past three seasons, Martinsville’s scoring average dropped from 56.8 to 51 points per game last year to 53 this season. Magna Vista’s rose from 54.8 to 56.8 this season, including the 95-point game and an increase of four victories.
The further teams step away from the basket, the lower the percentage for makes is going to be. Plus, with teams not driving to the basket or attempting shots in the paint comes fewer free throw attempts.
Part of the reason scoring is up in the NBA is teams are playing with a faster pace, trying to get 3-pointers off early in the shot clock, whereas in high school, when facing the packline defense, it forces teams to have much longer possessions, passing around the outside until the open shot comes.
“We’re basically getting 10 possessions a quarter, each possession lasts 20 or 30 seconds,” Adkins said. “Because if you shoot quick, that’s what the pack wants is you to shoot quick.
“There’s more 3-point shooting, not because it’s worth three points. I’d rather have a layup every day, but I’d rather have an open 3 than a layup with three people trying to block it and take a charge, so that’s the way I look at it. I want the open shot, so that’s why sometimes the open look is the 3, and to beat the packline you have to hit 3s. You’ve got to swing the ball and hit 3s. That’s one of the things you can beat the packline with.”
‘IT’S LIKE A CURVEBALL’
The 3-point shot has allowed players who aren’t natural in the post or physically imposing to find more success on the court, which in turn makes basketball seem more accessible to young players.
But coaches are quick to point out that it takes more than the ability to hit every once in a while to reach Curry’s level.
“They’re not even strong enough to shoot it. That’s like throwing a curveball in baseball,” Draper said. “You’re not strong enough to make this pitch, but they see it, and they want to do it.
“Me personally, when I was a coach, we didn’t let certain kids shoot 3s because guess what, they weren’t making 250 to 300 shots a day in the gym, so you’re not really going to translate to the court unless you get streaky and you get hot.”
Draper said, except for special circumstances, he doesn’t typically like for players to even start shooting 3s until they reach junior varsity level or prove they can knock it down consistently. Until then, it’s about learning to shoot with your legs and squaring up to the rim with the right form every time.
“Really, if you look at any high school game, the midrange is the most open shot you’ve got,” he said. “Because you always have them packed on the inside ready to take away the inside and if you’re a really good 3-point shooter they’re going to run you off the 3-point line. So you can develop pump fakes, if you can develop jabs, if you can develop good footwork to where they’re always chasing you.”
Mills said his team adapted to shooting more 3s out of necessity because they didn’t have much size on the inside, but they didn’t go into the season with the mindset of shooting more from the outside, it just came naturally.
And, for the foreseeable future, they likely will keep shooting.
“With my group for the next few years I think it’s here to stay because I don’t necessarily have a big man,” Mills said. “I think if we had an opportunity where we could to play inside out I would like to do that more, but just basing my philosophy with the group I have… I think for right now in the short term with some groups it may be fad, but I think you’ll see it staying more than not.”
But coaches also want young players to realize that Curry didn’t step in the gym and become one of the most prolific shooters of all time overnight. Mills said both Hairston and LeGrant regularly put up hundreds of shots a practice.
And the rest of the game will always be important too, no matter what level you’re playing on.
“Roy Williams at Carolina, he says this, ‘The game looks a lot better when the ball is going in the basket,’” Terry said. “When you’re hitting shots like that the game is easy. You feel good, everything is easy, the flow of the game is easy. But when you’re not making those shots, that’s when the hard stuff comes in… What are you going to do now? You have to defend like nobody’s business and you’ve got to get to the rack and hit free throws. That’s something you have to be able to do.”
(This story originally appeared in The Martinsville Bulletin)